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Friday, December 10, 2004

Ghosts of Christmas Past Still Haunt Me

A very many of my family Christmases consisted of my brother and I ripping into the wrapped packages handed us by our excited mother; my grandmother taking the occasional picture; my stepfather looking quietly on; and my grandfather sitting at a table, smoking a cigarette and commenting, with every gift opened, “You kids don’t know how spoiled you are . . . Why when I was your age we were lucky if we got anything for Christmas.”

I laugh when I think about it now. At the time, however, my grandfather’s commentary was a bit annoying. It was as if he was appointed the role of Scrooge. But, as I would discover growing up, he was right. And he was very much more like Santa, instead.

We were lucky, too, that we got anything for Christmas—much less all that we were blessed with. The first Christmas we spent after my parent’s divorce, I was five and my brother three, was with those grandparents. My mother couldn’t afford to get us anything for Christmas so, I believe, my grandparents did.

That morning we were finally allowed to get out of bed to find a virtual city of Hot Wheels and nearly the entire He-Man collection—with both the castle of Grayskull and He-Man’s castle. As my brother and I opened our gifts and played with them, my grandfather sat in his customary spot at the dining room table smoking a cigarette. That morning, however, I don’t believe he had anything to say about our Christmas fortunes.

Instead, as I recall, he just sat at the end of the table staring ahead and watching us occasionally with little expression. As I have come to know him now, however, I can almost guarantee that beyond that expressionless exterior was a man filled with pride, his heart swelled, with the joy that those Christmas surprises brought us. I don’t know why when I think about that Christmas morning the only person I can remember is my grandfather. Perhaps that is reason.

The next Christmas, my mother found herself in the same hopeless position. She told me years later: a couple weeks before Christmas she sat at her desk, working for an after-hours answering service, and cried because she had nothing to give us. Apparently this caught the attention of her boss and a couple co-workers. As she tells it, these people volunteered to give her kids a Christmas. They didn’t have to; they wanted to. They would take nothing in return.

I remember that being one of the best Christmas mornings I have ever had.

My mother believes Christmas is entirely about giving. Looking back, I can understand why. Her boss told her that year: “Don’t worry about paying me back; someday you can do the same for someone else.” To the best of her ability, I know she has.

And those weren’t the only hard years. Though my stepfather probably would rather I didn’t know, my mother tells me one Christmas he pawned a few of his most valued possessions so that he could afford to buy us Christmas. Another year he borrowed from a loan shark. That was probably not the most astute financial decision.

Needless to say, however, my brother and I very rarely went without. I suppose that is one reason why, at the age of 26, I am beginning to feel some guilt at not yet having “Paid It Forward.” I just don’t give enough; I just don’t have enough to give. I look forward to the day when I will.

People have commented before on my unabashed conservativeness and assumed that “conservative” equals “heartless.” If that were true then one could assume every liberal were a bastion of compassion and giving. I know that is not true either when I can watch a Hollywood star on a primetime news show, plugging his new movie while lamenting the fact that the government doesn’t want to take more of his money to give to the poor. Yet, I don’t see him offering to take that money, which by his own admission he is not entitled, and give it directly to the poor and needy himself.

No. Politics is politics. What’s in a man’s heart is another matter altogether. There is no better time for giving us a better glimpse into this reality than Christmas. That is one reason “The Christmas Carol” is such a timeless classic. Nearly everyone has a little Scrooge but what becomes of that Scrooge during the Holidays is most important.

And, just as the Scrooge can come in all shapes, sizes and political affiliations, so can the Santa in us. If you want an example of this: pay attention to who rings the bells for the Salvation Army. (Just don’t look for them at Target anymore.)

As for me, this will be my wife’s first Christmas away from family. She is a CNA at a local nursing home and she will be working Christmas eve and Christmas day. So my first priority is to attempt making her day better. I have plans to don a Santa cap on Christmas day and spend it with the elderly residents in her care. Instead of lying lazily around a house littered with shreds of wrapping paper and filled with the smell of a Christmas turkey, we will be with those who also are without family.

I will bring my Bible and read the story of Christ’s birth to whoever will listen. I also plan to hopefully get a copy of “The Night Before Christmas” to share. And the rest of the time I will sit with these people in front of a television playing TNT’s 24 hours of “A Christmas Story” while simply enjoying the day in an unconventional way.

“Deck da hars wif bows of horry. Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra. Tis da season to be jorry. Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra.”

Thank you to all the people in my life who have taught me what Christmas is about.

It should be a nice Christmas, indeed.


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