The Christmas Pageant

Hard to believe a quarter-century has passed. Each Christmas I wonder; where are all these folks now..?

I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids (including toddlers)  in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.

What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.

When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.

Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuvering room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.

My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about.  One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.

As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.

Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”?  he proposed to surprised looks around the table. “We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.

After a few moments and some surprised looks,  Barb asked, “Do you think anybody would mind?”

Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that quick, that simple.

The evening of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for pseudo-authentic manger atmosphere,  but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any of our frequently forgetful young actors.

Our Mary needed no such assistance.

Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, in her motorized wheelchair, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly Christmasmoving moment I remember vividly. It was a small space; looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger, I could see people wide-eyed, some dabbing their eyes.  Holy Communion Church also had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.

By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.

Sheri’s  family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.

‘And a little child shall lead them’.

 

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Photograph of Christmas Past

Some  years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa in suburban Minneapolis. As I was neither the natural size, age or type (nor naturally hirsute enough for the role) I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours – late morning, midday.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer,  brookdaleholiday2Jen. They, like me, were simply making some extra holiday cash, we were rookies, all. This particular day, we hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so, though we did a lot of  waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas’ to assorted passers-by, and took pictures of  each other. As the three of us chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a sight not really of the season: walking down the center of the mall was a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, middle-aged woman.

It quickly became obvious they were headed right for us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids. I watched the young Marine, who glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.brookdaleholiday1

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirpped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, as Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated. Unless you are a twenty-year old Marine.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave, and his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments: a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her only son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and, per what the young Marine told me, and what his mother shared with Susie and Jen, she wanted only one other thing in the world for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

The young Marine told the young women had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So thus began a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon, just the five of us: Susie, Jen, proud mom, Santa, and the Marine.

This was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat awkwardly but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously.

After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.”

I smiled, quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot. “Sorry about what?” I asked, robustly Santa-like.

brookdaleholiday4“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed.

I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it.

The scene played out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing-it-up and trying to help the guy out. After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine.“O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.”

He glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.”

He was loosening up a little, though that was countered a bit as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide; guess it’s not every day you see a Marine sitting on Santa’s lap. He smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-small talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.” which was a high school within walking distance of the mall.  I nodded, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked sports with the young man, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.). As his mom was paying Jen and newly Marine-smitten Susie (from the looks on the women in the crowd, she wasn’t the only one) finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine.

“Thank you, Santa, sir.” He said crisply, with just a hint of relief, in what I think was proper-holiday-Marine-etiquette.

Then, bag of pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd quickly dispersed.

To my understanding the young man was probably breaking protocol by wearing his dress blues in such a setting, but in the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to quite a few Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to dressbluehatlook at me   quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs’ if their own situations. Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly.

All have agreed it’s a pretty unique take on ‘Semper Fi’.

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles about mall Santas, the at times heartbreaking requests they get, the funny things kids say, that sort of thing, and I think of twenty-minutes on a long-ago afternoon in a quiet mall.  Sometimes in conversation someone will start talking about the best Christmas they ever had, or the favorite present they ever received.

Those articles and conversations always make me think of one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a small part in giving.

brookdaleholiday3

The Christmas Pageant

Some twenty-five years ago I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.

What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.

When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.

Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuver room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.

My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about.  One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.

As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.

Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”?  he proposed to surprised looks around the table;“We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.

After a few moments and some surprised looks,  Barb asked “Do you think anybody would mind?”

Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that simple.

The Sunday evening  of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling  in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for authentic manger atmosphere,  but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any  of our frequently forgetful young actors.

Our Mary needed no such assistance.

Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly Christmasmoving moment I remember vividly, looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger.  Holy Communion Church had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.

By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.

Sheri’s  family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.

‘And a little child shall lead them’.

 

Songs of Myself

Like a lot of other folks there are certain songs that transcend a flash of memory of time, place, or person; something above and beyond a simple moment in time.  Eagles New Kid in Town is one of those songs for me:  it was the first forty-five I ever spun as a professional disc jockey, way back in 1978. Fresh out of Brown Institute and just off a Greyhound bus to my hired-sight-unseen new gig in smallish-Nevada, Missouri.  New Kid in Town summed me up pretty well – then and now.

