HANA, Maui — Christmas was stressful for my mother. An enduring image is watching her sit at the dining room table, Johnny Carson joking in the background, as she fiddled with a stack of bills next to her checkbook.

“Okay, kids, who’s going to win the lottery?” she’d say, sorting the envelopes into “pay now” and “pay later.” My brother and I never bothered to answer because we knew mom would always “pay the faces first.”

That meant a check for the plumber, mechanic, snowplow driver, assorted kid minders, hairdresser and anyone else who helped out my 50-hours-a-week newspaper editor mom while our Air Force pilot dad was off flying, often to Vietnam.

The “big guys” who sold on credit and billed every month – Sears, Montgomery Ward, Macy’s – occasionally got token payments instead of the full amount.

Mom taught me to always “pay the faces first” because we counted on the small town kindness and goodwill of friends, neighbors and local business owners who, like us, lived paycheck to paycheck. This attitude extended to holiday giving.

Students in Hana’s two language immersion programs, Ke Kula Kaiapuni o Hana and Punana Leo o Hana, wait to perform for the community Christmas program.

Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

It’s not that she didn’t donate to the Salvation Army (“remember when the tornado came through and they brought us blankets and hot soup?”), the volunteer fire department (“remember when SOMEBODY set the trash can on fire?”), and the animal shelter where she dropped off rescued dogs.

But when Christmas rolled around Mom always knew the faces of a parent whose child was in the hospital, a man who’d lost his job, a woman battling cancer, the elderly couple buying canned soup instead of hamburger at the end of the month. A keen observer and interpreter of her community, she taught us to pay attention to the faces around us because “that’s where you see the worry.”

That’s why my “pay later” stack every Christmas is a pile of appeals from worthy causes asking for donations to benefit the environment, the arts, athletics, legal aid, doctors in war zones, and many other worthy causes.

My Civil Beat colleague Denby Fawcett wrote a column about notable Hawaii charities eager to be on your gift list this season, and if I get a little ahead next year, I’ll donate to them.

But as we wrap presents and bake goodies we see the faces of our Hana friends and neighbors, not nonprofit logos. We see folks we know by first names who want brightly wrapped packages under the tree for their kids, a big Christmas dinner with their ohana, granting their grandkids’ carefully penned requests laid next to Santa’s cookie plate.

Hana School’s third grade class performed “All I want for Christmas” at the annual holiday show put on by K-12 students for the Hana Community.

Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

Our gifts to them this holiday season represent a modest thank you for the aloha and acceptance given to us as interlopers in this caring, hard-working community of mostly Hawaiian families that have been bound together for hundreds of years.

My mother’s credo that “charity begins at home” means we keep the money in Hana by buying local and giving local.

This year our “pay the faces” presents go to, among others, four sturdy women who seem never to have time, opportunity, or a notion to do something for themselves. Now they have beauty appointments with self-employed local estheticians. A grocery store gift card is wrapped for a proudly self-sufficient couple in their 80s to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables to control medical issues.

A trio of Mr. Fixits always a “help” call away will enjoy restaurant meals as “small kine” thanks for fixing a water line, keeping our old truck’s door from falling off and an emergency fence repair when trespassing bulls knocked it down.

Hundreds of Hana residents turned out for the annual school Christmas program, the community’s holiday season highlight. Here, young musicians waiting their turn to entertain the crowd.

Dean Wariner/Civil Beat

There will be crisp $10 bills for children to buy presents for their parents, gift cards at a local boutique run by busy moms who make lovely jewelry, edible treats for neighbors who supply us year ‘round with fresh eggs, bananas, citrus and flowers, and a special surprise for a friend always ready to feed the cat, secure the cattle gate, or wait for the Sears repairman when we’re out of town.

This year we again ran out of money before we ran out of faces. And we know our small tokens don’t fully express our gratitude at living in this special place where our holiday season’s highlights are Hana School’s musical program and the inter-faith Christmas Eve candlelight service.

But thanking a dozen faces for love and support beats buying a fancy toaster, a 65-inch TV or more “smart” electronics we can’t program without a 4th grader at our elbow. And, as my mother did, I also sent a check to the Salvation Army.

So Ho Ho HO and Merry Christmas! May you give as good as you get!

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