Here is a story my father loved to tell. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when we’d take a Christmas tree to his assisted living place, he’d tell us about the electric trains.
One year he ran short of track on Christmas eve, so he hopped in the chevy and drove through the snow to a hobby shop in downtown Poughkeepsie that was open until midnight. The place was filled with other fathers on similar missions: picking up extra track, boxcars, and engines. Trains were the thing that year. That little store overflowed with camaraderie, humor, and joy. Fifty years later, his eyes lit up when told this story. I think it embodied the Christmas spirit for him, as he embodied the joy of giving for me.
As a depression kid, money was scarce while he was growing up. One year someone gave him a silver dollar on his birthday. His grandmother said he should put it in the church collection plate. He did, but when he reached in to get change, his grandma slapped his hand, knocking the plate to the floor. Undaunted, my dad crawled under the pews and recovered every penny, but made sure to collect his ninety cents change.
Prosperity finally came. After a stint in the navy as a radar technician, he went to work for IBM, and after that, if anyone asked for a dollar, he’d offer them two. After he got sick, I had the chance to return some of those favors, in both large ways and small.
The first winter he was up here, we happened to drive past a train store. “Wanna check it out?” I asked. He did, and we found a 19th century train that called his name. We took it back to his apartment, and I set it up on his kitchen table. Mary took him shopping for those Christmas village buildings which matched the scale of the train. He talked about it so much to the other residents that sometimes when were visiting, they’d knock on his door and ask to see the trains.
Mary recently asked I if hated Christmas – a reasonable question, given the tone of my comments on Black Friday and what passes for “holiday music” in stores. I don’t hate Christmas. I do hate the machinery of media and advertising that cynical interests use to paint a mirage of joy that can be ours if only we buy enough stuff.
I learned from my father that stuff isn’t the problem. Grasping for stuff, out of greed or a fear that I need it to be ok is the problem. My father taught me that stuff can be a medium of generosity, and generosity lies at the core of what Christmas is truly about.