The final Christmas?

Published 6:19 am Thursday, December 1, 2016

Christmas…celebrate it — as if it’s your final one.

While this thought is hardly original, it unsparingly heightens seasonal sensitivity. 

Changing Christmas behaviors to accommodate newly emerging values can send one into a tizzy.  Should I continue the seasonal frenzy by remaining within the guardrails of holiday hype, or dismiss traditional baggage allowing Christmas a clean slate?

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Self-examination, good and sad, evokes ponderous thoughts — especially in one’s later stages of life.

Flirting with 79 years, and feeling the values fret, my health chart reveals a variety of medical and surgical histories — none disabling so far. I give thanks for my life. It would be dishonest to say the specter of looming dementia, or stroke, doesn’t come to mind frequently. Siblings offer living proof daily; thankfully, the mind still seems functional, maybe even edgy.

In truth, almost a third of my gifted contemporaries are dead. Dr. Oliver Sachs, professor of neurology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine, recently observed in his NYT piece: “many more friends, with profound mental or physical damage, are trapped in a tragic and minimal existence.” Most of us in this age category dodge or skim — almost scraping the edges of profound mental or physical loss — a medical reality. It’s just built in.

Gratitude abounds; I’ve had the opportunity to experience many things — some fulfilling or great; some chaotic and heart breaking. In a post-teaching career, the passion for writing builds, even flourishes. Values are tested; I constantly assess and reassess.

Sadly, Christmas old age embraces deep loneliness, especially for those without family, friend or anybody. Loneliness also grimly attaches itself to those who simply do not belong. 

Incredibly, those who routinely live with personal rejection, empower a miraculous spirit by extending their humanity … in the direction of what American author Whittaker Chambers calls the “other.” Immediate thoughts hawk back to the “Stewguts” example — a young girl in Chambers’ grade school, mentioned in his autobiography: WITNESS. “Stewguts” placed herself in my heart from Hampden-Sydney College days … delivering fresh and deep sensitivity to a formative values system.

As author Cornelius Plantinga Jr. described her in his devotional, “Beyond Doubt,” Stewguts “was red-faced, raw boned, foul-tongued, potentially violent. The boys called her filthy names and loved to badger her into kicking and cursing. One day at lunch time, young student Chambers looked into a classroom and saw “Stewguts (which was one of the more printable names for her) patiently drilling her little sister in spelling by ‘picking flowers.’  The little sister was slow to learn — had trouble with even the simplest words. But over and over, the ugly girl took the little one through the words. Then, when the bell rang, Stewguts gently kissed her sister on the head and sent her off to her room. The flicker of God’s grace in unexpected places can save a human soul.”

This child, shunned and ostracized, demonstrated an inherent capacity for care and love. Despite violent rejection from her peers, Stewguts becomes an anthem for humanity’s redemption in her love for the “other.”

What will Christmas become for me, family and friends? With not a millimeter of morbidity, I decide this Christmas should be handled as if it were my last, allowing life to proceed in a spirit of generosity. The impact of living one’s final Christmas could reshape a long view, creating capacity to appreciate others unconditionally.

While old age Christmas frees you up from the factitious urgencies of earlier holidays, it can initiate binding thoughts of transience and beauty. As Enya hauntingly sang long ago: “Who can say where the road goes … where the day flows … only time.”

I want to experience Christmas the way “Stewguts” taught me.

Raymond B. Wallace Jr. is a retired public classroom teacher and a Hampden-Sydney College graduate. His email address is