There are other  moments when even innocuous comments bring a song to mind, triggering the memory attached to it; something as simple as being asked to remember a piece of information, or someone simply sharing a reminiscence staring with ‘remember that time…’  can be triggers for me. One of my father’s favorite songs was Try to Remember – from his favorite musical, The Fantsticks. I inherited a love of the song long before my father died, certainly fantasticksplaybilllong before I could really grasp the songs many nuances.  Now?  I still love the song, but on a wholly different level.

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow…

That song – those lyrics – obviously meant something very profound to my father, and as the years have progressed, they have come to mean a lot to me as well. While I was a theatre and American songbook geek from a young age, Try to Remember has never been out of place on my mental playlist ( I even owned the 45!). The connection between me, the song, my father – any combination thereof – has never waned.

Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow….

I do remember being that fellow; quite fondly, in fact.

What these particular ‘connection’ songs have in common is that they are linked to something ‘back in the day’ – coming of age, big moments, that sort of thing. My situation with New Kid in Town I think is fairly unique; I’m not sure many of my friends have a song so inextricably tied to the first real job they ever had. And not just the first real job or first day on the job – my first day in a new, small, town, my first five minutes of my career. I can still remember Rick, the guy who trained me, setting me up to take over the control board coming out of news and a commercial break; “So whattaya want for your first record on the air? I’ll cue it up!” There on top of a stack of 45’s on the counter, next to some news copy and baseball scores, was New Kid in Town.

Serendipitous.

New Kid in Town 45There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you
People you meet, they all seem to know you
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new

Johnny come lately, the new kid in town
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down….

Songs like these usually resonate because they are tied not only to a specific event or person, but to a time when your life was simpler, things were more black-and-white. While I could rattle off a short but fairly impressive list of such tracks, I can honestly say it has been many years since there were any new entries into the canon of soul-shaking songs.

Until now.

Interestingly, it is a not a new song, nor is the situation it is tied to all that new or unique. On the contrary, it has been a favorite of mine for years, but not on the level that it is now. It is a song I have always loved, but something 100_5066has subtly, but profoundly changed.

The song is White Christmas.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

A native Minnesotan who spent most of his life in the Midwest, I am quite familiar with white Christmases; in fact, I far prefer them over other Christmases. A little over seven years ago, my family and I moved from rural, southwestern Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans rarely sees more than a few wisps of snow every couple of years, and I think they have approximately two Christmas snowfalls in recorded history and certainly in no abundance.

This will be my eighth Christmas as a New Orleanian, and fifth Christmas –and second in a row – that we haven’t been able to make it home during the holiday season and will be spending the holidays in the land of twinkling-light bedecked palm trees. Not my ideal, and we will certainly be missing family, and yes I will even miss the twenty-hours 100_5072-e1388166919353of driving to get there, though I will not miss the twenty hours driving back, if that makes any sense. None of this is terribly new, or unique.

But then again, it is. Damned if I know exactly why.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write…

The day after Thanksgiving, I was working on a variety of projects while listening on-line to a radio station that was kicking off the holiday season with non-stop Christmas music for the day. Nothing unusual; I really enjoy Christmas music and can always find someone playing the marathon thing to kick off the season. I was bouncing in and out of my desk area all day Friday, catching a piece of a song here or there, snippets of a few favorites that caused me to sit down, listen to the rest of the song, check some emails. I even heard a couple of different versions of White Christmas as I kept going about my business.

After lunch, I was sitting down, catching up on some email and Facebook notes about Black Friday craziness, and that when I heard it – or rather, heard him: Bing , singing the original. And I just sat there and listened, like I never had before.

I have heard Crosby singing White Christmas for all of my fifty-six years; literally a thousand times, I’d bet. Watching the movie White Christmas is an annual family tradition and I know the stories behind the song, why it was such a he hit with GI’s overseas during WWII, and I have always loved it and really don’t even mind most (and even really like some) of the cover versions I have ever heard throughout the years; the song is that good.

