There are photos, lent to me by my aunt, of a time I can barely remember.
One of the black and white snapshots is of my twin brother, Mike, my younger brother, Jeff, and I, standing in front of the Christmas tree in the living room of our farmhouse.
In the photo, everything appears so, well, stark.
The house, still lived in by my mother today, is old. My grandparents used to live there when they owned the family farm. My uncle and my dad were both born in that house.
Today, it is quite comfortable, having been updated with new wall coverings, carpeting, furniture and the like.
The old photo reminds me that, during our early youth, my brothers and I lived in a place that had been stuck in time for years. There was no carpeting at all in the house back then, and the gray linoleum with its unique pattern of swirls in the living room shows up well in the photo.
My dad saved up his money and purchased and installed that flooring in the house when he was 16 as a gift to his mother.
The source of the "stark" atmosphere in the house may be simply from the flash of the camera making everything in the background fade in appearance.
All I know is my brothers and I are beaming in this photo. Who knows? Our faces may be aglow. It's hard to tell in the less than high quality black and white image.
There were gifts under the tree that had already been adequately inspected, weighed, and shaken by the three of us. There weren't a lot of presents, but anything was better than nothing.
Plus, as I'm sure you may recall as you think of Christmases past, the gifts eventually shrink in importance, pushed aside by the special night service at church, the getting to know the distant relative once again who always made it home for Christmas, the food, the music, the chatter, the laughter.
It's a nice place to start, when you think of it. There's something strangely reassuring when tradition and simplicity are two of the overpowering elements in one's earliest memories of Christmas.
This may be the Christmas when many families across the country are forced to find out just how much of the material Christmas they can leave behind.
It may be the one that redefines Christmas entirely — for better or worse.
If you look back at the photos of Christmas 50 years ago — not that long a time, really — you can see what a simple place it once was. What you wanted for Christmas was a very short list of possibilities, and what you got was usually the single most possible thing on the list, plus a few of the articles your mother thought you needed. The intent was the same as it is now, more or less, but the means were so much fewer.
In recent years, a floundering economy has been in direct conflict with what best can be described as Christmas Gone Wild, when large retail stores start decorating with tinsel and blinking lights right after Halloween.
You may be finding a way to a new and simpler Christmas this year – the only type of Christmas my brothers and I experienced way back in those wonder years.
And there may be some people – upon hearing the latest reports that Christmas spending seems to be up this year compared to a year or two ago when everything seemed so rocky – who perhaps fear the simplicity of it all will continue to disappear.
What it comes down to, perhaps, is saving Christmas from the idea that Christmas will save us — that the shopping we have done this season will keep the economy afloat or give us the buoyancy we need for the coming year.
But, really, Christmas needs no saving. It does not exist apart from what we make of it. And, on its own, it cannot save us, though it contains the gestures of generosity and thankfulness that are halfway to being a better person, a richer community.
Christmas is all the better for being a simple place, a reassurance of spiritual grounding, of the love of family, of the familiar comfort this special time never fails to bring.
Those important gifts – much more important than the ones gift-wrapped under the tree – are, when you think of it, presented to us every day.
The only difference is that today it feels like Christmas.
— This column first
appeared in the
Dec. 24, 2010, Plain Talk.