“The Giver of All Good Gifts”

By Tom Crowe

“What do you want for Christmas this year?” Mary asked.

“A red wagon!” Paul exclaimed. And then the boy’s face fell. “But we’re not having any Christmas at our house; my father’s got no work.”

“Write a letter to the Christ Child and ask him for the red wagon.”

“Who’s he?”

“The giver of all good gifts.”

Mary Virginia Merrick was an odd one to talk about the good gifts given by the Christ Child. Mary, you see, was an invalid.

Born in Washington in 1866, she suffered a fall when she was 14 that had left her paralyzed from the neck down. But she was the second child of very wealthy parents, so every facility was made to provide for her. Paul was hired to be her errand boy.

A few days after her encouragement, Paul brought his letter, as well as the letters of more than a dozen of his siblings and friends.

To Mary, a promise made was a promise kept, so she enlisted the aid of her sisters and friends. By Christmas, every single one of those letters to the Christ Child was filled.

This was 1883, when Mary Merrick was 17. Her actions that Christmas were the beginning of one of the most significant lay charitable works in the Church: the Christ Child Society.

And to those who knew Mary Merrick, what happened next was no surprise at all.

Before her fall, Mary had desired to become a Sister of Charity. She had seen the sisters daily at Mass. She often played with the orphans whom the sisters cared for. After receiving her First Communion she had solemnly resolved to “serve Our Lord in the poor.”

After her accident, Mary wrote in her diary, “What shall I do with this great yearning for sympathy which possesses me? Shall I allow it to embitter me? No, I shall give it to Him, glad that I pray for it and want it, that I thusly may have somewhat more to give up to Him. Then turn and give sympathy generously to all around me.”

From her bed of pain and physical helplessness she put this resolution into action.

For Christmas 1884, she organized her band of helpers to make a layette for an expectant mother whose husband could not work.

And things snowballed from there. The Christ Child Society was formally established in 1887, with the objective of providing clothing for children under 12 and “to give to the little ones a happy Christmas.”

Members of the society were required to provide financial support for the work and to contribute their own industry to the making of “as many garments … as time and circumstances will permit.”

For Christmas 1890, the society produced and distributed 390 individual garments and 12 complete layettes, and they responded to 250 Christ Child Christmas letters.

This incredible output all was organized by a 24-year-old woman who couldn’t even lift her own head, let alone walk or knit.

But she could pray. She could offer her own sufferings. And she could do it all, no matter how small, with great love.

In 1891, the society, still a phenomenon unique to the Washington area, launched a new initiative: the Fresh Air Program. Through Fresh Air, the Christ Child Society brought the Christmas spirit to the summer. They rented cottages in a rural area on the outskirts of the city where, for two weeks every summer, children who lived in adverse circumstances in the densely populated city could enjoy fresh air and fun activities, free from the burdens of their lives at home.

The growth continued as more volunteers joined the cause. In 1898 the society numbered 352 members in Washington. Among them they produced 2,200 layettes and 300 other Christmas gifts, with 30 children participating in the Fresh Air program.

Chapters began to spring up in other cities beginning in 1904, with the first in Baltimore. Six others followed just a few years later, and in the decades since, in New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Nebraska, Maryland and Illinois.

Now, more than 130 years since its founding, the society boasts 45 chapters across the U.S., including here in California at Monterey Bay, San Jose, San Diego and Pasadena. Every year, more than 5,500 members fulfill Christmas wishes to the tune of 400,000 hours of volunteer work, spending more than $4 million aiding 78,000 families in the name of the Christ Child.

And all of this good work grew from the simple desire of one young woman — a paralyzed and seemingly helpless woman — to “serve Our Lord in the poor.”

Mary Merrick died in 1955 at 88 years old. She had led the national organization personally for 61 years, giving herself utterly to bringing the joy of the Christ Child to others.

Her cause for canonization opened in 2003, giving us here on earth hope that she is enjoying the eternal Christmas with the Christ Child, the giver of all good gifts, whom she loved so tenderly and whose love she shared so eagerly. 

Crowe is a freelance writer and co-host of the American Catholic History podcast. He and his wife, Noëlle, love sharing the history of Catholics in America through the podcast, pilgrimages, talks and more. Learn more at americancatholichistory.org.