By: John Carlson—
“I like trains.”
That was it, one child’s fondest wish, hinted at in a card hanging from an artificial Christmas tree in a Muncie church’s narthex. There was more on his wish list, but not much more. A couple items of clothing. A pair of socks. Maybe a pair of shoes.
Other cards on this tree represented additional little kids and their wishes. A Barbie doll. A toy car. A dinosaur. And the simple clothing items like those noted above.
Seeing those cards, and knowing that caring congregation members would make the children’s simple Christmas wishes come true, left you feeling good inside. But I couldn’t help comparing it to the more extravagant Christmases my sister Patty and I had known as kids. The explanation for them was simple: We were the offspring of Great Depression-era children who, as adults, had “made it” firmly into the American middle-class.
On my Dad’s side, his father had scrambled back then for one or two days work a week in a fire-and-smoke-belching steel mill on the shore of Lake Erie. My father seldom reflected, at least out loud, on those difficult early years. But I learned a couple things, one of which was pretty funny. Having been sent to America through Ellis Island as a child, my Swedish Grandpa Carlson had soon mastered our language. This was even to the point of helping a fellow immigrant correct his tortured pronunciation of the very reasonably-priced Yimka Hotel.
Gramps explained it was the YMCA.
What wasn’t funny was the fact that early on, by working hard and saving religiously, Gramps had married, then fathered two sons and bought a house for his family, only to lose it as the Great Depression deepened.
My mother’s family faced tough times, too. Her father, my Grandpa Smith, was also a workingman, employed in a machine shop. They gardened and canned their own produce, ate wild game and dined on turtle soup when her father could snatch one from the river flowing through town. Growing up, Mom’s fondest Christmas wish had repeatedly been for just one thing: a pair of ballet shoes. But it was too much. They never showed up on a Christmas morning.
She made sure her kids never knew that kind of disappointment, though. Um, not that I wanted ballet shoes myself, you understand.
Anyway, thinking about things today, the state of the economy is undeniably better. But the societal pressures and failures children are facing? I think they are as bad or worse than what kicked off the Stock Market Crash of 1929, before rebounding – with deadly irony – in World War II. Things keep adding up in a very scary way. The mood of hatred so rife in our country. The unchecked mass killings that have become so commonplace, if there are less then ten victims you hardly bat an eye. The drug epidemic. Forces threatening the dissolution of the American family. The choking cost of health care. Hunger issues, even centered on those school kids, in this time of apparent economic prosperity.
Beats me how you explain that last one, particularly.
But once again, here comes Christmas, to the jolly sound of ringing cash registers. But it’s also coming to the sound of enthusiastic caroling and season’s greetings. The fact is, those kids whose names and wishes are tied to tree branches in churches and other places across our county, are excited and happy these days. Adult reactions? For many, their joy is the same. For others? Maybe not so much. I understand the complaints of those who rue the holiday rush, the hassle and the runaway commercialization tied to the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Whether you are the least bit religious or not, there is also an undeniably positive spirit in the air, not to mention many folks’ hearts. It’s something that isn’t there other times of year, but once encountered is a feeling yearned for again. I mean, even a hard-nosed guy like Ebenezer Scrooge finally saw the Christmas lights. He acted on it, too, sending that huge, honking goose over to skinny Bob Cratchit’s place, and the toys for Tiny Tim and the rest of the kids.
If this feeling lasts only from Thanksgiving through next Tuesday, we’ll take it. Experiencing it for a month is better than it never showing up at all.
But think how much better off the little kids, like the ones whose cards decorate those trees, would be if this spirit of Christmas lasted year-round. That would be the most wonderful gift imaginable, yet it’s one that seems totally beyond our ability to fulfill. The sad fact is, in this world we adults have created for them, the children are largely helpless.
Can that change? Maybe, maybe not.
It behooves us, though, to keep striving for the sort of peace and love that passes all understanding, the joy embodied every Christmas in an innocent baby, under a brightly shining star, lying in a lowly manger.
A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three. John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.