Read on…. or  If you like, you can listen to the story here 

The holidays are a difficult time for many of us who did not grow up in idyllic households the way Hallmark or any number of old holiday movies portrays families. You know those seemingly perfect families with Mom & Dad and Grandma and Grandpa and the 2.5 children and the golden retriever and a picket fence. Some of us grew up in a house more like the Simpsons; though even they have a 2 parent household and a dog, even if it that dog’s a slightly defective one. Many of us come from homes of absent fathers, alcoholism, abuse, and a pervasive sense of sadness. And the holidays are just one more reminder of how dysfunctional and sometimes painful our families were or are.

And so two years ago a decision was made at 4am on December 25th. I knew that the cardboard sign I always carried was powerful. It made people smile. It opened up conversations. People shared their stories and their truths. So, why not take that sign to a local soup kitchen and see if the magic would work there.

I spent the morning preparing myself. I got out my old Santa Hat. I found my mitten applique sweater; the one I thought was cute but others had told me was the perfect runner up in an Ugly Sweater Contest. I smiled as I pulled it over my head. I grabbed my dog mitten scarf and my sign and I hopped in my old station wagon and headed to the soup kitchen at the Episcopal Church on Market Street in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas City.

I arrived early, found street parking, a little Christmas Miracle in itself and then I made my way over to the church. Already there was a line of people snaking down the sidewalk. They were stamping their feet and blowing on their hands to keep warm.

I figured, may as well test out the sign now and see what happens.

So I lifted my sign above my head, approached the people waiting and I smiled. Not even 5 seconds later an older man in a beat up leather jacket with a cigarette dangling off his lip, grinned and said, “Free Hugs? I’ll take one.” I opened my arms and hugged him. He grabbed me tightly and started to laugh. “This is great. Yup, this is what Christmas is all about.” I laughed too. He let go. “That was good, real good. Hey, you people, what ya waitin for? Get a hug from this lady.”

And then I was surrounded by people of all ages, hugging me and each other and laughing and no longer looking down at the sidewalk or feeling anything other than being in that moment with each other. And enjoying it.

A few minutes later the doors of the church opened, the scent of baked ham, mashed potatoes wafted over us and everyone shuffled in. The pastor greeted me with a smile as she read my sign, her arms outstretched. “What a lovely idea,” she said pulling me into an embrace.

I spent the next 2 hours circling round the room from table to table, my sign held high overhead. “Free hug?” Sure I’ll take one. “Hey, don’t forget that guy over there, he’s kinda shy,” whispered a young man in a baseball cap pulled low, pointing 2 tables away to a 60 something man in a red Rudolph sweater. I slowly made my way over to that table. Smiling. I reached out and tentatively put my hand on his upper arm and leaned down quietly whispering, “would you like a free hug?” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, a tiny smile spread onto his lips. “yeah, yeah, sure, if ya got one to give.” I bent down and hugged him. He sighed and softened. “Thanks, Merry Christmas to you.” Merry Christmas indeed.

Now sure, they were a few folks who didn’t want hugs or who rather than hugging me grabbed ahold of their neighbor or their partner and stated loudly, “I got my hug right here.”

“Well, that’s wonderful,” I’d reply.

So, if you’re in the mood for something a little different this Christmas, or if you, like me are seeking some deeper feeling, some personal heart connection, go ahead, make yourself a FREE HUGS sign and go out and share a bit of Christmas cheer, Wherever it is you believe might need just a little more love.

As for me, this year, I’ll be Free Hugging on the streets of Washington DC, taking my sign out to mingle with homeless people and share a little love and a little conversation and maybe, just maybe a little bit of Christmas cheer.

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