I remember the shiny gloss of a purple-and-white J.C. Higgins bicycle at age 8. The next year was even better — a Lionel train whose sleek black engine puffed smoke and raced around the track pulling an orange boxcar, a silver tanker car and a bright red caboose. I would let out a cry, but secretly thrill, to see it fly off the tracks when I raced it around a curve at too high a speed.
We often had a white Christmas where I grew up, the yard carpeted with thick snow, icicles clinging to window frames, and my mother sowing the window sill with seeds for the birds. She would ring a little bell and call out “heeeere birdie boy” to summon her favorite bright red cardinal from the woods surrounding our house. All magical in a child’s mind.
I can even glimpse what Christmas was like for my mother when she was a little girl since her own mother wrote a letter on Christmas Day in 1907. She described a Christmas program of songs and recitations at the local school. They asked two boys what they wanted to be when they grew up. One said “a splendifferous lawyer” while the other boy said he was going to be “a preacher and preach as loud as I can.” Each of the 85 children in the program received a gift bag of candy, nuts and fruit.
Back at the family farm, the gifts included flannel shirts for the older boys, blocks and a picture book for my mother and a ladder wagon for her twin brother.
But work remained an integral part of farm life in 1907. The day before Christmas, the boys “shucked 23 shocks of corn,” and my grandmother ended her Christmas Day letter with “I must close and get to work. I want to wash windows this afternoon.” Less magical, but realistic.
Christmas can come with deep spiritual meaning for Christians while coexisting with a secular Santa and a gift-oriented holiday as well as with Hanukkah and other celebrations with deep spiritual meaning for those of other faiths. Having both a personalized and a generalized significance is part of Christmas magic. This magical facet of a Christmas that we all can share can be seen by what it is not — call it Christmas Opposite.
Christmas Opposite exists in a mean-spiritedness that would snuff out a Christmas candle. It is seen in its rawest forms in homeless refugees, the bombing of civilians and the literal slaughter of innocents, both here and abroad. Christmas Opposite exists in attitudes of taking rather than giving and in crude and uncivil discourse that’s unfortunately flourishing nowadays. Christmas Opposite would even steal Santa’s bag of toys and blacken Rudolph’s shiny red nose.
The magical generosity that pervades a genuine Christmas spirit was well described by a New York Sun editorial of 1897 in reply to a little girl’s question about the existence of Santa Claus.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ... The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. ... You can tear a baby’s rattle apart and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man … could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance can push aside the curtain and view … the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”
You have the Christmas spirit if you see a neighbor in need and help; if you hear the bell ringer’s call and give; or if the sight of a child in tattered clothes or an aged person in the hospital brings a tear to your eye. And you embody the Christmas spirit when you see people, even strangers, hungry and thirsty, scantily clothed and cold, sick, or in prison — and feed them, give them drink, clothe them and visit them.
The Christmas spirit is ageless, timeless, loving, giving and generous. It can be no other.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida. This article first appeared in The Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News on Dec. 21, 2016.