the true meaning of the holidays


My room in Taiwan

Two months after I left for Taiwan, I got a phone call. “Jess, your mom and I have something to tell you . . .” My parents were getting divorced. After nearly 28 years, my mom had made up her mind — it was over.

The conversation wasn’t long. There wasn’t much to say. I couldn’t say I was shocked. I’d seen the disconnect between my parents for years — both of them trying, each in their own way, to bridge the gap. Both of them failing. I’d convinced myself that they were going to make it, knowing, deep down, I was wrong.

After we got off the phone, I sat on my black bedspread and stared at the brightly polished wood floor that I’d scrubbed and scrubbed when I’d first arrived. Outside my window, the dark sky began to rain. I didn’t notice. My mind was empty; my emotions, numb. I wondered, blankly, how my brother would take the news.

The next few months were a blur. The divorce was difficult news to tell my Christian coworkers. People from my background didn’t get divorced. It was just something you didn’t do. At work, I had to put on a happy face for my students. Each week, 80 bright-eyed 5th grade Taiwanese students arrived at our English camp. What did 9- to 12-year-olds know about being 6,500 miles from home or what it would be like to have no home to go home to when you went home?


Quinhau (pronounced “Chin-hwa”), the school where I worked in north Taiwan

My parents sold my childhood house quickly. When I flew back to the States for a short visit that August, it was to boxes filled with my things placed in a second bedroom in my dad’s apartment. I remember driving past my old house. It was hard to believe it was no longer mine.

That Christmas, my dad and brother visited me in Taipei. I showed them where I worked and all of the cool things I’d uncovered there. They learned I wasn’t kidding when I told them Taiwan could be cold — thanks to my tile floors and painted brick walls without insulation, I had to buy portable heaters so they would survive. We took a weekend trip to Hong Kong. My dad and brother had to duck everywhere we went: Not many Asians are 6-plus feet tall.

It was a magical trip, all in all, but something was missing. Where was Mom?

That trip was the beginning of my understanding of what it was going to be like to come from a broken home. My family was never going to be a single unit ever again. I spent the next two years in Asia and thus never really faced this new reality, however, until I moved home from Hong Kong in August of 2012. I moved in with my dad. I rarely saw my mom, who lived in a townhouse about twenty minutes away.

teaching in taiwan

Learning English is fun!

It was the holidays, though, that were the hardest.

My mom spent Thanksgiving with my brother and his then-girlfriend (now fiancée), and my dad was on call. I seriously considered helping at a homeless kitchen that day — which I knew demonstrated the true meaning of the holiday, anyway — but quite frankly was too depressed. I slept in until noon instead.

My mom’s dad died at the beginning of December 2012, and when Christmas rolled around, it didn’t really feel like Christmas, either. My brother would be spending the day with his girlfriend and her family; we’d planned to do Christmas with my mom a few days late. My dad was again on call, so . . .

My classroom

My dad, brother, and me in my classroom

Suddenly, I had an idea.

Something that’s always bothered me about the holidays is the emphasis on material things. All of the advertisements show families sitting around crackling fireplaces with stockings neatly hung and Christmas trees overflowing with presents. Everyone is smiling and sipping egg nog and hot cocoa. It’s this pseudo reality where, for at least one day, everything is supposed to be perfect. No one talks about the homeless man on the street corner who won’t be sitting at a mahogany table but, rather, will be taking his place in line at a soup kitchen that day. No one talks about the single mother of three frantically searching for presents at the thrift store. In my home before the divorce, there were always plenty of presents, but something else was missing. What are presents compared to contentedness; plenty of food compared to overwhelming love?

Something else I knew was that true happiness has nothing to do with material things. If I wanted to have a meaningful holiday season, I needed to stop thinking about me and to start thinking about something else.

And so I did. Since my dad would likely be at the hospital, anyway, I spent several hours on Christmas Eve preparing candy canes and cards for patients who would be stuck in the hospital on Christmas. At around 1 p.m. the next day, I drove to the hospital and my dad and I went around to each of the patients’ rooms — about fifty in all — and handed out the goodies I’d created. Many of the patients were elderly. I remember being surprised that a lot of them wanted to open the card and read it right there. I was glad I’d taken the time to write a heart-felt note in each. A few of them got misty-eyed. No one wants to be stuck in the hospital on Christmas.

Christmas cards and candy canes

Cards and candy canes for patients

As I drove away from the hospital that Christmas day, suddenly, I knew what the holiday season really meant. It had nothing to do with what the fanciful images we see on TV. Rather, it was about something else. It wasn’t about what we could get, but how much we could give away . . . Which, ironically, gives us in return more than any amount of presents ever could.

