Dear Van, Kit, Elliott and Lizzie:
If I were to write you all a heartfelt Christmas message explaining what this special holiday means to me, I would compose the following, hoping that each of you would form your own thoughts. Here I go:
As Christmas approaches and the vision of gifts dances in your heads, I hope I can express my emotions in a way that makes sense to you. This holy occasion means different things to different people.
Forty-four years ago, I celebrated my very first family Christmas. Raised in the Jewish tradition, I knew vaguely about trees, wreaths, songs and mirth. I didn’t understand the real meaning. I had been a distant observer.
Then, I was thrust into a celebration with religious and cultural overtones. Despite my upbringing, I loved the vibrancy and family warmth.
The most important lesson learned early on was the special component of family. I watched, Van and Kit, with interest and admiration as your great-grandfather read the Nativity story in the Bible (in the Gospel according to Luke) to your mother Kate. She listened intently and even asked her Pop-Pop a few questions. He answered patiently, as he always did. Kate was just so attentive sitting by her grandfather’s side, as you can see from the photograph.
As I watched, knowing it once had been your Nana absorbing the Nativity story read to her by Pop-Pop, I marveled at the touching aspects of family. A meaningful tradition was taking place before my eyes.
Your great-grandfather, whom only one of you met as he was dying at Hospice House in Easton, exemplified for this newcomer the role of love and spiritual belief during celebration of a holiday often overtaken by gifts and retail sales.
Your great-grandfather was a World War II veteran raised during the Great Depression in the 1930s. His faith was important to him. His family was his rock.
The value of family cannot be measured. It’s incalculable. In 1990, when I was in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, I celebrated Christmas in the desert. While I reveled in the resilient goodwill of Maryland National Guard soldiers, I felt a void created by the absence of my family. I was not alone in that feeling.
Adding to the difficulty of celebrating Christmas in a faraway locale, American soldiers had to cope without trees and decorations in deference to a totally different religious culture. I understood the restriction. I didn’t like it.
Can you imagine no tree, no decorations, no songs—and, yes, no gifts? We still made it special simply by being together and sharing stories and humor. Our Christmas meal was an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). It was just bearable.
I learned during those initial Christmases with your great-grandparents that this universal holiday is really about children. This observation is not very profound. At this point, you’re probably saying “Duh, of course it is.” Recipients of most of the gifts, children like you feel the impact of generosity. Gifts represent a material act of giving and receiving
But wonderfully wrapped gifts topped by little notes don’t tell the whole story of Christmas. It is a time of charity, to care for, and about the less fortunate for whom gifts are minimal, sadly so.
Your grandmother Nana gives an anonymous gift every Christmas season. She doesn’t tell me the recipient. It’s her particularly godly mission. Her action embodies real charity; she expects no credit, nor gratitude.
I didn’t understand giving for giving’s sake till I opened my eyes to deprivation. That’s a big word that means lack of food, lack of warm clothing and sometimes lack of love that some families experience.
Wonderfully wrapped gifts topped by little notes don’t tell the whole story about Christmas. It is a time of charity, to care for, and about the less fortunate for whom gifts are minimal, sadly so.
I’ll stop here and resume this letter Monday, Dec. 23. I ‘ve got a little more to say.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.
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