A California Family’s Holiday Tradition: Handing Out Christmas Meals

A ritual dating back more than two decades has persisted through times of joy and tragedy.

A ritual dating back more than two decades has persisted through times of joy and tragedy.

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Christmas lunch at the Midnight Mission in Los Angeles last year.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Many years ago, when their children were still young, Ben and Vanessa Benya adopted a somewhat unconventional holiday tradition.

The couple had noticed that Hunter, then 8, and Phoebe, 5, were crafting long, detailed lists of toys they wanted for Christmas.

The family lived in the privileged “surf bubble” of Manhattan Beach, so the high expectations weren’t entirely surprising, Vanessa told me. But she felt concerned nonetheless.

Around the same time, Ben heard about a church group that handed out sandwiches at a local park on the last Saturday of the month, which, that year, fell on Christmas Day. The Benyas weren’t part of the church but decided to join in.

On Christmas Eve of 1999, the foursome made turkey sandwiches and packed them in brown paper bags along with candy and fruit. The next morning, before a single present was unwrapped, they piled into their car and headed to a park in Santa Monica that supported unhoused residents.

Vanessa said she initially felt some anxiety that passing out the lunches benefited her family more than actually helping people. But between kind interactions with park residents and the fact that no meals were left over, she felt satisfied by the small gesture.

“We were enamored with it and thought that it was really such a good idea,” Vanessa, 63, said. “And so we kept doing it.”

The Benyas’ story doesn’t end there. When Vanessa emailed me in response to my query about Golden State holiday traditions, I was struck by two things: her family’s ritual and how it has morphed and endured through times of tragedy.

I’ll let Vanessa take it from here:

“Our tradition has continued for 20 Christmases and the sequence never wavers: get up, load the lunches, don the Santa hats, queue the music and go. Hunter and Phoebe added their own flair along the way including loud Christmas music and frothy holiday drinks.

Some years, we’d beg friends to come by to help make sandwiches on Christmas Eve. We’ve had boon years and been able to add socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste and even travel-size shampoo to the lunch bags.

Sometimes, we’ve asked friends to drop off extra sweatshirts, fleeces, pullovers and long-sleeved shirts to add to the giveaway bounty. Once, we had paperback books to share. They were a huge hit. We brought many friends out with us over the years, to share in a simple act of giving.

This will be the fourth year that we’ll make lunches on Christmas Eve with our friends and without Hunter. We lost Hunter in 2018 and weren’t sure that we could continue without him. Our grief was crushing.

As only dear friends can do, ours stepped in and invited us to their house that Christmas Eve, with their now grown-up children, friends of both Hunter and Phoebe, to make the Christmas lunches.

There is no fanfare with our routine. It’s just what we do one morning in December.

It’s so easy to help others with a simple gesture. It’s selfish, but we feel better giving.”

For more:

Has there ever been a better time to consider donating to a good cause for the holidays? Our giving guide.

How to know your donations are doing the most good.

How can I make the holidays less exhausting?

The latest on Omicron and the pandemic

California officials announced on Wednesday that health care workers would be required to have Covid vaccine booster shots by Feb. 1 and that public school students would receive rapid tests when they returned from winter break.

Three teams of scientists have found that Omicron infections result in mild illness more often than other variants.

The latest surge has colleges fearing a mental health crisis.

California State University announced that all students and staff members must get boosters, KTLA reports.

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A field of solar panels near Mojave, Calif., in June.Credit…Patrick T. Fallon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The rest of the news

Solar power: The Biden administration approved two solar projects on federal land in the California desert that could generate enough electricity to power 132,000 homes.

Heir apparent or afterthought? The frustrations of Kamala Harris.

Online classes: Seven University of California campuses will switch to online instruction in January as fear of an Omicron surge spreads, Inside Higher Ed reports.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Weather warning: Officials are warning that excessive rain on Thursday could trigger floods in parts of Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino and Orange Counties.

Emergency housing: Los Angeles is racing to connect unhoused people living in hotels with vouchers to help them find housing before they are kicked out next year, The Los Angeles Times reports.

CENTRAL CALIFORNIA

Weather warning: Traveling in and around Kings Canyon, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks could be “very difficult to impossible” because of heavy snowfall through the rest of the week.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Weather warning: Heavy rain and snow are expected this week at the northern edge of the state as well as in the Sacramento area.

Tragic death: A hiker fell to his death while trying to climb Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada, The Associated Press reports.

Marijuana wars: Violent Mexican drug cartels growing illegal marijuana crops have turned Northern California into “the Wild West,” USA Today reports.

Flight attendant assault: A Sacramento woman pleaded guilty to a federal charge after punching a flight attendant in the face during a flight.

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Credit…Linda Xiao for The New York Times

What we’re eating

Creamy asparagus pasta.

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Vineyards in the Anderson Valley near Healdsburg.Credit…Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Where we’re traveling

Today’s travel tip comes from Alanya Navarro, who recommends visiting Anderson Valley in Northern California:

“Turn off 101 onto Highway 128 and drive northwest through the beautiful valley, stopping at wineries along the way. In Boonville, I stop for a meal and a cold beer at Anderson Valley Brewing Company, and then continue on to camping at Hendy Woods State Park, where I camped every summer growing up.

We are so lucky to live in such a beautiful state with such a huge diversity of landscapes.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

What we’re recommending

The best cookbooks of 2021.

And before you go, some good news

During your downtime this weekend, consider watching this incredible 45-minute whirlwind through California’s 58 counties by the Sacramento television reporter John Bartell.

It’s a fast-paced tour of some of the best spots in the Golden State and will have you itching to plan a post-pandemic road trip.

Thanks for reading. I won’t be back until Monday because of the holiday. Enjoy your weekend. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “With the sleigh full of ___, and St. Nicholas too”: “The Night Before Christmas” (4 letters).

Shivani Gonzalez, Jack Kramer and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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