Last Christmas was one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had.


in my classroom

Making origami frogs with my students in Taiwan


Christmas in Taiwan

Merry Christmas, 2010! (Derek was tickling me.)


my apartment

Derek chilling in my apartment. Literally.


National Palace Museum

Waiting for a bus to take us to the National Palace Museum, at Shilin in Taipei


Hong Kong

Hong Kong


The Big Buddha

On Lantau Island, Hong Kong, at the Big Buddha


The Peak

My first time at the Peak, overlooking Victoria Harbor, in Hong Kong



Cards and candy canes for patients


Images: Mine

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64 thoughts

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Darlene! So awesome to hear from you! I’ve always looked forward to getting your family’s Christmas cards every year. I’ve always thought your whole family was so beautiful! And I know my whole family treasures your friendship. :)

  1. Parents breaking up is always traumatic for children – even adult children.

    What you say is very true: “It wasn’t about what we could get, but how much we could give . . . Which … gives us in return more than any amount of presents ever could.”

    It’s wonderful that you set aside your personal challenges and brought joy to others – strangers.

    Peace and blessings,

    • Thank you, Eric. You’re very right that parents breaking up is traumatic for their children, no matter their age. It’s definitely hard when you’re young, but when you’re an adult, it’s as though your entire foundation is being swept out from under you.

      And, yes… The joy that is gained from the giving of ourselves is far greater and richer than that of any present we could ever receive. I wish more people understood that. I truly do want to make a difference in the world, and not just through my writing.

      Peace and blessings to you, too! It’s always wonderful to hear from you!

  2. Divorce is not good for children, but neither are parents staying together when they don’t want to. My parents split when I was 11. Tough for me and my older brother, tougher for my 8 year old brother. We got to stay in the family home with Dad. Weekends with Mum. We had a succession of housekeepers who helped my Dad look after us. The strangest fellow was a middle aged man who sat around one evening in his underwear and commented on the television program, which was about artificial insemination of cows – there was a bull mating with an artificial cow with a man inside collecting the semen. I went to bed early that night. He disappeared some time soon after that without giving notice. Strange fellow.
    That was a very nice Christmas present you gave the hospital patients.
    And what an interesting surname you have – some code breakers amongst your ancestors perhaps!

    • Hahaha, Pat! I’m sorry — I probably shouldn’t be laughing at this. Here you’ve just told me a very sad story about your family, but the story about the middle-aged housekeeper in his underwear is hilarious!

      You’re very right that, while divorce is always sad, sometimes it *is* for the best. As I mentioned in another comment, I really do believe things often turn out the way they’re meant to. It’s taken a while, but I really do think both of my parents are happier now than they were before the divorce, and as their child, I always hated feeling like there were all these things that weren’t being talked about… If they are both happier, I am happier, too.

      And, lol. Yes, Cyphers. That’s me! I really don’t know much about my ancestry, but Jon tells me he thinks it’s German!

  3. Thank you Jessica for sharing such a heart warming and private story. I agree with your holiday sentiment on many levels. Every year during the holidays I try to either volunteer at the soup kitchen and or donate new scarves hats and gloves to the mission.

    • That’s awesome, Benjamin. Yeah, I didn’t mention it in this post, but I really do want to find a way to do something for someone else or for a good cause every holiday season from here on out. This year, I’m going to run Sacramento’s Run to Feed the Hungry, a 10k, on Thanksgiving morning. In the evening, I’m helping cater a Thanksgiving meal for a man who is dying of brain cancer. It’s really sad, but I’m glad I can help out.

      I hope you’ve been well! It’s time for me to stop by your blog. Sorry I’ve been so out of touch!

  4. Such courage to share! I wish I could have your positivity. You are a much better person than I. My parents are still together so I don’t understand the breakup but I can emphasize with your feelings while traveling abroad. Some days things can be so difficult when you don’t know what is happening back home. We want to be there but there is so much space and time between us. I wish you a wonderful holiday season! おめでとう!

    • Thank you, Matthew! I dunno… I guess it takes courage to share, but I’ve seen bloggers post a lot more personal things than what I choose to share on “Shift”! To each his own, I guess…

      And I hardly think I’m a better person than you. I bet if you were placed in the same position you’d do something similar. There is nothing to be gained from sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself! And there are SO many people out there who have it way worse off than either of us…

      But, yeah, the time and space thing while living abroad can be tough. It’s funny, though . . . I still want to go back because — as you well know — despite those difficulties, living abroad is so worth it!!

