By Amy VanHaren
There is a week at camp that is perhaps even more magical than all the rest.
A week when lights are hung around cabin doors and A-field games become reindeer games. When counselors fight over who gets to be one of five golden rings or the coveted partridge in a pear tree. When your cabin just might get a trip around the world or a serenade by the Boys Village Backstreet Boys.
It's a special time-warp week in the heat of summer when the animals attend chapel as part of the nativity scene, staff disappear to Tom's shed to become elves, and you get to carol cabin to cabin by candlelight (or, maybe, around the lake as part of a Flotilla).
This joyful week is Christmas week, and it has always been my favorite.
I would guess it's a favorite of many, because if you really think about it, summer camp and Christmas are not all that different.
You spend the month before each arrives in a state of heightened anticipation, counting down the days. You can't sleep the night before. You want to be the first one to the tree - or check in table - on the day it arrives.
You sing some songs. You dress up a lot. You decorate (the tree or yourself). You make things for other people. You gather around a table, sit before a fire, and tell stories of mythical beings (one happens to wear a santa hat and slip down the chimney, the other, seaweed while slipping into cabins).
It goes way, way too quickly.
And when it's over, you feel sad, but you wake up the next day with warm memories and a full heart, already excited for next year.
Both come with much merriment and a whole lot of gifts (some you've asked for, others not so much), so in honor of both seasons, I present my top 12 Camp Gifts:
1. The Gift of Spontaneity.
You never know when you'll get picked to be a British Bulldog or what will happen during the Steeple Chase or whether or not you might have to carry someone around the table. There is structure to the days at camp but only enough so that you can rely on the rhythms, not enough to prevent creativity or adventure or teachable moments. The ability to veer wildly off course, to start a chant or throw in a new a rule in four-square, allows us to be playful and adaptable in ways the rest of the world does not.
2. The Gift of Nature.
Camp exists almost entirely outside. You move from place to place on dirt paths. You spend nights under the stars. You zip line among the trees and swim across the lake and ride horses through DeVries woods. On rainy days you slip and slide in mud. During capture the counselor you cozy up to bushes. You might even clean seaweed out of the red area if it's early in the summer. At every turn, you are exposed to all that our natural world has to offer and it shapes not only our time at camp but also our time beyond in meaningful ways.
3. The Gift of Friendship.
Bunkmate, Ottawa cabin, buddy call, Olympic team, fire toss, teen challenge, staff training. These are just seven out of 700 ways we make friends at camp. We're thrown together in unique ways and from it, we form tighter bonds with those we came with and new bonds with others we've just met. We make fast friends because we must, and lasting friends because we choose to. Whether for a week or a lifetime, camp is filled with opportunities to connect and those connections are what make the ride all that much more amazing.
4. The Gift of Self-Esteem.
This might be the biggest gift I ever received from camp: the chance to try out being me, being brave enough to really be me, and finding acceptance. We give of ourselves in spades while at camp, everything from our energy to our voices to our hearts...we give it all. And in return, camp gives us a safe environment to grow and flourish.
5. The Gift of Music.
Can you still hear it? Music fills the days and the nights at camp. We sing rounds in the chapel and rock out at PJ sing and look to the water during Witchy Ti Ti. We sing before meals and after. We sing at the talent show, on the deck during down time, and at every campfire. Those of us who can't sing a lick are encouraged to join in. Those who can, do so loudly and move us to tears. Some even write their own beautiful music. We sing as a form of expression, in silliness and reverence and together, as a community. The songs burrow into our souls and we take them with us. We sing the songs of camp in the backseat of the car all the way home and at our camp weddings and in the middle of the night to our babies. Somehow the camp soundtrack finds it way into the playlist of our lives.
6. The Gift of Jake.
Where would we all be without a camp leader like Jeff Jacobs? (Or his wife JJ!?) Or Ron Goodyke, Steve Kadu, our favorite staff members, or any of the hundreds of people who have given their time, money, and hearts to Camp Henry year after year? Those who build and sustain camp are our treasured gifts.
7. The Gift of Emotions.
Camp is a place of feeling. A place where everything somehow feels more real, raw, joyous, and sometimes sad. We gather on the shores and wear our hearts on our sleeves in ways we don't elsewhere. We hug actively. We laugh easily. We get fiercely competitive on the field and overly dramatic on the Idema stage. We fall in love (see #9 below). We feel every star in the night sky in our core and every relationship deep in our bones. Sometimes we sob when it's over and we frequently sleep for days to recover. There is risk in allowing yourself such emotional openness but there is even greater reward. Such feeling - learning how to feel, feeling our way forward, putting our feelings out there - is crucial in life and camp gives us a place to hone our skills.
8. The Gift of Rest Period.
Period. We may fight it but what relief it is to pause and restore. How important to all the other gifts. (I'm talking to you future campers, embrace it!)
9. The Gift of Crushes.
The boy in your brother cabin. The waterfront director with the whistle. The girls counselor you hope you're paired with. (I'm sure your own are coming to mind at this very moment.) Camp is a place for crushes, and I mean more than just romantic. It's filled with friend crushes and crushes on athletic ability and crushes on someone else's amazing costume. We crush on counselors because they are role models who show us fearlessness and vibrancy, and other campers because they share our love of books or share nothing at all. It's a place where we learn to look up to people and to really look at people. Camp crushes give us hope.
