It may still be November, but children know that Christmas is practically here, and so do we. The questions about are coming in rat-a-tat-tat.
From Adams-Morgan a mother says: "It's hard enough to know what to give a 5-year-old who has everything, but how do you teach her that other people don't? I think it would help if we made up a Christmas basket for a poor family we know who lives near us, but I don't know how to give it to them."
A. When you're poor, a lady bountiful is hard to take, but a child bountiful is awful. No matter how much you want and need the food, it's humiliating to accept charity from anyone, but especially from a little child -- and especially if your own children are around.
In fact, it's as important for the people in that family to keep their dignity as it for your child to learn that everyone has the right to be respected, not for what they have done with their lives, but just for being alive. By now you surely have driven your daughter down the riot corridors many times (an exposure no child should miss) and seen the destitute street people near the monuments, sleeping on their grates.
With the inevitable talks that follow, your child begins to understand that even though people have bad luck -- and that they may make much of this themselves -- they still deserve help.
This isn't a concept a child is apt to discover alone. You can tell her that you passed up those theater ticketsyou wanted so you could send the money to the Cambodian relief, but the moon is not as remote as that concept. Hunger -- relentless, savage hunger -- is beyond the imagination of most of us, and certainly of a Five.
As you realize wisely, a child must be part of giving if she is to empathize at all. It's also the only way she will learn to accept her responsibility and find out the joy that brings.
The idea of giving groceries at Christmas is a good one -- although your child won't know who's getting the food -- but don't gussy up a basket. It might make you feel good to do it, but paper bags are a lot less offensive. i
Use that effort, instead, to make a thoughtful trip to the supermarket with your daughter, buying only for this family, so that the hour is spent thinking of others. Now you consider what they need most: not want, but need. It would be more fun to buy chocolate Santa Clauses, bags of nuts and candles for the table, but if you get staples, the family can spend what money they have on the things that make Christmas special to them. It's a list that is different in every household.
Aside from the ham or the frozen turkey -- for this food should be delivered at least a week ahead to ease the family's worry -- we suggest flour, rice, pasta and sugar; potatoes -- white and sweet -- and onions; bread and margarine; eggs; both fresh and evaporated milk; peanut butter and mayonnaise; fresh beans and squash; lots of apples and oranges, and if there is any money left, some candy, nuts and candles.
To deliver the groceries, call your neighbor and tell the mother the same thing you told your child: that your family has had a good year and you want to share your luck. Ask her if she knows a big family who could use some extra groceries, and if you brought them over, would she mind seeing that they got there. This lets you be direct, while giving her the choice of keeping the food herself -- she may or may not want to tell you -- or of passing it on to someone more needy.
By treating your neighbor as an equal, you eliminate much of the embarrassment and your daughter can deliver her homemade cookies to this family on Christmas Eve, just as she does to all the other neighbors.
If this still seems too awkward, or if the family should turn down the food, the same groceries will be very appreciated at the Zacchaeus Community Kitchen, which serves a free meal to the needy each day between 9 a.m. and noon at 612 L St. NW, or at the S.O.M.E. (So Others May Eat) House, at 71 O St. NW, which does the same, with breakfast served from 7:30 to 8:30 and lunch from noon to 1:30.
You can deliver the food during serving hours.
Q. From Alexandria a mother asks: Just how far should we let this Christmas business go? And what aboutSanta Claus? A lot of my neighbors are saying it's a dishonest thing to teach a child. A. Frankly, we're crazy about Christmas.
Whatever your religious connection, we think the spirit of Christmas conveys a sense of love, a renewed commitment between people. And as for the dishonesty of Santa Claus: balder-dash. When a child finds out, he sees the story as a wonderful, wacky way for parents to say "I love you" and it's a good boost to his imagination besides.
So long as parents emphasize the giving and not the getting, Christmas is a celebration that should strengthen any child.
There are a lot of ways to do this.
When a child talks about what he wants for Christmas, he should always be asked what he plans to give. The lists you help him make will be rewriten a dozen times and the agonizing over how to spend the dollar or two that you give him -- or if possible, that he saves -- will add more suspense and more satisfaction than the many dollars he will spend as an adult. The pipe cleaners and the flints from the drugstore; the second-hand book from Goodwill; the yard-sale jewelry -- a lot of heart goes into these decisions.
The handmade presents, as troublesome as they might be, make a child invest even more of himself.
You can teach him where to find the last sage in the garden to make a bouquet for his auntie, and how to plant the paper-white narcissus bulbs. To do this have him put some shards in the bottom of a 6-inch pot, add five bulbs and then cover with dirt, so they don't topple as they sometimes do when you grow them in gravel.
Have him water the pot heavily and then put it in a cool, sunny window, keeping the earth slightly damp until the shoots are well sprouted, and then water every few days, for the buds need a lot of moisture to form well.
Curried peanuts are a cinch, even for a Two. The child shakes roasted peanuts in a lunch bag with curry powder, then shakes them in a colander to get rid of the extra spices. Bottle for giving. This is an especially good recipe since a child usually hates curry so much he won't eat the nuts.
This is not the case with roasted pecans. But if you can afford them, they make four small, but elegant presents.Put a pound of pecans in a pan with three tablespoons of butter and some salt, roast for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Like cookies, they crisp when the're cool.
And then there are the quarter- or even nickel-size balls a child can roll out of almond paste (sold in the gourmet section of the supermarket). Each ball is flattened between a pair of pecan halves.
Christmas is only as commercial as you want to make it.