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Saturday, Apr. 19, 2014

Christmas past, Christmas present

Friday, December 21, 2012

(Photo)
SHEILA HARRIS
To say I've always been ambivalent about Christmas is an understatement. While throngs of people worship fervently at the altar of Christmas tradition, I've joined in somewhat reluctantly, always of two minds.

During childhood, I was raised in a home where, for religious reasons, Christmas was not celebrated. No, we weren't Jewish, nor Jehovah's Witnesses, nor even Pagans. Just circumspect Biblical literalists. Since no mention was made in the Bible of the actual date of the birth of Christ, it seemed wrong to make a hoopla out of it. So we didn't. We didn't put up a tree, nor participate in any of the other traditions that most people hold up as important. I never felt deprived, just a little different. But that was okay.

When I married at age 20, though, I married into a family that went truly overboard to the opposite extreme. Christmas was celebrated with religious gusto, with every bit as much zeal as my family did not put into it. At first, it was new and exciting, and I joined in their family traditions wholeheartedly.

Enjoying the novelty of giving and receiving mass quantities of gifts, I blithely went along with the celebration of what I didn't really believe was the day of Jesus' birth.

A fly crept into the ointment, though, when, right after his 13th birthday, a gangly blonde-haired boy named Ilia came to live with us for a time and immediately staked a claim in our hearts. Still in the throes of economic difficulty after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both money and food were in short supply in his hometown of Archangel, on the northern coast of Russia. His family had sent him to the United States on a student visa, hoping to follow him shortly afterward. Andrei, his father, was the first to arrive, just in time for Christmas.

Andrei went with my family and Ilia to my in-laws for our traditional holiday gathering with its usual bounty of food and super abundance of gifts. I have always appreciated my in-laws' generosity, but for some reason, that day I was stricken with remorse.

The look on Andrei's face spoke volumes as he watched my children and his son open the mountains of gifts they had received. Without command of the English to communicate his thoughts, even if he would have, it seemed to me he was thinking of his wife and younger son waiting in Russia for their turn to come to this land of abundance --waiting, subsisting on the cabbage and beets that were the only vegetables to be had in the dead of winter in Russia, where one Christmas gift was considered a treat, and more than one, a wasteful extravagance.

I afterward determined to be a non-participant in what I perceived to be the almost obscene material gluttony of the season, deciding instead to channel my portion to those who were truly in need. Unfortunately, my lofty goals fell somewhat short of my intentions. However, much to the chagrin of my husband, I did bow out of any sense of obligation toward celebrating the season, something easily done because it had never been an ingrained part of my childhood.

As a matter of course, marital culture wars soon ensued. In a sitcom they might have been considered comical, but in reality, they were deadly -- deadly to the spirit of love that ultimately was God's gift to man in the form of the Christ child.

Many years later, with my marriage dissolved and a 10-year-old grandson I would give my life for, I finally realized the importance of a tradition I have often scorned. Although we may not know the literal date of Jesus' birth, when we gather as friends and family, His spirit is present -- a spirit of love that the Bible declares to be God.

The bonds of love are not easily broken. The more often we strengthen them, the better off this world would be, whether it's during the Christmas season, Hanukkah, the Fourth of July, or over Sunday dinner.

God bless all of you and may your Christmas be filled with the wonder of His love!

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