But now, just now,  it is something very different.

I am certainly not going to try to compare myself to some far-from-home G.I. freezing-in-a-Normandy-foxhole for whom the song transported – however temporarily and imaginary – to home, family, community. I am simply a WC Crpsby 1Midwestern-expatriate who finds himself living in the deep south of New Orleans – still an oddly foreign environment in many regards even after seven-and-half years of residency.

Hearing Bing croon White Christmas the other day was almost like hearing it for the first time; this was no superficial nostalgia or sappy sentimentality come home to roost – it was something else entirely…something I can’t really put my finger on. I can’t just be the missing snow, sleigh bells, glistening Christmas trees – I have been doing without those things (for the most part) for eight Christmases now. No family, friends to be with – no grandson? True; not something I am looking forward to, but not something I haven’t dealt with previously. And again, this is not melancholy or depression it’s all about a singular song, one that I have known well all my life but one that now means something different, something so much more.

…may your days be merry and bright, 
and may all your Christmases be white…

I get it now, like I never have before.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time trying to get my students to grasp the tricks to comprehension; reading between the lines, the nuances of ideas inferred, feelings implicit. I could possibly take a tip from the Apostle Luke, who once said, “Physician, heal thyself.”

Maybe I have already begun to do just that, even without really knowing what, precisely, ails me.

Please excuse me. I need to go listen to some more Crosby.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJSUT8Inl14
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJSUT8Inl14

Memories of Christmas Present, Cheerful Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Sunday before Christmas found me in a shopping mall in Rochester, Minnesota, waiting in line with my grandson Felix, aged two, to have a picture taken with Santa. We were there with his mom (my daughter) and his dad, and my wife Amy, plus my sons Will and Sam – Felix’s eighteen and fifteen year old uncles, respectively.

'The Cajoling of Felix' December, 2013
‘The Cajoling of Felix’ December, 2013

The line was moving efficiently, there were enough of us to rotate on keeping Felix occupied, so there were no issues there. The idea was that Felix would do a solo picture with Santa, and then we would have a shot with Felix and St. Nick joined by Will and Sam.

Felix wasn’t all that interested, and out-of-camera-range cajoling wasn’t getting it done.

He wasn’t horribly distraught, just didn’t want to sit still for Santa. So, we went to plan B, got the uncles up there, and got a nice shot of the foursome, then

Sam, Santa, Will, Felix - 2013
Sam, Santa, Will, Felix – 2013

decided to go the Felix as a solo route. He still wasn’t thrilled, so his mom had to join the shot, much to her chagrin.

It was a fun time for me, watching the various interactions; daughter, sons, grandson, all trying to get a picture or two taken. Pretty cool stuff, and I’m a guy who knows kid and grandkid cool.

And really great Santa pictures.

From the musty, holiday-scented archives of this blog, here is a favorite true tale of Christmas. I hope you enjoy it – again, or for the first time:

Nearly twenty years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa….

As I was neither the natural size nor age (nor naturally hirsute enough) for the role, I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, scratchy, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer, Jen. We hadn’t taken a picture in an hour. As we talked about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, brookdaleholidaymiddle-aged woman; unique, but certainly not the most unusual sight at Brookdale Mall during the holidays.
Until it was obvious they were headed straight to us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the couple, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids with the woman and the Marine. I watched as the boyish Leatherneck glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was thinking…

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, while Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, awkwardly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated…unless, I suppose, you’re a self-conscious, twenty-year old Marine being asked to take a picture with Santa.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave; his widowed mother was very proud of his recent dressbluesaccomplishments, which included a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and there was only one other thing in the world she wanted for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues.

With Santa Claus.

He told me had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So there we were on a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon: Santa and the Marine.

Keep in mind that this was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, marineshatPolaroid-you-wait-to-develop-then-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country. The young Marine and I had some time to get acquainted.