      I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, too! And it’s awesome to see you writing in Japanese!!!

  5. Jessica,
    Thank you for this emotional piece. I am truly sorry your family unit is so different than before. I am very impressed with the amount of living and life experience you have. And I want to say that I was impressed by the thoughtful devotion it took to be a selfless giver of holiday cheer to those in the hospital. The meaning of Christmas???? You GET IT! Anyway, thank you for sharing such emotional and heartfelt experiences. Don’t forget to ride that bike as often as you can too. I have found cycling a great meditational exercise to go out alone for a few hours of riding and life contemplation. So good for the mind and soul.
    Keep Inspiring.

    • Aww, thanks, JMC. And thank you for your condolences, but, really, though it hasn’t been easy, I do believe things happen for a reason. I think both of my parents are happier now, and my brother and I have both come to accept it… I suppose I *do* have a lot of life experience for someone under 30, though… And yes, the holidays — and all of life — isn’t about what we can get but what we can give, as far as I’m concerned… And I fully agree with you about medicinal value of cycling!! I ride almost every day for at least an hour. I treasure my bike time.

      Best to you!

  6. Jess! This post is really touching and I could feel a lot of emotions and implied thoughts from this. How have you been? I know how brave you are. Someday I wanna spend my Christmas like you. So meaningful. You are an awesome person. Keep going friend :D

    • Aww, thank you!! It’s great to hear from you! How are you enjoying being back in Taiwan? And thank you for the compliments. I certainly try to be brave and, more importantly, to put others before myself, though I’ll admit it’s not always easy! Keep in touch! :)

  7. Aaah Jess, thank you so much for sharing this journey with us. Must say, you bought on a tear or two for me! I’m sorry to hear about your folks. I cant begin to imagine how hard it must have been for you to go home to a ‘packed up’ childhood house and then that first Christmas spent separately…

    You’ve given us an important message once again. The power of giving, especially of ourselves, is immense and even a small gesture on Christmas day, might just become someone else’s highlight.

    A quote for you:
    “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains immortal.”
    Albert Pine

    • Aww, thanks Lianne! Yeah, a year ago I wasn’t ready to write about this, but this year I was asked to write about the true meaning of Christmas for a friend’s blog (I’ll post a link to that when it comes out), and this is what came out…

      Some people seem impressed that I would share something so personal. But, really… I’ve seen a lot of bloggers who’ve written things far more personal than what I’ve shared on “Shift,” and A LOT of people can relate to divorce. I really do feel that the cool thing about life is that we can learn something from everything we go through… Some of the hardest, crappiest things I’ve been through have made me a better person and better able to relate to others who have been through similar things. That right there is a blessing in disguise! :)

      I’m glad you saw the meaning behind this post — which really has nothing to do with me at all — and I LOVE that quote! Thanks for sharing! It reminds me of this one:

      “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

  8. Your perspective is inspiring. I must say you are fortunate to have found your inner strength to handle life challenges and disappointments in a positive manner. Keep this fire to evolve alive . Live life to the fullest! A very happy and prosperous holiday season to you.

    • Thank you so much, Baldeep! It really is true that the way to happiness is to take the focus *off* of ourselves. And I won’t deny it when you say I’ve found my inner strength… I’ve always been strong… I’ve had to be.

      Thank you for the kind comment! You keep living life to the fullest, too. And a happy holiday season to you, as well! :)

    • Aww, I blush. I’m really no different than the next person — just a girl with a big heart, I guess. You’re the sweetest, too, you know! I’ve been meaning to catch up again with your blog. Looks like you’ve been posting some awesome stuff lately! :)

      Oh, and Happy Holidays to you, too — a little early! (I’m sure I’ll be saying that again before the year is over — haha.)

      • Sometimes ‘just a girl with a big heart’ is all it takes to make the world feel less horrible :) You are amazing. Sometimes it needs saying. And hey, I’m sure we’ll wish each other again, soon :D

  9. Yet another thoughtful post, Jess. So agree that the holidays – and life in general – shouldn’t be about receiving, but about giving what we can give away. When we give (like you going to the hospital with the cards), we tend to get unexpected, happy reactions and so have such a positive memory to hold on to for the rest of our lives.

    So sorry about your parents’ divorce. Again, I see that we have a lot of similarities. As a kid (and up until this very day), my dad was rarely around or in another country because of work, so I don’t exactly understand what a close-knit family unit means. You can say that my family aren’t close at all. Maybe this is a cultural thing. Not that I”m complaining – I am very lucky I have a roof over my head and all the things my dad has done for to make this happen :)

    • Hmm, your comment about your dad actually reminds me of my mom’s dad, Mabel. Her dad, it seemed, was never there for her growing up, but later she came to understand that his way of showing that he loved her was by being a provider, by putting a roof over her head. Everyone is different.

