The wind blew slightly and there was no snow but there could have been. The foggy, wet night was heavy, rising only enough to halo the light of the dim street lights.
The car sputtered. And died. And I watched as Dad sprinted up the hill that I knew only from daylight walks coming home from school. I knew how far he had to go to get to our house.
He’d left me with instructions.
“Help your brother see if he sees Santa. It won’t take me long at all. Don’t worry, Jan.”
My 3 year old brother who was six years younger than me, huddled up against my side and I was busy entertaining him with the possibility of seeing or maybe hearing evidence of a sleigh in the night sky. I, of course, had long released that childhood indulgence but Neil was my heart and I did my best. I held him close to me and told him I was certain I heard real jingling which had to be Santa. I told him I was certain he was on his way to our house.
The cold kept creeping into the car and I held him tighter.
I don’t recall any fear in this memory. Certainly not that kind of scared when you are little and you know that even the slightest movement will release the horrible thing that occupies the space under your bed, sometimes your closet, and your only recourse is stillness and itchy sweat until the sun comes up. (At which moment, apparently the horrible being evaporates into the light of a child’s good day.)
I do know that in the way that a child counts time, (you know when summers are endless and the years don’t speed by like they do now,) it seemed like it had been longer than I expected it to be.
This was yet another attempt of our family to do Christmas, which was always difficult. There are lots of reasons Dad had trouble with the holiday and none of them had to do with the actual reason we celebrate. He hadn’t stopped drinking at the point of this story but even after he was sober, Christmas was hard for him. As a switchman who worked nights and frequently most holidays (double time and a half you know) it was a convenient reality to be gone. The workaround this year was to have Christmas on the eve. Dad had gotten us out of the house, so Santa could visit, and he could go to work once the unwrapping was done.
I actually don’t remember much about what ‘Santa’s visit’ produced, certainly nothing about the gifts. What I do remember which is as clear in my head as if it was yesterday and not half a century ago, was the surety that I knew Dad would be back. Even with the truth that I was alone, in the dark, and in charge of another being, everything would be fine. I had to just wait and trust. And let my brother feel the spirit that might be embodied in Santa at his age. (Which is really just the run-up to understanding real gifting.)
Despite the slightly disturbing slowness of child time, my heart was intent on my brother’s Christmas that night.
Over the decades that I have taken out this memory and considered it. I like that I can recall it like it was yesterday. Because the spirit of Christmas is not so much like the specials we binge watch but more a growing library over our lifetime of memories that prove that love and joy are part of unlikely understandings that stem often from even more unlikely events. No matter whether we are 10 or 100, witnessing the true spirit of Christmas, is magical… with the potential to prosper in exponential ways.
I came home three days ago, late from work, and when I pulled up to the house, all over my home that has harbored its fair share of difficulties and tragedies and difficult holidays, were Christmas lights, red and white. Completely to my surprise with no expectation whatsoever, my sons had decorated, the two of them hanging and discussing and purchasing. Using the newest plastic imports from China in bulbs that look vintage but aren’t and plastic hooks that hold them in clever ways, they had it accomplished and it was lit and pretty for my arrival.
It really didn’t take much reflection at my age to recognize the Christmas joy in their efforts. Or the desire to gift it to someone they love. I stood in the street and gentle tears of thankfulness gave witness to what their efforts have permanently written on the walls of my heart this year of 2021. It reminded me so much of the unlimited expectation for Christmas joy that is natural for children, but we lose as adults.
But not this year…
I love you John and Josh.
Just in case you are interested, the last Hall of Reason offered at the Lanier Theological Library for 2021 was ‘Christmas Mental Health Hacks’, go HERE for the PPT which isn’t perfectly rendered in YouTube, but you will get the idea!