My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat uncomfortably but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously. After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, sitting ram-rod straight while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.” I smiled and chuckled, as much as being referred to by a Marine as ‘Sir’ as the situation itself.

santa hat“Ho-ho-ho!” I replied, as Jen readied the next shot.

“Sorry about what?” I asked, as sympathetically Santa-like as I could.

“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed. I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it. “Don’t be.”

The scene continued to play out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to relax and lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us repeatedly to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot. We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing it up and trying to help the guy out a little.

ornament3After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine, “O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.” I nodded forward while Jen readied another shot. My favorite Jarhead glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir” he replied, the nervousness softening in his voice.

He was loosening up a bit, though that was being countered as by a small crowd that had gathered, eyes wide, buzzing with curiosity. I guess it’s not every Christmas you see a Marine in full dress blues sitting on Santa’s lap. The Marine smiled self-consciously as it dawned on me what the real issue might be. I made more Santa-and-client small-talk while Jen snapped away.

“Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said evenly, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.”(a high school within walking distance of the mall.)

I nodded acknowledgement of his predicament, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked Vikings football with the young man, tried not to add to his self-consciousness by chuckling at the situation, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took us fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.) As his mom was paying Jen for the pictures, and newly Marine-smitten Susie finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine warmly.

“Thank you, Santa…sir.” I believe that was proper-holiday-protocol-Marine-speak.

His nervousness gone, he wore a proud, Marine-on-duty, restrained smile.

Then, bag of Santa pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd parted, then quickly dispersed.

In the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to a number of Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to look at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs.’ Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly. A few have welled up hearing the story.

Most have agreed it’s a pretty good, unique take on ‘Semper Fi.’semperfi

The young Jarhead is pushing forty now. What became of him and his mother I of course have no way of knowing. But somewhere, on someone’s mantle, or in an album somewhere there is a cherished, probably yellowing Polaroid of a young Marine, sitting with Santa…

As for me, every year the question comes up in conversation: ‘What’s the best Christmas present you ever got?’ That question is impossible for me to answer, but the story I can tell about one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a (small) part in giving?

That’s a gift that fell right into my lap.

christmas

No Way in These Mangers

It’s Christmas Eve, and I am preplexed.

We arrived yesterday in our ancestral home state of Minnesota after a twenty-four hour drive from our current home in New Orleans to see our new grandson; an appropriate meatphor for the season.

Forgoing the Christmas music on CD that had been sountracking the journey, the last hour or so of the drive allowed me to tune in local radio where I caught this rather surprising story, and really had time to think about it in all its absurdity. The excerpts below are from the USAToday story that was being discussed:

“Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some churches are opting to close that day so that families can spend the morning together at home.”

My reflexive response was ‘well, that can’t be more than a few churches.’

“…Among the nation’s top 20 largest Protestant churches — as ranked by Outreach Magazine — three will be closed on Christmas, and 10 will be having only one service, The Tennessean reports…”

The story continues…

“Life Research, based in Nashville, says its national survey of Protestant churches found that 91% would hold at least one service Christmas morning, while about 9% will not worship on Sunday at all. Some plan Christmas Eve services instead.”

‘Some plan Christmas Eve services instead’
‘9% will not worship on Sunday at all’

“’Instead?’ ‘Nearly 1-in10 churches will be closed because Christmas is on a Sunday?’ Must be some rationale for all of this” thought I.

There is…if you take the ‘rational’ part of ‘rationale’:

“In Murfreesboro, Tenn., the Rev. Brady Cooper of New Vision Baptist Church notes that it takes 150 volunteers to staff a single service at the megachurch, so he is opting to run five services on Christmas Eve instead, The Tennessean reports.

“Asking them to be there all day Christmas Eve and most of the day on Christmas is hard,” Cooper says. “Our staff is very thankful to have the chance to be home with their family.”

Note to Rev. Cooper and other church ‘leaders’:  if you don’t like working on holidays, maybe you shouldn’t choose ministry as a career.

Two primary thoughts come to mind as I read this story, and similar accounts from around the country. (There are a ton; simply go to Google and do a search)

My first thought is, this all strikes me as terribly wrong and short sighted on so many levels.