      Yeah, my family was not exactly close-knit (my brother and I excepting — we definitely have a bond — do you have any siblings?), but we *were* at least one unit until the divorce. I hate having to go back and forth between my parents.

      And yes, the joy that is available to all through service cannot be denied! Love is a funny thing. The more we give it away, the more we get it back in return!

      • Many Asian parents are very insistent on providing their kids with an education, never-ending piano lessons, eager to cook for their kids…it’s their way of showing love to their children :) Love definitely manifests in different ways in different cultures!

        I have a younger brother, but we have neither been close nor do we speak often to one another. What a strange family we are!

  10. Sometimes we just need time to do its thing and heal what’s been broken. Sometimes I wish time would hurry up and just fix things already, but everything in season right?

    I appreciated all you shared in your story. And I like that you brought the focus back to reaching out to others who are also hurting. There’s just something super magical about giving to others. Are you gonna continue with the tradition of visiting those in hospital this Christmas season?

    • Bupe! I’d like to. Every year from here on out I’d like to do *something* that is service oriented. This year, for example, I’m running 10k Thanksgiving morning called “Run to Feed the Hungry” and then in the evening I’m going to help a friend cater a Thanksgiving meal for a man who is dying of brain cancer. It’s not exactly a volunteer thing, but it is certainly going to turn out to be a be a memorable and valuable Thanksgiving. (I guess you’re not celebrating Thanksgiving this week up there in Canada, but…)

      As for Christmas this year, I’m actually going to be going back to Tennessee to see the new bf and meet his family in Alabama. It should be interesting!

      And yeah, I guess I shared a lot of personal stuff in this story — but the personal story wasn’t the main point. It’s something I’ve wanted to share with my readers, though. Divorce is something a *lot* of people can relate to, unfortunately.

  11. It is terrible for everyone. When my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I felt a horrible wave of doom come over me. Because my idea of the future for all of us was done. When I dropped my son off and had to leave, he would lose it because a 2 year old can not understand why his father is not staying home.

    Now holidays for me are what they are. Driving here and there to drop in for a half day of being like the post cards. Because my parents are gone and my son is at my house for a short time every week; I never decorate for the holidays. It is to much for a lone working guy to deal with. So my house is just the house minus the holiday cheer. The cheer is for the other part of the family I have to visit.

    But it was in the cards…Like you said. And it is what millions of people who live in a separated family have to do.

    Well, you have created a wonderful way to help others who are in a worse situation and I commend you for it.

    • Thank you, Steve… Yeah, my dad has never decorated his apartment for the holidays, either. Last year we put a poinsettia on the kitchen table, but that was about it. The holidays are actually a hard time for a lot of people. People low on money feel pressured to spend money they don’t have on presents; people in bad family situations feel shitty because their family doesn’t look *anything* like the families they see on TV… It’s too bad, honestly. I’m sorry for what you and your family have been through. How old is your son now? But yeah, some things just aren’t meant to be, I guess. And when that’s the case, the best thing to do is to mourn the loss… and move on.

      • Yup…the extra pressure of the holidays is starting to creep in already!

        As for the kiddo…he is 14 now so this now is the norm for him. Thankfully he has his mom and I and some overly clingy grandparents to dote on him so he is doing pretty well.

        As for the mourning thing… I just think of that over-simplistic analogy that went like this:

        “The difference between a person who is swimming and a person whom is drowning is that one is kicking their legs.” You will never get to the side if you just sit there and not do something.

      • I have no doubt that your son is doing great. :) And I love that analogy. It is SO true. I’ve actually used a similar one when talking about how well people adapt (or don’t) when moving abroad. The differences between the kickers and the non-kickers is astounding.

        Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  12. Such an enjoyable post. One of my most memorable Christmas times was when I was in Thailand. It’s the only Christmas I ever spent away from family, but I remember I didn’t feel at all homesick. Some friends made a little tree out of tinsel, and we exchanged $5 presents, and it was magical. Then we had a big party with the orphans we were serving. We ate these scrawny little potatoes that everybody went crazy for because they’re so unusual in that part of the world.
    I have this burden now to help make sure my boys understand the truth about Christmas. It’s talked about all the time, but talk is, as they say, cheap. For the truth to sink in, action is required.
    Happy Thanksgiving next week, gentle miss.

