When the Galbraith family of Palo Alto unwraps Christmas presents on Dec. 25, the first box they'll open is one for Jesus.
There won't be a baby blanket symbolizing swaddling clothes, or three gifts from the Wise Men. Inside Jesus' beautifully gift-wrapped Christmas present, there will be numerous slips of paper. Each will list an act of kindness, service and volunteerism a member of the family of nine has done for someone else and for each other since early December.
As the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood family gathers around the Christmas tree, they won't do a power-rush of present opening. They'll carefully unwrap Jesus' gift and read each note "sharing the joy of what everyone has done and how happy it makes everybody feel," Jacqueline, 11, explained.
Benjamin and Jessica Galbraith established this family tradition with their seven children, Jacqueline, Alexis, Zachary, Abigail, Victoria, Jonathan and William, ages 11 to six months. Jessica similarly shared the giving-box tradition with her five siblings while growing up in Massachusetts and Utah. They would open the gift box in their parents' bedroom before they even went downstairs, she said.
"It's something I did the whole time I was growing up. As adult children, talking about our favorite things about Christmas, this was it."
Jessica explained how, three years ago in the beginning of December, the Galbraiths introduced the tradition to their children at a family meeting.
"Who gets presents on their birthdays?" she asked the kids.
"We do," they said.
"Yes. Whose birthday are we celebrating on Dec. 25th?"
"Who gets presents on Jesus' birthday?"
"Hm. We do!"
"Maybe we could give Jesus a present for his birthday this year," she suggested.
Jessica reads the scripture verse: "When you do it unto the least of these ... ye do it unto me."
She often tells a story about service from the scriptures: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry or caring for the sick a Good Samaritan-type story and she tells the children that when they serve others, they are serving Jesus.
"We can give Jesus a present by serving our fellow men," she said.
Jessica holds up a wrapped box that looks like a beautiful present. It has a slit in the top and some slips of paper. The family has two different types of service: one is service to those in the community, including playing music at Lytton Gardens, donating to a toy drive, participating in a canned-food drive, helping at the Palo Alto Unified School District toy store, bringing soup and cookies to the Ronald McDonald house, having missionaries to dinner, and inviting a new family to their home. The second is service to members of the family.
"I encourage them to make each others' beds, write notes and leave them on pillows, do each others' chores, help each other with homework, give someone a 'heart attack,' where they tape hearts all over a person's car or bed," she said.
When they finish their service, the children write it on a slip of paper and put it in the box.
"On Christmas morning, before opening our gifts, we open Jesus' gift and read all the 'gifts' we've given him over the month," she said.
One son's favorite act is helping to sort toys at the school district's toy drive, she said.
Zachary, 7, knows right off his favorite act of family love:
"Snuggling with Mom," he said.
For Alexis, 10, it is playing "Secret Santa."
The children go to Toys 'R' Us or Target and purchase toys for kids in need whom they have heard about through their church. Then they secretly leave the wrapped gifts on doorsteps at night.
"I feel really happy and overjoyed, and I feel like I want to do them over and over again," she said.
For Jacqueline, the eldest, doing something nice for somebody that might make a difference in their lives brings the greatest joy, she said.
On Christmas day, when the box for Jesus is finally opened, reading what her siblings have done is inspiring.
"The whole thing is really nice. It gives you an idea of the nice things we can do for other people," she said.