Stories abound this time of year about how stressful the holidays can be for people, especially those who are at odds with family, who feel disconnected, or who have suffered a loss and cannot find joy in the season – the list goes on.

Many of these people count on their ‘church family’ during this time of year more than any other – I have seen it in every church I have been a part of, in every place I have lived.

“Sorry, we’re closed today. Come back next week” doesn’t cut it.

Secondly, I thought back to all of the emails and Facebook posts I have received from well-meaning fellow Christians over the past few weeks bemoaning a supposed ‘secular attack’ on Christmas.I don’t buy into the ‘attack’ theory; I think it’s more a knee-jerk reaction to specific incidents and speaks more to people’s lack of confidence in their own faith more than it does to people outside the faith attacking it. Plus its just fun for some folks to want to rile up others in the name of their faith. Thats an entirely different post.

I think as Christians, we need to look at ourselves long and hard  before we started blame the ‘secular world’ for our shortcomings as a church.

This story only served to confirm both of those beliefs.

But, hey! Not all the churches who will be hanging the ‘CLOSED’ sign this Sunday will leave their congregations high and dry…

“In Colorado, The Longmont Times Call reports that Vinelife Church is offering families devotion packets to have a “church experience” in their homes on Christmas, according to executive pastor Bob Young. Each packet includes a written message from the senior pastor, a CD of Christmas hymns and a suggestion for how to weave the spiritual side of Christmas throughout the day, Young tells the newspaper.”

As a high school English teacher, I am quite familiar with issuing homework, the concepts behind it, and the mixed end-results thereof.

Hey, pastor – will there be a quiz when everyone gets back to class?

I’m not impressed.

Then again, maybe I am looking at this all wrong. This churches-not-being-open-on-Christmas concept might just be the ultimate in teaching from the pulpit.

Just as Mary and Joseph maybe a lot of disenfranchised Christians who are unable to find their own ‘room at the inn’ on Christmas will keep looking, maybe finding a humble stable of their own somewhere else, where they can find some real joy and peace in the real meaning of Christmas.

A little something for Christmas from my poetry blog

I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

https://markluckerpoet.wordpress.com/

A Picture is worth…

Pulled from the musty and cluttered Marchives; a favorite Christmas tale I told last year to good response. I hope you enjoy it – again, or for the first time.

About 15 years ago, I decided to pick up a few extra holiday dollars by taking a part-time job as a shopping mall Santa. As I was neither the natural size nor age (nor naturally hirsute enough) for the role, I wore a roll of foam rubber beneath my suit, scratchy, silver nylon beard on my chin, and ended up working mostly the mall’s lower-traffic hours.

On a very quiet Wednesday afternoon in early December, I was sitting there in my big Santa chair chatting with my college-student, elf-for-the-day Susie, and grad-school photographer, Jen. We hadn’t taken a picture in an hour or so. As we chatted about school stuff, I looked down the nearly deserted mall and saw a tall, young U.S. Marine, in full dress blues; along side of him was a petite, middle-aged woman; unique, but certainly not the most unusual sight at Brookdale Mall during the holidays.

Until it was obvious they were headed straight to us.

Elf Susie walked cheerfully back to the gate of Santa Land to greet the pair, and I straightened up in my throne and smoothed out my beard – although I wasn’t sure why as I didn’t see any kids with the woman and the Marine. I watched as the boyish Leatherneck glanced around nervously, while the woman spoke to Susie.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I was thinking…

“O.K. Santa! This young man is next!” chirpped Susie merrily, as she swung open the little white picket gate for the youthful Jarhead to pass, while Jen took her spot behind the camera. The Marine walked up to me and I greeted him with my usual “Ho-ho-ho” shtick, to which he replied quickly, awkwardly, coming to crisp, serious attention, “Merry Christmas, sir.”

Their story was short, sweet, uncomplicated…unless, I suppose,  you’re a self-conscious,  twenty-year old Marine.