    • Thank you, Lucas, and I’m glad you enjoyed this. Yes, this will only be my second holiday season at home since my time in Asia, and, quite frankly, while abroad I didn’t miss the holidays at home… Not at all. As I said, my family wasn’t always the most forthcoming about what was *really* going on…

      But, serving orphans? You know what I mean, then, when I talk about the joy that service brings. People keep praising me for making last Christmas about other people instead of myself, but, really, no praise is deserved! Serving those people brought ME joy!!!

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  13. Great post! So timely with the holidays coming upon us. It was interesting for me to read about your experience with your parents. My parents divorced when I was quite young (about 6 I think), so when you said that “My family was never going to be a single unit ever again” I realized how foreign a concept that is for me–a single family unit. I’ve never known that, and so in that way I suppose divorce was quite different for me. I can’t relate to feeling that loss, or the loss of stability–I guess I didn’t really have that. Anyways, I found your post insightful and heartfelt. One of the things that I really want to do is “limit” the scope of gifting in my family, and focus instead on service…but, of course, it’s a work in progress! Thanks for sharing with us all and helping us all remember what’s important about the holidays!

    • Aww, thanks Jess! Yeah, some people seem surprised that I would have shared such a personal story on my blog, but it’s part of my story — something that’s shaped me — and something a lot of people can relate to. Divorce is never good, but it affects you very differently if it happens when you’re a small child versus when you’re an adult. It’s never easy; rather, it is difficult in different ways.

      I’m sure I’ll try to limit the gift-giving in my family, too, someday. I think I definitely want to make it a tradition that I (or we) do some sort of volunteer work every holiday season. The benefits of helping others are too numerous to name in one comment!

      Thanks for reading!!!

  14. Hey Jess, very heart warming story, it takes a lot of courage to share something this personal. You’ve nailed what the spirit of the Holidays should be about! The commercialism of this time of year is terrible and i feel has gotten far too out of control and sends the wrong message.

    • Aww, thanks so much, Mark. Yes, commercialism has taken over the holidays almost entirely, and I think it’s sad. And it’s really up to us to take them back. Also, taking joy to those patients in the hospital really *did* bring me joy. I think sometimes we’re off the mark when think about what makes us happy.

  15. This was a really lovely ‘full circle’ story. Starting with loss you concluded that there’s more – What a lovely discovery and share, Jess.
    It always seems in the moments when we lose our footing we are presented with the opportunity to start anew. This was a lovely & heartwarming example of that.

    • I like that thought, Andrea. I hadn’t even thought of it as a “full circle” story, but I agree! I also agree that when we lose our footing, there is always another opportunity to start anew. I’m starting to truly believe that things really do happen for a reason.
      I hope you have a great Thanksgiving! :)

  16. I imagine you have heard this before but your parents must be very proud of you. That Christmas story at the hospital was selfless and helping to turn many disappointed patients day a little bit brighter. I love Christmas too, colors and music and traditions ( and working towards one’s perfect Christmas) but the giving of smiles and the idea of love is what it is all about to me…plus some great Oreo Mint ice Cream. I hope you have a great week Jesssica. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks so much, Andy. Yes, I think my parents are proud of me… I love Christmas but dislike the commercialism. Sigh. Oh well. Guess you can’t have it all. My favorite Christmas treat is egg nog! But Oreo Mint ice cream sounds good, too. ;)

      Hope you had a great Thanksgiving with your lovely family! I will look forward to reading about it on your blog!

  17. I just want to say that you are awesome. :)

    I think the quote below fits you the best. :)

    “The best feeling in the world is when you cheer someone up, when your smile brought a smile to someone else’s face. A smile costs nothing but it could be exactly what that someone needed at that time. May you freely give away your beautiful, happy smiles! I’m giving you mine for a start. ”


  18. ooh love this post! is there a love button? because i would so click that. =)

    first off i wanted to say that.. we’re all human and by being such, that automatically makes us sinful and prone to err. therefore, we’re all from broken families really, in one way or another.. it’s just that some people mask their family life really well. so you’re not alone…

    also, i really like what you did for the patients at the hospital on christmas. =) it’s true.. it’s mostly elderly who end up in the hospital on christmas, because they’re too sick or too burdensome for their families so their families just leave them there or bring em to the hospital during that time to take care of them. one of my toughest days as a nurse was on christmas day, taking care of someone very difficult to care for. so the little gesture that had a big amount of heart behind it, it means to world to patients especially when they are alone and suffering. thanks for sharing about it. =)

  19. It took courage to acknowledge that the divorce was inevitable. You did well Jessica. And to create joy for the young ones when you are hurting takes great courage and love.

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