A Christmas tree outside St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Though Christmas is the time for sleigh bells, lights and good cheer, it is also the season for giving. AFP pic

I was driving along O’Connell Street in Limerick for a meeting one evening and traffic was grinding to an all time-slow.

Why? Because there were cranes here and there hoisting burly men to elevated positions as they fixed strings of beautiful street lights to usher in Christmas. There was a certain excitement in the air and I was pretty sure no one was complaining because it was quite a sight to behold as the workers, all dressed in their safety gear, carefully lifted up the main attraction — the Star of Hope.

The star wondrously lit up the dark winter sky. During World War 2, there were stars hanging in many windows, as families hoped for the safe return of their loved ones who were serving in the war.

Temperatures were dropping all around as I sat in the car with the heater turned up and the radio blasting Christmas carols, of sleigh bells ringing and the spirit of giving hope.

Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen. It is not wishful thinking.

One of the activities that I get involved in is the annual shoebox appeal. Organised by Team Hope Ireland, this charity body works with children and their families, and communities in war-torn countries in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Africa.

Last year, people in Limerick sent 8,000 shoeboxes stuffed with toys, sweets and other gifts to the children in Lesotho, sowing a little hope into the lives of young ones who do not have much in the way of material goods.

So, I wrapped a shoebox with pretty paper and went shopping for goodies for a little girl that I have never met. I felt like a child again and thought a “princess” theme might appeal.

It was more difficult than I had thought. Socks with Disney’s Frozen princess images came in a range of sizes and I had completely forgotten what children feet sizes were! The sales girl came to the rescue and I bought stickers, stationery and a jigsaw puzzle — all with princesses on them.

Next came toiletries, and the range was gorgeous — child-sized make-up kits, Olaf the snowman toothpaste and tooth brush that were screaming at me to buy them. I succumbed and bought a bag of Haribo gummy bears as well.

I stuffed everything into the shoebox and then topped it up with a card with Irish sheep cartoons (that had real wool stuck to them) as well as a soft toy bunny that I made. I was very surprised that a shoebox could hold so much stuff.

Just like the child who picks up a starfish and throws it back into the sea so that it can live, I know my shoebox will not change the world, but it might mean the world to just one child.

I felt that I was certainly enriched by the whole experience. It reminded me of the times when I was involved with groups that did volunteer work with the hill people in the Philippines and the indigenous people in Malaysia.

Even though we supplied them only with basic necessities like medicine and food, the welcome that we received surpassed anything that we had imagined. Their hospitality put us all to shame and whatever little they had, they shared with us. It is strange, but when we give a little of ourselves or what we have, we receive even more.

I was listening to Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, the lyrics laden with strands of war, peace and freedom. Dylan says that the answer to chaos is in the wind. But “just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down...”

But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down, so not too many people get to see and know... and then it flies away.

What is it that we hope for as the year draws to a close?

It is my hope that we love our neighbours as we love ourselves — to respect and regard their needs and desires as highly as we regard our own.

A Blessed Christmas to all Christians!

The writer was a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara and now spends her days enjoying life as it is