Instead of “visions of sugar-plums” dancing in our heads, many of us have chilling footage of domestic violence in an elevator, gruesome images of the beheading of innocents, reports of sexual abuse by a once-loved actor, and unrelenting riots in our streets. Daily, we are accosted by threats real and imagined.
Where is the Christmas we knew as children? Did it exist?
Last night I watched the NBC special on the movie Unbroken. Tom Brokaw interviewed producer/director Angelina Jolle about the story of Louis Zamperini’s life. His 97 years spanned achievements and failures, adventures and imprisonment, anger and forgiveness. A fighter to the end, Zamperini relayed, “People tell me, you’re such an optimist. Am I an optimist? An optimist says the glass is half full. A pessimist says the glass is half empty. A survivalist is practical. He says, Call it what you want, but just fill the glass. I believe in filling the glass.”
As I listened to this icon of resilience, I thought of my father now 96 years old. Like Zamperini, he was a fighter. Growing up in an itinerant family during the depression, he learned how to survive. “You kids have it lucky,” he’d remind us. “We were dirt-poor when I was your age; the dust took everything from us.”
I don’t know that I ever thought of myself as lucky, but I did grow up with a strong dose of determination. Dad did not allow his meager education or his loss of an arm or his mastectomy for breast cancer to slow him down. “When you are confronted with a problem, figure out what you can do to make things better,” he said. “You may not be able to solve the problem, but doing something is better than doing nothing at all.”
When I set aside the “sugar plums” that want to dance through my head, a different Christmas story from my childhood unfolds. I remember how mom helped us create a crèche out of an old cardboard box. I remember picking up bits of straw from the pigs’ pen to put in the crèche. I remember making garlands of paper scraps for a little tree dad had brought home. I see the poverty that I did not recognize as a child.
I knew nothing of the outside world when I was a child. I did not know about the Korean War, the Hydrogen Bomb, or Rosa Park’s courageous refusal to give up her seat on a bus. No one mentioned the killer tornadoes in Texas, Michigan, Massachusetts, or the hurricanes that killed hundreds on the East Coast. And I did not know about the 92 children who died in a horrific fire in Chicago’s Our Lady of Angels school. I only knew of the Christ child who was born in a manger.
Was life simpler when I was a child? Or, was I just unaware of the tragedy around me?