By Joey Kennedy
December is here, so it’s time for a Christmas column. I know, it’s cliché, but c’mon, Christmas dominates December. Heck, it dominates most of November. Still, these are the hardest columns for me to write. I made a lot of false starts on this one.
It’s not because I had lousy Christmases as a kid. I had great Christmases, and Santa usually brought what I asked for. I even got a Daisy BB gun one Christmas, similar to the one Ralphie got in A Christmas Story. I promptly shot my younger sister in the neck with it. I was aiming for her eye. I lost the BB gun for that, but only for a week. I sometimes didn’t understand my parents.
No, these columns are hard because I hate what Christmas has become. Christmas has become as partisan as a political party. This season, like most in recent years, there’s the inevitable “War on Christmas” under way. The spark this year is that Starbucks is serving lattes in plain red cups. There is no “Merry Christmas” on the cups. No reindeer. No snowflakes. No Christmas tree. Just a plain red cup. It’s war, I tell you.
Is Christmas really that fragile? There is always something, though: Saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is wrong. Or not having a Crèche at City Hall is abominable. Really? There still are Crèches in many thousands of front yards around Birmingham and across the country. My favorites are the ones that include Santa Claus along with Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men, and Baby Jesus.
I think writing about Christmas is hard because the Christmas season is conflicted for my wife and me. And certainly many others, too. Oh, we like giving (and receiving) gifts and Christmas cards. We sometimes decorate the house. We like Christmas music and midnight church services.
Still, Christmas is a sad time for us. Veronica’s father died on Dec. 11, 1985. He was a fine man and died far too soon. A veteran of World War II, Norman Pike would not talk about his service in the Army in Europe. He only said he was a cook. My father-in-law came back from the war with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Norman must have been quite the cook. Even so, Norman had a gentle soul; he once cried when his pet hamster, Stanley, died. I so wish I had known him better; Christmas reminds me that I didn’t.
We also remember my mother’s last Christmas, in 1996. She had bone cancer, metastasized from breast cancer. I was going to spend that Christmas with her in Houston, where she lived. The Friday I was to fly out from Birmingham, I felt tightness in my chest and a pain radiating down my arm. I told Veronica I needed to stop by the hospital on the way to the airport, just to check my vitals.
That was a mistake. I immediately was taken to the back of the emergency room, then admitted to the hospital. I wasn’t having a heart attack, but my blood pressure had spiked, and the doctors wanted to do a heart cath. On Monday, two days before Christmas. That Friday night, after missing my flight, my mother phoned me in my hospital room.
“What are you doing in the hospital?” she asked. “I’m the sick one.” And she was. Very sick. But her voice that night was mama-strong, her humor intact. She died the following February after giving a good fight.
I never enter Christmas season without thinking about missing what we knew was to be my mom’s last Christmas. I never enter a day without missing my mom. I never think about my father-in-law without wondering exactly what Norman did in World War II.
I got out of the hospital with a clean bill of health that Christmas Eve morning. It was just stress, the doctors told me. Veronica and I kept our yearly tradition of driving around to look at the Christmas lights that night. We also looked for Crèches that included Santa Claus. I don’t remember if we found one, but we usually do.
I think I may like that best about Christmas. The lights. They’re bright and welcoming. They are, I don’t know, optimistic. And though some people really do include Santa and a few reindeer in their Crèches, they do, at least, acknowledge the reason for the season.
It’s not about the plain red cups at Starbucks. Or saying “Happy Holidays.” Or, my goodness, even presents and cards. There is no “War on Christmas.” Just look around: the lights, the trees, the shopping, the gift giving and receiving, the food, the music and, yes, Santa Claus. If there is a war, Christmas is winning big.
For Christians, the season should be about acknowledging Christ’s birth, but we should never force that on those who believe differently. And, so, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.