|Christmas in Kentucky, 2012|
Doubtless nostalgia has garnished my memories with tinsel. Still, I recall childhood Christmases being uniformly wondrous and magical. Christmas was more than a holiday. It was almost a place, a separate realm behind a magical veil. Think Narnia, Hogwarts, or Oz. Physically, yes, I was in my house or grandparents' homes. But the world was outside and separate. Concerns and troubles were elsewhere. Then I grew up.
Three days before Christmas of 1994, I transferred into Windham Maine as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary. I'd been away from home only four months and was still what fellow missionaries called "green." My mission companion, whom I'd just met the night before, was also new to the area. No one knew us. And we knew no one...including each other. Passing through the doorway of our little apartment for the first time, we immediately realized why the mission leadership had transferred us both into the area three days before Christmas.
We were replacing a pair of less-than-dutiful missionaries. They had left the apartment in disastrous condition. The bathtub contained some sort of sludge, about an inch thick. Never did figure out what it was. The other highlight was a wall into which the previous missionaries had fired scores of BBs. The icing on the cake...they left us no teaching pool of contacts. We would be starting almost from scratch. The stress mounted so fast I vomited. My companion called home that night and bawled to his family about how trapped he felt. We spent much of the two remaining days before Christmas cleaning the apartment.
Of course, we weren't alone for long. Fellow missionaries made a special trip out from nearby Portland to see how we were, providing some needed brotherly encouragement. Without having to ask around we soon had dinner invites for Christmas Eve and Day. And on our first attempt at door-to-door work, an elderly woman invited us in. Before we could make our theological pitch, she said, "I'm not interested in joining your church, but I thought you would enjoy seeing this."
She gestured into her living room toward an elaborate nativity display covering an entire table. Nostalgia bids me remember it as a miniature replica of all Bethlehem. It was probably less than that, but certainly a beautiful rendering of the tale of Jesus's birth. By Christmas Eve we were in much better spirits and the holiday began to feel as it had for me in childhood.
In the almost two decades since, I have spent multiple Christmases working and living on my own. In fact, I spent my first three Christmases as an adult this way. In 1996, working as the weekend garbage man at McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah, I had to cover both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Being a new employee, I was not even given the option to take the holiday off. I and other college-age employees were automatically scheduled to cover shifts while the full-timers enjoyed the holiday. But after two Christmases as a Mormon missionary, I had learned life does not end that first holiday when you have to work instead of celebrate.
That's not to say it is easy or fun to work on Christmas, or to spend the holiday alone. The merry aspect of Christmas is not a given. If the holiday truly was as wonderful as I remember it being in childhood, it was so because of the efforts of my parents and family. More recently, Christmases spent working have proven worthwhile when I make the most of them and, critically, when I don't try to make them all about me.
This Christmas, I am with family. We are eating and making merry in ample amounts. We are fortunate. But others are working and/or alone. Since I know at least a couple of them, that's where my thoughts have turned. Whatever your circumstances from year to year, have the merriest Christmases you can muster. And as much as possible, share the merriness you make.