The Happy Human
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The Happy Human

Our Greatest Christmas Didn’t Involve Stuff Under the Tree — Just One Last Year With the Old Family

What is your favorite Christmas memory? The year we don’t think about much, the one showing what is possible.

Photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

The greatest Christmas isn’t about any buyable gift. It’s not material. It’s about love, imagination — enjoying family before they’re gone.

“What is your favorite Christmas memory?” Luba Sigaud asked. One year popped into my mind, and I kept asking myself, “Oh, no. Why that year?”

Once you’ve been blessed to live half a century, there are many competing Christmas memories: childhood cheer, first Christmas loves, and especially your family as new little ones (and joy) sneak into your life.

So why on earth do I find myself thinking of Christmas 1978? The whole world tries to block out the ’70s (especially those stupid leisure suits and dumb beer can hats), so why do I think of that as a favorite memory?

Mercy is taking suffering and mixing it with love

Perhaps it has something to do with the first Christmas: a couple stuck in a travel nightmare, sharing the dirtiest trough where horses and cows eat.

Perhaps because of that formula: Suffering + Love allows Divine Mercy.

Christmas 1978 was the final year before everything changed: the last Christmas “the old family” was together under one roof: Mom, Dad, my little brother, and me.

U.S. divorce rates were peaking (hitting an all-time high in 1980), and we’d heard that “D-word” a lot in the ’70s.

Divorce reached its all-time high just two years after that, in 1981, when there were 5.3 divorces or annulments (and 10 marriages) for every 1,000 Americans. By 2010, the divorce rate dropped back to 2.8 per 1,000 Americans.

A letter from a little boy persuades a family

So what was unique about that Christmas of 1978? Our parents had separated the previous summer, and this know-it-all little boy went to the old gray Royal manual typewriter, inserted a sheet of paper, and wrote his wishes.

It was a one-page typed letter. Single spaced. I’m not sure if anyone saved it or trashed it, but I remember the main “ask” of that letter:

What do I want for Christmas? A “real” Christmas––living like a family together under one roof.

It was a plea for love and living like you’re supposed to, and I can’t remember what else it said.

But it worked. Everyone was back together doing “what you’re supposed to do.”

I had a Kodak version of an “instant camera.” I clicked off a beautiful “family photo” (we didn’t get many pictures of the whole family, so I still ask waiters to take a photo every time our family breaks bread in a restaurant).

That last “family photo” with the original family included my parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brother, and there it was—my family. Even when I don’t look at the photo, I can still picture it in my mind. I used that image to paint a painting in a middle school art class.

Outside forces are constantly invading families, trying to pull them apart, and that happened. The divorce followed the following year (blended families, visits to multiple houses for Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.)

But that Christmas of ’78, we were all together and celebrated about “as normal a Christmas as possible.” And that’s all most kids want: to feel normal and to “fit in” in a world that’s always trying to divide people.

“Every morning I awake torn between a desire to save the world and an inclination to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day. But if we forget to savor the world, what possible reason do we have for saving it? In a way, the savoring must come first.” — E.B.White

We are all broken, so we have some variation of that story, a reason to never surrender:

A buddy of mine who grew up in that same era recalls being 12, a time when “our family was exploding—Mom’s drinking. Dad’s screaming. Awful. I prayed — 12 years old — for Christmas to come soon. I knew Christmas could heal. And it did. Life wasn’t perfect. But the crisis was healed.”

So why do those stories come to mind? Because such stories remind us that as powerless as we may sometimes feel, every voice still matters:

  • A little boy was merely writing a letter that influenced his parents. But he can still learn, “hey, writing makes a difference. Maybe I can make some difference in my life and the world through writing. So maybe I should be a writer.”
  • Another little child can learn that praying makes a difference, and he can dedicate his life to healing, growing up to become a family doctor very active in his church.

Because all these stories remind us of the real lesson of Christmas, the real reason for the season: the mere arrival of a child can change the world.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

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Joseph Serwach

Joseph Serwach

Story + Identity = Mission. Author, Writer: Journalism, Leadership Culture, Communications, Religion, Education, History. Inspiration: Catholic, Polish.

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