Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Christmas Means to Me

Christmas is a powerful and important time of year for me.

I was raised in a Southern Baptist household that always placed importance on the significance that Christianity attached to Christmas. Despite a bumpy spiritual path, I still identify as Christian and will always hold those trappings in a very high esteem, as well as passing them down to my son. He knows the story of Jesus’ birth and his significance in culture and I think that those things are very important, regardless of how he sees fit to interpret them over the course of his life.

Regardless of how much I might or might not go to church over the course of a year, much of the magic that Christmas holds for me comes from that spiritual side.

There’s also a more human spiritual side to Christmas. The ideas that it is a time for family, for love, and for selflessness of one degree or another. It’s also a time for reflection. Many of the elements of Christmas lend themselves to a certain amount of introspection and self-examination. Having been brought up with Santa Claus, I can’t help but start thinking about the Naughty and Nice lists this time of year, despite the fact that I am too old for Saint Nick to bring me presents.

Have I helped others? Have I been the best father I can be? Have I been the best husband? Have others benefitted from knowing me and have I created meaningful relationships not just with others, but between others? Am I, in my own little ways, progressing the growth and connections of humanity? After all, even if it is only in small increments, if we all end up friends doesn’t that start to break down barriers and bring an understanding of differences?

I talk to lots of different people that believe different things from me. I think many of them are entirely wrong about a lot of the things they believe. But they believe them for the right reasons, and I never would have known that without talking to them and getting to know them. And we’re all human, so there’s always common ground.

Have I shared common ground with enough people?

The answer to all of those things is, of course, “No – not enough”. I haven’t taken every opportunity and I haven’t been as tolerant as I could be. But this is the time of year to think about those things and be conscious of who we are and how we might affect other people’s lives. I’m not saying you have to go around bringing joy to everyone you meet – that would be exhausting – but we could try not to bring misery. I think that’s enough, much of the time.
With all of that being said, I also want to talk about Christmas presents. Because Christmas presents are AWESOME.

While all of the spiritual stuff helped to make Christmas a special time of year unlike any other, I’d be lying if I said that anything other than presents was the best thing about Christmas.

All of my fondest toy memories have their roots on December 25th of varying years. Megos, the Millennium Falcon, the USS Flagg, the Ewok Village, and countless others came from that incredible day. Nothing in my young life matched the joy of being with my family and having my mind blown by whatever Jolly Old Saint Nick had left under the tree.

The day would start with me (or later my sister) waking my parents up at the crack of dawn, barely able to contain my excitement. I still remember that feeling of practically vibrating with joy and expectation. And the ritual was always the same – Dad would get his camera (or later video camera) and go downstairs to turn on the lights and some Christmas music. 
Eventually he would call upstairs. Sometimes, “Well, I don’t see anything down here” and sometimes “I don’t remember you being this good this year”. But always some little quip that would fill me with fear and make my heart skip a beat. Had Santa really left nothing? Had I been bad?

But of course, every year I would run down the stairs and discover a veritable Scrooge McDuck Money Bin of toys, books, clothes, and whatever else. Those first early hours of the day would always be about discovering the loot left by Santa while Mom and Dad looked on, drinking coffee and “oohing” and “aahing”.

After we had taken in as much of the magic as we needed, we would all eat the breakfast Mom had cooked- often a good old country breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits, and grits. It was so hard to sit there and eat like a normal person while knowing that TIE Fighters needed to be assembled and Nintendo Entertainment System games needed to be tried. And also knowing that there was more to come.

The stockings were next. Every year on Christmas Eve we hung our stockings by the chimney (with care). The next morning they would be moved to some other locale and filled – often to overflowing – with the smaller stuff . Candy, Kronoform watches, Turtles gift tokens, and all manner of tchotchke that was deliriously fun to discover but that would be forgotten by the next day more often than not. Oh, and batteries. Everyone always got batteries.

I would always divide my stocking loot up into “actual toys/useful items” and “other”.
After the stocking it was time for the family gifts, which for me were almost as exciting as Santa because not only did I get even more stuff, I got to see how everyone reacted to the gifts I had gotten for them (or that Dad/Mom had picked out). There was ritual here, too. One of us would distribute the various gifts – from our immediate family, as well as aunts, uncles, family friends - while the others took up positions throughout the living room. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sitting there closely observing the relative size of everyone else’s presents and accumulated piles.

Once everything was properly distributed, we’d take turns unwrapping. Granny, Papaw, Mom, Dad, my sister, and me would each pay the proper respects to every new gift revealed, while our dog, Sam, would gleefully chase the wrapping paper that we wadded up and threw around the room.

I never had happier days with my family. Admittedly, a lot of it was about the presents, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that it was about us being together and sharing joy.

And then I got older and things changed. Eventually you get to that age where Santa stops coming. You question your parents. You are mostly annoyed by your family. Very little from your childhood makes sense anymore because the real world is slowly sucking away your sense of wonder and your ability to experience pure joy. Those teenage and young adult years could be hard, but around Christmas I always found a way to make it special. Whether I was alone or trying in vain to make someone else happy, it was always the time of year to do the stuff I wrote about in those opening paragraphs.

And now it is once again a time for family. Now I am the one that gets the camera and is the first downstairs. Now I am the one looking for opportunities to create joy and surprises. Now I am – as grandiose as it may sound – the one with the responsibility to keep Christmas special. And doing that brings me joy greater than any I have ever known (even greater than the USS Flagg; sacrilege, I know).

Sometimes and some years it is harder than others. And I look ahead knowing that we have precious few Christmases remaining for Santa visits. Just the thought of that is almost too much to bear. But on Christmas morning, we will all be together and we will celebrate our love and our hope for the future (and we will open a ton of presents).

Whatever your beliefs may be, I hope each and every one of you can find and make your own kind of joy this year.

Merry Christmas, everyone.