Saturday, December 24, 2011
Christmas: Its Bittersweet Memories And Its Meaning
It's Christmas, a joyous time of the year.
And I see dead people.
They are all around me and they are here to celebrate Christmas with me.
I turn on the TV and Jimmy Stewart is racing down Main Street in Bedford Falls hoping to escape the confines of a small town but knowing that he never will.
And Alastair Sim, the quintessential Scrooge, is grimacing in the classic black-and-white version of everyone's favorite Christmas tale.
And in living color I still see Judy Garland and Bing Crosby and Perry Como and Dinah Shore and Andy Williams singing Christmas songs. Judy's still full of pathos as she tenderly sings Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.
Jack Benny is here too and so is Lucy in a tender episode that ends with two Santas where there should be only one. One of the Santas is clearly Fred (William Frawley) but who's that other guy?
And when I turn on the radio I hear Christmas carols by Luciano Pavarotti and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Mahalia Jackson and Mario Lanza.
On You Tube I watch President Reagan deliver a Christmas message from the White House. The President is warm and reassuring and he speaks confidently of faith in God and our Judeo-Christian heritage.
My mind tumbles back to the gritty, industrial city that I grew up in -- a riverfront city that didn't realize back then that its glory days were already behind it. It's a bleak, damp, gray December day but I'm warm and secure in the confines of my father's old Plymouth as we rush from place to place through narrow city streets marked by row houses and the occasional corner store.
We don't speak very much but I'm so happy to be with him. He's making lots of stops, picking up small treats and gifts from a variety of friends and businesspeople for whom he may have done odd jobs during the year. Whatever he manages to gather will help to make our Christmas a bit happier.
Even in the run up to Christmas, he's a tough negotiator. He barters with merchants and grocers. as he tries to select just the right provisions for our Christmas feast.
He maneuvers through and around streets, neighborhoods and landmarks with the swiftness of a true native.
His energy fills the room wherever he goes. He's not a big guy but he makes a huge impact. And I know that as long as I'm by his side, no harm can come to me.
On Christmas eve aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors come and go as the all-night feast of the fishes drifts into the wee hours of Christmas day.
On Christmas morning the uncles begin their ritual home visitations, gathering more participants as they move from house to house. Loud, boisterous and well-lubricated, they pass out silver dollars to the children. These will be accepted as treasured tokens and saved in a safe place.
Through it all I see my mother, full of wry wit, optimism and just a the right perspective on the whole panoply. She's got a sharp eye and she's a great mimic as she jokes about people, places and personalities.
If you press her, she may even remember some of the people from her own earlier Christmases but she'd rather dwell in the present. She's very much about her own family, right here, right now.
Of course, now I understand why she took that approach.
As you get older, this is what happens.
Christmas isn't totally joyous. It isn't always candy canes and sugar plums.
So many Christmas memories; so many Christmases past.
Christmas with dead people is bittersweet.
Not to worry, though.
The memories are good. And the sights, sounds and glad tidings live within me.
Plus, at this time of year all of these people seem to come alive once again -- alive in a very special way. They are with me. They are part of me. And I treasure them.
And I suppose that's one of the lessons of Christmas: Let all the people and the events and the memories of the Christmases past deepen and enrich your understanding of this wonderful holiday. Savor it all.
Bring them along with you. Let them walk by your side. Be strengthened by their presence and pass on what you know, who you are, how you feel, what you have learned.
And be proud, strong and tender -- especially for the children who watch you more closely now than at any other time of the year.
In that way, you'll keep the true spirit of Christmas.