First ran Sunday, December 13, 2020 in The Times and The News-Star.
What is your first Christmas memory?, as memory must have some beginning, right?
For me it’s training wheels, age 4. I could take you to the spot where I stood holding them in my hands, anxious for them to be on a bike that, as yet, had not been tamed.
I remember magic sets and footballs and race tracks. Christmas cold and Christmas warm and Christmas wet. I can see faces of my family, different ages as we grew, scenes around the table with grandmothers and a grandfather, aunts and uncles.
And then an older Christmas in my early 20s, a sad season in the life of my family, and me and my mom and baby sister are back in Carolina where we grew up, and an ice storm was our Christmas morning gift. Instead of sleeping next door in the house I grew up in, I am sleeping upstairs in the neighbors’ home, where a wonderful family of a dozen-plus lived, and we spent the morning going from farm to farm, holding burners to spigots to thaw them so pigs and horses and cattle could be watered, and I’m freezing and shivering and smiling and thinking, “One of the best Christmases ever.” And it was.
Some of my favorite Christmas stories are written. Was reminded this week of A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Easy to find online, Capote is the kid in the story, just 7, living in Alabama with an elderly female cousin and their dog Queenie. It’s an autobiographical telling of their final Christmas together. His cousin wakes up one December morning and declares it to be “fruitcake weather,” so they gather what they need—including whiskey from a mysterious Indian in town—and bake 30 for friends.
Of course they have no money and end up giving each other kites, which they fly into a Christmas morning sky, blue and chill. Beautifully written in 1956 and set in the 1930s, it’s about the joy of the season, about giving, but it’s also about loss and fate and the reality of loneliness.
Every December I read A Return to Christmases Gone by Willie Morris, the late and great Mississippi writer, a contemporary of Capote’s. (The story is one of six essays in his book Homecomings; you’ll love Mitch and the Infield Rule too.) It’s the mid-’80 and Willie is living in New York and having a drink at a bar in late December when he overhears a cutthroat business conversation. His family has long since passed away—they are in a crumbling graveyard on a hill in Jackson and in the cemetery in Yazoo City or, in the case of his dog, Old Skip, in the backyard of his boyhood home. But the bitterness of what he hears, in such contrast to the meaning of Christmas, quickly sends him home to Mississippi.
On Christmas Day he drives from his boyhood home in Yazoo City to Jackson, the trip he made every December with his mom and dad and Old Skip. (Willie was an only child; Old Skip was an only dog.) Those two would tumble out of the car in Jackson and head for hugs from his Grandmother Mamie, his Grandfather Percy, his two old great aunts, Maggie and Susie, born during the Civil War.
“Only I remain,” he writes, “and on Christmases now, far away from home, I remember them.”
He brings roses to them all. You must read it.
Again, it’s easy to find online, as is O. Henry’s classic from 1905, The Gift of the Magi, about a young couple with little money and their struggle to buy gifts for each other. In a famous O. Henry twist, they realize after offering their gifts that their sacrifices show how priceless and treasured their love for each other is.
Great stories. Wonderful, poignant, priceless stories. But …
Then there is the original Christmas story, the one Linus recites for us each year on A Charlie Brown Christmas, the one read in places of worship across the world on Christmas Eve and in homes on Christmas morning, the one about Mary and Joseph, the ox and lamb, the shepherds, the manger, a son’s birth, and swaddling clothes. It’s The Story of the original Christmas gift.
I heard pastor and author Anthony Delaney of Manchester, England recently share a sermon outline from the 11th verse of Luke, Chapter 2. In the King James Version, it reads like this:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”
What’s given to mankind that night in Bethlehem is a gift that’s practical, a “Savior.” Each of us needs one to save us from our very human condition.
The gift is purchased. It didn’t cost us anything, but it costs the Deity a great deal.
It’s a permanent gift, given by an Eternal creator.
And it’s a personal gift. “For unto you is born …”
It’s the story—and the gift—that keeps on giving.