When I was a child, the Christmas season hummed with the jingle of bells, the music of carols, the bustling excitement of anticipation. Weeks and weeks led up to that single magical morning when you would open gifts, things you hoped for, but never thought you would actually get.
Growing up in a lower middle class family, I was used to clothes that were cost effective, things that were well made but not flashy, nothing brand name, nothing more than what you needed.
Still, this was a privileged childhood.
For me, the joy of Christmas comes from one particularly special memory--it was the Christmas of 1980. As I said, we were used to hand-me-downs from neighbors, generic toys that were knock-offs from the ones in the commercials, stuffed animals and socks and underwear and essential things. But, that Christmas, when I crept downstairs and tore the paper off the boxes, I found things that I had ached to own. The world was abuzz with Star Wars. All of my friends had Star Wars figures, spaceships, t-shirts. And, there, in my hands, was the Millennium Falcon, one of the largest ships. Next, I found Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2D2, Obi-wan Kenobi--they were mine! I held the power of those films in my own small hands. I could create my own stories, these figures feeding my voracious imagination. Whenever I think of a childhood Christmas morning, this is the one that comes to mind. It was one of first times that I had wanted something so badly and actually received it.
My Grandpa White made Christmas other-worldly. To me, part of the holiday was just listening to his "radio announcer" voice tell tales of Santa and the North Pole--his eyes twinkling. I never really "believed" in Santa Claus per se. My parents never perpetuated the myth. We attended church, sang the hymns, and ours was a small house. I had a grate in my floor where I could peek down into the living room. I had seen my father in his briefs setting out presents once. Mostly, I humored by Grandpa White because he seemed to believe in Santa and reindeer with such a childlike wonder. You couldn't help but be swept up, too. Grandma and Grandpa White's house gonged with the chimes of dozens of clocks. Burl Ives, Andy Williams, Ed Ames, and all of the classic Christmas songs spun on their large record-player that was the size of a hope chest. The house smelled like ham, potatoes, apple pie. Grandma would fill up a huge crystal bowl with Hawaiian Punch and Sprite. We used ladles and fancy glass cups. We munched on peanuts, crackers and cheese. They would have their fireplace blazing. Much of the magic of my childhood Christmases comes from these memories.
But, the reverence for Christmas and the sacredness of its celebration comes from quieter moments. For several years, my family--the cold wintry winds blowing outside--sat in our darkened living room, illuminated only by the glow of the Christmas tree and the flickering candle on our coffee table. We knelt by the table and read the Gospel of Luke and the account of Jesus' birth. These words were poetic, simple--the humble human birth of a god whose love for his creation was so intense that he shared our skin, our appetites, our desires, and our weaknesses. Maybe my dad read it, or Mom, or Matt. I don't remember, but few moments have felt as holy because it was so entirely authentic. Not the empty commercialism. We were Christians worshipping our savior in the stillness of our living room.
What do you want for Christmas?
I have been blessed with the financial ability to buy the things I need, or want. Material things don't mean much to me. These days, the gifts I truly want are not presents at all.
This is why I have started telling people to give the money they would've spent to a charity of their choice. Give it in my name, your name, in the name for a cherished friend or family member who has been lost. Give that money to a shelter, a hospice, a hospital, whatever cause is most meaningful to your heart.
What I want for Christmas is for people who did not need have the privileges of my childhood to have full bellies, arms wrapped around them in love, shoes, the excitement of a desired toy, to feel the warmth of someone who cares. What I want for Christmas is what I want all year long--to share the joy, magic, and reverence of this celebration with those who need it most.