OLD FRAGMENTS of yuletide nostalgia come tumbling out of the cluttered attic of stored memories. I'm thinking now of one Christmas in Weatherford maybe 42 years ago.
After a midday cup of Christmas cheer, my father disappeared. Toward midafternoon, Mother received a call saying that Dad had been seen in an economically depressed section of town behaving strangely. I found my father in a neighborhood called Sandtown. He was surrounded by a flock of attentive black children. Dad was telling Christmas stories.Some days earlier, my father had purchased 200 silver dollars, which he now carried in a large canvas sack. Dad had spent most of the afternoon driving through Weatherford's less affluent neighborhoods finding children with whom to share these shiny treasures. He gave away the whole sack of trophies into eager little hands.
"God and good fortune have smiled on us this year, Jim," he explained. "I've just been finding avenues through which to express my thanks." As a child, he told me, he had twice seen silver dollars but never owned one.
Childhood experiences affect different people in different ways. My dad was left fatherless at an early age with an invalid mother. He had to drop out of school in about the fifth grade to make his way in life. His greatest wish, a college education, was beyond reach.
Had my father been another person, these youthful deprivations might have embittered him. His attitude toward out-of-luck kids might have been that he made it up the ladder the hard way, without much help, and therefore owed nothing to others. Let them do the same.
But sweet are the uses of adversity, wrote William Shakespeare. My father found "sermons in stones, books in the running brooks." Denied the boon of formal higher learning, he got his greatest pleasures as an adult from helping kids achieve their scholastic ambitions.
Similar knowledge has come to me over the years from a variety of sources. I never knew until decades later that Dad had helped a friend and classmate of mine to finish college. The friend told me when we both were in our 50s.
The ultimate joy of giving, my father felt, was in anonymity. Taking credit, he believed, would spoil it.
For me, this all ties together at Christmastime with the gifts of the Magi and the old German legends about St. Nicholas. The idea of sharing, and particularly giving something anonymously, is an inseparable part of what we celebrate. But sometimes we get so busy with the trappings and symbols of Christmas that we lose sight of the star that the wise men followed. Let Luke's account remind us:
"And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
Just as it was in Bethlehem, so it is in so many of our lives. No room under the tree for another present. No room in the mailbox for another package. No room on our engagement pads for an additional plan. No room in the malls for another shopper. And in too many minds, no room for the simple, eternal message of a better way.
Today at conference tables in Bosnia, practitioners of three religious faiths that look to that still, calm night in Bethlehem find insufficient room amid their recriminations for the new idea of peace on earth of which the angels spoke to the shepherds. Still new, and largely untried, after 2,000 years.
"And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them; and they were sore afraid."
Afraid? Well, yes, most people are in one way or another. It isn't hard to find things to be afraid of.
"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."
To all people? Even to those we dislike and distrust? To those who plot and plan against us? To the rude motorist who squeezed you out of your lane in the Christmas traffic yesterday? Good tidings to Democrats and Republicans alike? To Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and Ebenezer Scrooge? Well, that's what the angel said.
"And on earth, peace, good will toward men."