With Christmas just a few days away, I find myself reflecting upon how the holiday’s meaning has changed for me through the years. Personally, Christmas has never been about religion. I started as a Roman Catholic, converted to Methodist over 20 years ago, and now call myself a “transcendental deist” (an invented term for my spiritual identity). When I think of Christmas, it’s not so much about the baby Jesus, but more in the context of spending time with friends and family.
As a child, when we lived in the projects in Brooklyn, an open house at Christmas meant exactly that: the door to our little apartment was wide open to family and friends—literally! My dad had a spinet piano (I have no idea where it came from—or where it went when we moved out of the city), and he would play Christmas carols for hours on end, while neighbors would drop in for a “high ball” and a song.
My mom and dad are long gone, but not my memories of them. I’ll never forget all the trouble they went to in their efforts to surprise my brother and me at Christmas. Their spirits will always be with me. Somehow, they always managed to make us happy, whether it was with a special gift that we had asked Santa for, or by allowing us to stay up past our bedtime to watch I Remember Mama and the episode about the barn animals that talked on Christmas Eve.
Later, as a father myself, I recall tromping up and down the stairs and down the hallway to my young sons’ bedrooms, shaking sleigh bells and shouting “Ho ho ho,” in my best Santa impression, then playing dumb the following morning when I asked if anyone had heard anything unusual in the night.
One Christmas, as the president of our local Chamber of Commerce, I dressed as Santa and sat in the park and listened while neighborhood children told me what they wanted for Christmas. My wife brought my two sons to see me, and they sat on my knee and told me what they wanted without ever suspecting that the right jolly old elf was me. Years later I revealed the truth and we all had a good laugh.
This Christmas will be different still. My granddaughter is three and fully aware of the secular significance of the holiday. I can’t wait to see her reaction as she opens all the presents she will receive. I got such a kick as my wife and I shopped for her gifts. Imagine me, the ultimate “jock,” selecting a super feminine winter coat for my little granddaughter. Times sure have changed. Next Christmas we’ll have a second granddaughter, and things will take another turn. And so it goes.
There is another aspect of Christmas that is at once comforting and dismaying: it’s that of growing older. If we’re lucky, our family has grown through the years and we look forward to spending the holiday with them. However, some of my friends are older than I am, and have lost their mates recently. They find themselves alone and vulnerable for the first time at this emotional holiday season. Others are in poor health and unable to travel to be with family. I’m sure many of you are in a similar situation. Aside from the traditional celebration of the Christmas holiday, I urge everyone to open their hearts and to think of those less fortunate. Invite a widow or widower who is alone to join your family on Christmas Eve. Or call an old friend who has fallen upon hard times and wish him or her a Merry Christmas. It’s not all about gifts under the tree, or enjoying a big dinner. It’s about humanity and loving one another. That’s the true meaning of Christmas. And that’s just the way it ought to be.
Merry Christmas, everyone, and a healthy and happy New Year.