Every year at this time we struggle through strident calls to recognize the true meaning of Christmas. There are protests of non-Christians and atheists against creches in public places and equally enraged protests of Christians defending the traditions of a Christian nation. Strident? Protests? Enraged? Is this the new, true meaning of Christmas? Have we reached a new low, below crass commercialism? To all of that I say, “Bah Humbug”.
It’s December 25, but my family isn’t celebrating with our Christmas traditions today, although we did start the day with a reading of this special Christmas story. We decided to wait another week until our son (who works at Best Buy in another State) can join us after the Christmas retail rush. How nice! A little extra time to relax and enjoy the season without the hoopla.
This little story isn’t mine. But it inspires me. I hope it will inspire you to think of Christmas differently, whether you are Christian, religious, spiritual . . . or not.
My advice: Don’t argue about what Christmas should mean. BE the meaning of Christmas. And, if you are reading this too late to plan to do something really nice this Christmas of 2011, don’t worry. You can be the meaning of Christmas today too. There is absolutely nothing stopping any of us from celebrating our very own spirit of Christmas today . . . or any day, just like our family decided to celebrate on a day other than the one everyone else is.
It’s just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past ten years or so.
It all began because my husband Mike hated Christmas- oh, not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it- overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry and the dusting powder for Grandma, the gifts given in desperation because you couldn’t think of anything else.
Knowing he felt this way, I decided one year to bypass the usual shirts, sweaters, ties and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.
Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended; and shortly before Christmas, there was a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and sparkling new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without head gear, a kind of light helmet designed to protect a wrestler’s ears.
It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn’t acknowledge defeat.
Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, “I wish just one of them could have won,” he said. “They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them.” Mike loved kids – all kids – and he knew them, having coached little league football, baseball and lacrosse. That’s when the idea for his present came.
That afternoon, I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling head gear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year and in succeeding years. For each Christmas, I followed the tradition, one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a hockey game, another year a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on.
The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents.
As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. The story doesn’t end there.
You see, we lost Mike last year due to dreaded cancer. When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree, and in the morning, it was joined by three more.
Each of our children, unbeknownst to the others, had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing to take down the envelope.
Mike’s spirit, like the Christmas spirit will always be with us.
Editor’s Note: This true story was originally published in the December 14,1982 issue of Woman’s Day magazine. It was the first place winner out of thousands of entries in the magazine’s “My Most Moving Holiday Tradition” contest in which readers were asked to share their favorite holiday tradition and the story behind it.