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By Shane Gilreath
We’ve eased into December as quietly as falling snow. Though only Advent, that we’re approaching Christmas seems infeasible. Every year, as the holidays sneak up on us, I think of two things: because of my joy for attending Christmas services, my time serving – nervously and obsessively – as an Acolyte at St. Patrick’s, and a particular Christmas that would grow especially meaningful to me.
I’m pretty nostalgic at Christmas. For instance, it just doesn’t seem like the holidays without “Christmas in Dixie,” which is the wistful Alabama song that reminds me of my own humble abode. As much as there are dozens of classic songs, it’s “Christmas in Dixie” that calls me home. The line “it’s snowing in the pines” always brought me to this place, in my own little corner of my own family’s farm, tucked away in the rolling hills of the South. Without realizing it, it’s the place that gives you strength, in that way that Tara is to Scarlett. To mimic the song, the farm had a pine thicket in the back fields, always called “the pines.” Every winter, we could say “it’s snowing in the pines.” They were there until a few decades ago, when my grandfather had them cut on a whim, assuring that new generations will never have the thrill of running threw a thicket of tall Southern pines, snow drifting from overhead. Yet, that piece of earth will always be “the pines.” At the foot of the hill, my mother’s generation call it “the gate.” There once was a literal entrance to the farm, but I don’t know it as “the gate” and never did. To my generation, it was “the oak,” named for a massive oak tree that sheltered the road as you climb the hill, but it, too, is something the next generation will not know. An ice storm, several winters ago, took her down. Much as we tried to save her, we couldn’t. Nor would her scions root to the earth that had known their mother. The oak, the gate, and the pines are no more.
It is normal to reminisce about such things, the people and things that have gone before us, but my favorite Christmas memory had nothing to do with packages or grand dinners, the past, Christmas parties, St. Nick, or familiar landmarks, but when normalcy disappeared. As a young teen, I had a year of epic growth; not physically, but emotionally. A sign, we can guess, of the emergence of adulthood. My mother had had a serious surgery, and soon after, the house I grew up in was gutted by fire. I don’t think it occurred to anyone that we were without anything for the holidays until the holidays were upon us. No Christmas tree. No lights. Nothing of the ornaments and mementos that my mother, sister, my late brother, and I had handmade. No candles or nativities or strands of evergreen, which brought Christmas to our home. Like many people, I had been arrogant enough not to see how fortunate I had been until I was shocked into the awakening. Christmas began without the kind of Christmas to which we had grown accustomed. Humbling, to say the least, until one afternoon, when my sister and I left with our father. When we returned, my mother had made Christmas come alive. She had bought a Christmas tree and lights and ornaments. It was the saddest – yet most beautiful -tree I’ve ever seen. With a gesture, my mother had given us back our lives. It remains my favorite Christmas, having nothing to do with gifts or giving, nor masses or massive gatherings, but with simple deeds. Isn’t that the Christmas spirit? Thankful and humble, we embrace the season. As we look to another Christmas where lives are uprooted in our world, perspective becomes the most important bestowal of all. Like the Christmas tree of my mother’s, the true meaning of Christmas should not be lost on us: it remains a gift, born in a stable, small and weak, who would help us grow in faith and hope. Merry Christmas!
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