Because I was raised in a Christian home, we celebrated all the holidays originated by early or later Christians (some traditions actually co-opted from Pagans, such as the wonder of a bright decorated tree, and celebrating this near the Solstice). Christmas, following my December birthday, is still my favorite. Now that I’m less religious, and married to a wonderful yet non-religious Jew, we celebrate Chanukkah, too, and when I was more active with Sufi meetings, I celebrated the days of passing of Sufi saints, perceived to be the day when they became one with God. December 17 is that day for Jelaluddin Rumi, the renowned mystic poet.
I’ve been thinking back on a few Christmases. The first one which brings up quite vivid memories was 1955, when our small town, Yuba City, California, was about to be flooded on Christmas Eve.
My practical mother had been listening to the local news on our old 1940’s radio, and had packed our 1953 DeSoto with our gifts, a few clothes, blankets and pillows; maybe a couple of ancient canvas sleeping bags, one of which I used for summer camps years later. My dad had just died a little over a year before, so this season was already fraught with melancholy. I had recently recovered from a serious case of measles on my eighth birthday, when my high fever had made me delirious.
We slowly drove in a long line of other midnight evacuees to the even smaller town of Sutter, where we slept on the high school gym floor for a couple of nights, with a hundred or more other people, most of whom were farm laborers. Mother gave me a Disney Cinderella watch for Christmas, my first timepiece, which I left in the bathroom after washing my hands, and found upon going back to get it that someone else had decided it was her present. My vigilant mother saw that it was being worn on the wrist of an older deaf girl I’d befriended, who knew it was mine. I had thought we’d bonded over our disabilities, my polio leg making it pretty obvious what my problem was, and my new pal explaining to me, with phonetics I found fascinating, that she could not hear me. Mother spoke to the girl’s mom and retrieved the watch; I felt betrayed, but it was a lesson in watching my stuff and not assuming everyone had the same values as I did, and that poverty might cause people to do things I wouldn’t need to do.
The wife of my mother’s employee came looking for us and insisted that we stay in their home, our house having been damaged by a foot of water inside, and chastised my mother for not contacting them. Even at the age of eight, I thought it was peculiar that my mother was too proud to ask for help from someone she knew well, and would first rather put us on the floor of a huge public enclosure.
The Christmas before that, age seven, I’d realized that the printing or cursive on the gift tags reading, “To Miss Muffet (my childhood nickname) from Santa” were my mother’s handwriting. I didn’t tell her I’d figured this out for a couple of more years because she’d lost her husband just before I turned seven, and I didn’t want her to have yet another disappointment. (I was told by a therapist decades later that I had taken roles that were more like a parent’s than my mother sometimes took with me, managing her grief by putting aside my own traumatic loss of my affectionate father.)
Another Christmas brought joy and fellowship. Our neighbors down the block, Frankie and Alberta Nelson, learned that two families living near the paint store they owned had nothing with which to celebrate Christmas. They determined the names and ages of the children and canvassed our neighborhood for lightly used and new games, toys, and clothing, and the Nelsons bought Christmas turkey dinners and groceries for the families. We spent an evening or two at Frankie and Alberta’s wrapping, wrapping, wrapping, drinking hot cocoa, and having a great time. My mother was surprised I wanted to participate in this, but honestly, I’ve always been drawn to generosity of spirit. We were so elated to be giving something to people who were not as fortunate as we were. This was not initiated by any organization; we all belonged to different churches or none at all; it was just us neighbors pulling something meaningful together for people we didn’t know. Alberta said the mothers cried when she and Frankie arrived with boxes of food and gifts, with tags to the specific children.
These Christmases that stand out for me had little to do with the Terri Lee dolls I collected, or my cowgirl outfit, or even the Cinderella watch. The real gifts were not “stuff.”
The magic and memories of Christmas come from giving, taking care of others and ourselves, and being with people we love. The gifts of the Magi were really generosity, and perseverance in seeking inspiration, and the honoring of others who might have something to teach us.
Here’s the quote attributed to Jesus Christ with which I have always resonated, even as I became more of a universalist in my own spirituality:
“A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you; that you also love one another.”
I hope you will have opportunities to be generous in a variety of ways during these holidays.