I love Christmas. Right on the heels of Thanksgiving, when we celebrate bounty and the many blessings in our lives, Christmas represents to me a wonderful time to reflect on the previous year and anticipate with hope and optimism the next one. It recalls laughter, joy, snow, savory roasts, rich desserts, creamy eggnog, amazing toys and hundreds of memories with family and friends. It’s absolutely my favorite time of year.

But the Christmas of 2008 was difficult. I had quit my job to launch a financial services consulting business in February that same year. A few weeks later, my wife and I welcomed our second child into our family. These major transitions were not easy, but I wouldn’t trade those times for anything.

The business had done pretty well during the first half of the year. I had closed a lot of new business. When I was with clients, I was making over $200 per hour, but the challenge was keeping my schedule full of client work.

However, the late summer and fall were really slow—people on vacation, getting ready to go back to school, etc. I worked a bunch of extra hours and visited many local companies to drum up business. Time went quickly, but so did the income. Before we knew it, the holiday season—historically slow in the business—was upon us. We had enough to pay the bills, but little more. For a number of months, we were technically below the poverty line.

In planning for Christmas morning, we had purchased some presents for our two young daughters, but we relied heavily on the gifts from family members to fill the void under our tree. My wife and I resolved not to buy for each other, but rather made gifts instead.

As many young parents soon realize, stuffing kids’ stockings can be a surprisingly costly endeavor. The smallest gifts can add up quickly in cost and at the same time not amount to much in volume.

My wife Caitlin and I were discussing the dilemma of the unstuffed stockings, and began reminiscing about our own childhood Christmas experiences. We expected our stockings each year to bear many splendid, once-per-year delights—whole cashews, filberts (hazelnuts), pecans, walnuts, almonds and those fantastic little bags of gold-foil coated chocolate coins. We most fondly remembered our shared tradition of enjoying those small, wonderfully sweet and easy-to-peel oranges in our stockings as children, always wrapped in thick green paper from the supermarket to protect them.

As with many traditions, we hadn’t appreciated this enough when we were kids. We saw value now, however, as parents ourselves, in celebrating with our children the same tradition and enjoying together not only the splendor of man’s production through gifts of manufactured products, but also the delights of nature’s bounty in something so simple as a small orange.

The challenge we faced was that we didn’t have any funds left; we literally had $7 in our bank account. As it was, we already had to edit our grocery list to remain within the meager budget allocated for it.

About a week before Christmas, Caitlin again commented, “I just wish we had a couple of those little oranges for each of the kids’ stockings. That would make my Christmas.” I smiled sadly in agreement, knowing that we simply didn’t have the finances to grant even so simple a request, and we resigned ourselves to an orange-less Christmas morning.

I don’t think I let on much, but that conversation haunted me; it kept coming to mind during the following week. I knew my family had everything they needed, but I wanted to provide everything they wanted, too. It rode upon my conscience, but there was little that I could do in a few days to make the funds appear. I felt helpless, and an undue sense of inadequacy found its way into the muscles of my shoulders and neck. I resolved that next Christmas would be better.

The bittersweet moments of this conversation were only occasionally remembered explicitly during the following week in the holiday’s hustle and bustle. We attended parties at friends’ houses, sang carols, drank hot chocolate and eggnog—but I never completely forgot.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, as we were preparing to leave for our annual Christmas Eve dinner at Nana’s house, there was a knock at our door. Through clouds of frozen breath in the chilly outdoor air were the rosy cheeks, cheerful smile and bright eyes of one of our dear friends. We invited her to come in for a bit to warm up, but she insisted that she only had a minute to say “Merry Christmas” and drop off a basket of goodies. It was such a sweet gesture. We hugged and thanked her and bid her a Merry Christmas as well, then she hurried off to deliver yet another basket of goodies to some other lucky family.

In the kitchen, eagerly exploring the contents of this unexpected gift, Caitlin suddenly burst into tears. Utterly perplexed, I asked what was the matter. Speechlessly, she held up exactly four little oranges—just enough to put two in each of the kids’ stockings for the next morning.

•  •  •

This season, and this moving experience in particular, taught me some important lessons.

  1. Little things matter—a lot. Our friend’s kindness cost her very little but meant the world to us. Be that person for someone. The smallest acts of kindness may mean as little as bringing a smile or as much as changing someone’s perspective and restoring their faith in humanity. You may never know what it means, but it is always worthwhile to invest a small kindness into someone else’s life.
  2. Adversity met with unity can greatly strengthen a marriage. It brought us together in ways we had never known before. We didn’t fight about money, and the season made us stronger because we conversed deeply about what was really important to us. It was a time that we learned how many aspects of our lives were really optional and not critical for happiness.
  3. It taught me to have faith and confidence in trying times. Since that time, financial difficulties haven’t seemed nearly as big a deal, despite the financial challenges being much larger. I suppose it could still get much worse than simply not being able to buy an orange—we still had food, shelter, clothing, clean water, etc.—but the experience helped lend a perspective that took the fear out of poverty.
  4. Although these lessons came from a time when finances were really tight, they were priceless and changed us forever. When you fall, stay there for a moment to consider what happened to get you there. Cherish the hard times and look for these priceless lessons.
  5. Some people refer to the law of attraction. Others pray and trust God. Still others vaguely hope. I don’t pretend to know exactly how all the pieces fell together perfectly, but I know that I wanted something intensely—and it appeared, literally at our doorstep. All I know for sure is that our needs have always been met, and for that I’m grateful.
  6. So take risks. Fail. Cry. Learn. Feel, deeply. Celebrate traditions. Treasure friendships. Cherish family. It’s all part of the process of becoming a better person, parent, spouse, leader and follower. Life’s too short to live in fear.

•  •  •

The next morning, we sat cross-legged on the floor amongst the little toys and stuffed animals and new packs of crayons and coloring books, and we taught our girls to peel their oranges and pull apart the wedges. I can still remember their sleepy, smiling faces and fuzzy PJs dotted and smeared with the oranges’ sticky, sweet juices.

What we feared might be a disappointing Christmas morning actually turned out to be one of our favorite memories. Sometimes, life gives you lemons, and you’re supposed to make the most of it. But sometimes, life also gives you oranges—and that’s one of the best things that can hope for.