The young man was an only child, U.S.M.C. Corporal home on leave; his widowed mother was very proud of his recent accomplishments, which included a marksmanship award, three ribbons and a training award. Having her son home for the holidays was a huge thrill, and there was only one other thing in the world she wanted for Christmas: pictures of her son in full dress blues…

with Santa Claus.

He had no idea why this particular setting was so important to her, but it was. So there we were on a suddenly interesting Wednesday afternoon: Santa and the Marine.

Keep in mind that this was in the days before digital photography; our pictures were the time-consuming, one-shot-at-a time, Polaroid-you-wait-to-develop-then-stick-in-a-cardboard-frame variety – and the young man’s mother wanted nine of them to send out to relatives all over the country.

The Marine and I had some time to get acquainted.

My arm around his waist, the young Marine sat uncomfortably but patiently at attention on the arm of Santa’s throne, glancing around nervously. After the first picture was snapped, he staged whispered to me, sitting ram-rod straight while staring directly at the camera, “I’m really sorry about this, sir.” I smiled, as much as being referred to by a Marine as ‘Sir’ as the situation itself, and quietly chuckled “ho-ho-ho” as Jen readied the next shot.

“Sorry about what?” I asked, as sympathetically Santa-like as I could.

“About doing this, sir. It’s my mother’s idea. I’m a little…uncomfortable.”

“Ho-ho-ho!” I bellowed. I didn’t much look the part without help, but I could sure play it. “Don’t be.”

The scene continued to play out, the Marine finally getting comfortable enough to relax and lean into my shoulder a little bit, as Jen continued to focus and shoot, reminding us repeatedly to smile – which the Marine did only slightly less uncomfortably with each shot.  We sat there, his mother beaming with pride while chatting with Susie the Elf, me ho-ho-ho-ing it up and trying to help the guy out a little.

After a few shots, I whispered to the young Marine, “O.K., I know this feels silly, but it’s making your mom really happy.” I nodded forward while Jen readied another shot. My favorite Jarhead  glanced at his mother, smiled slightly. “Yes, sir.” he replied, a hint of nervousness in his voice.

He was loosening up a bit, though that was countered as by now as a small crowd was gathering, eyes wide, buzzing with curiosity.  I guess it’s not every day you see a Marine in full dress blues sitting on Santa’s lap. The Marine smiled self-consciously. I made more Santa-and-client small-talk while Jen snapped away. “Grow up around here? Afraid you’re going to see somebody you know?” I inquired.

“Yes, sir,’ he said evenly, staying focused on the camera, “I graduated from Park Center.”(a high school within walking distance of the mall.)

I nodded acknowledgement of his predicament, ho-ho-hoed some more, asked him a few more questions, reminded him a couple more times about how his mother was smiling, talked Vikings football with the young man, tried not to chuckle at the situation, while Jen finished getting all of the pictures to the mom’s satisfaction.

It took us fourteen shots to get the nine pictures the Marine’s mom wanted (I saved a couple of the botched extras; they were wonderful.)  As his mom was paying Jen for the pictures, and newly Marine-smitten Susie finished sliding each picture into its candy-cane-and-reindeer-motif cardboard frame, the young Marine stood up, turned toward me, started to salute but then stuck out his hand to shake mine. “Thank you, Santa…sir.” he said in what I think was proper-holiday-protocol-Marine-speak.

He wore a proud, Marine-on-duty, restrained smile.

Then, bag of Santa pictures in hand, proud mother and dutiful, loving son walked off, arm-in-arm back down the mall, as the smiling crowd parted, then quickly dispersed.

In the years since, I’ve gotten the opportunity to tell this story to a few Marines. Younger Jarheads tend to look at me quizzically, apparently pondering the obvious ‘what ifs.’ Older Corpsmen mostly nod, smiling proudly. A few have welled up hearing the story.

Most have agreed it’s a pretty good, unique take on ‘Semper Fi’.

As for me, every year around this time I read newspaper or magazine articles, or the question comes up in conversation: ‘what’s the best Christmas present you ever got?’ That question is not nearly so memorable to me as the story I can tell about one of the best Christmas presents I ever had a (small) part in giving.