10. Gift of shared experiences.
The real magic of camp might just lie in the fact that we've all been there. We've experienced it together. We have stood at the flagpole and collectively made someone eat from the gut bucket. We have checked in and bunked up. We've become women and warriors. We've gone through camp together, so we remain together. We're all Camp Henry people and better off for it.
11. The Regift.
Camp is not so different from the Giving Tree. It shakes with joy when we're around and gives just what we need, at every age we need it: a place to play, love, adventure, plant roots, and sit in peace. Camp gives back and it does so over and over again, when we're physically present and even still when we've grown up and moved away.
12. The Gift of Immortality.
Because we're all going to live forever on the shores of Lake Kimball.
As time goes on, I think back on the multitude of gifts Camp Henry has bestowed (these twelve and so many more) and I feel compelled to also give back.
I dole out gifts in many ways. I like more camp photos on Instagram. I reach out to camp friends more frequently. I can't wait to send my kids to camp. And I support camp scholarships and initiatives like the improved dining hall because everyone deserves the gift of camp. Everyone deserves to sit squashed together on a bench, elbow to elbow, eating Helen's food, having the time of their lives and awaiting the next laking.
Here's to Christmas at camp and to camp at Christmas. I hope you look fondly on your camp gifts and have a very merry season!
About the Author:
Amy is the owner of VanHaren Creative, a social media marketing company. Her first visit to Camp Henry was for mini-camp at age 7. She stayed in the Ottawa cabin and had so much fun she came back for an entire week that summer and kept coming back every year until she turned 17 when she went on work as Camp Henry staffer for 10 summers. Stay tuned for more posts from Amy and keep up with her on Facebook and Instagram.
Amy VanHaren is a regular alumni blog poster for Camp Henry. To see her previous posts, click here.
Jennie "Bieber Fever" lists out the top 18 reasons why she (and any other returning campers) can't wait for another summer on the shores of ol' Lake Kimball.
Genevieve Howell, Facilities Specialist, takes a moment to reflect on her position at Camp and Christmas time. If you have ever spent time with Genevieve, you can appreciate her unique and entertaining perspective on life. If you haven't spent time with Genevieve, you are missing out big time!
"Christmas is like power tools.
I recently started working with Ryan in facilities at camp. I was like, man, I’ll probably get to climb on every roof, discover things people have forgotten about for a hundred years (like old poop grinder pumps, yay!), drive every vehicle at camp (t minus 9 to old bus to lift off), chop down trees, and find out that the facilities people of the past have actually created an underwater world beneath barb’s point.
You know, the norm.
But I was also pretty stoked because I had never used a power tool before, or let’s be real, even been allowed to hold one. I’m not accident prone nor am I known for breaking things often, I’m not opening up discussion, this is just fact. However, with Ryan claiming I’ve nearly killed him three times, even though I say only twice, I understand that truth can seem subjective. All this to say I’ve been pretty excited about the power tools here at camp.
So how is Christmas like power tools? There’s this little tool called the sawzall here at camp.
It’s straight evil.
This thing has enormous potential, you just plug it in and you’re off cutting holes in everything within arms distance. You could probably trim your Christmas tree to look like Jesus without breaking a sweat. The only flaw is that every so often the saw blade comes loose and flies at your face going 500 miles an hour. It’s cool though, it’s like Hunger Games but REAL LIFE!
You might be thinking, yeah this really is not like Christmas at all. But here’s where I’m going with this. Imagine Christmas is this thing you hold in your hands. The holiday space of time is in front of us and if you’re anything like me you’re sitting somewhere feeling on the brink. Each year I feel like I’ve been handed this strange little break at the end of the year. All around me money’s flying through the air as people check off their "to-buy" lists and people are preparing their answers to the slightly veiled and always threatening questions of “so what do you have to show for your life?” The radio and tv make me want to punch things and forever tear red and green out of the rainbow. Only kidding. But sometimes Christmas can seem a little man-made, cluttered and chaotic.
The other day I went out on Lake Kimball and with Ryan attempted to jump through the ice (That’s right folks, we’re getting the lake ready for New Year’s Camp! Bring your swimsuit! But actually, bring it). The lake starts with a thick layer of snow (seriously I can’t remember a time before it started snowing), has a layer of thin ice, then water, slush, and more ice. In that split second that you bust through the first thin layer of ice, you think there’s nothing solid at all and it’s the end of the world. But after getting through all the slush, you realize there’s actually something holding it all up.
To me, this is Christmas. Without all the flash, stripped down, it’s pretty much the best day of the year, because it’s the day God said to each of us, “I love you so much I’m coming down!” If I had to pick one thing I’ve honed in on here at camp, it would be this: sometimes there’s a lot of sludge and excess and you have to dig down past it to get to the good stuff.
So enjoy your power tool/ice breaking Christmas, use it right, make it count, and in the words of that Insanity work out guy, “DIG DEEP!”"