“For unto us a child is born, and unto us a son is given …”
Thirty-nine years ago today our family gathered for Christmas morning breakfast, as was its custom, at Uncle Pat’s restaurant in Stone Mountain, Georgia. While the location of the breakfast often differed through the years, the tradition of having a breakfast feast together has become an enduring part of our family’s celebration of the holiday. Being Southerners, our breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, grits, biscuits and butter, orange juice and various desserts that were always around during the holiday season.
But Carole and I weren’t there for this celebration. Instead we were in Charleston, SC, because at the time I was stationed there in the Navy. In fact, we were at the Charleston Naval Hospital where Carole was giving birth to Jeffrey Charles Nelson, our first son. After I had had a chance to see Jeff for the first time and to visit with Carole briefly, I placed a phone call to the restaurant and “proclaimed the glad tidings” to the assembled group that the family had a new member, a son, which was news because this was before the days when parents knew in advance the sex of their impending offspring.
Because he was born on Christmas Day, we gave him the initials JC, choosing Jeffrey because I liked the name and Charles in honor of Carole’s dad, Charlie Oglesbee. The gift of a son on Christmas Day was then and remains today the best Christmas gift I was ever given by life and by my loving wife, Carole. No Christmas gift since, nor any that I may receive in the future can ever compare with the joy that gift brought into my life.
But there have been other memorable gifts that I’ve received at Christmas, both large and small, that I think of when this season rolls around. For instance, one was in 1952 when I got a new Hi-Fi system that was a boxy turntable with a spindle that enabled you to stack 8 or 10 LPs to be queued for playing in succession. And that gift was memorable not so much for the gift itself as for the circumstances surrounding it. My dad had been hunting in the days leading up to Christmas with Daddy Perry, his father, and while on that trip and crossing a creek, he had slipped and fallen into the creek, getting soaked to the skin on a very cold December day. Because he was so dedicated to hunting and to toughing it out, he had continued to hunt throughout the day and had come home nearly frozen. On Christmas eve in the middle of the night, he and my mother walked over to my grandparents’ home, that was only a few hundred feet from our house, to pick up the Hi-Fi system and bring it into house so that I’d be surprised when I awoke on Christmas morning. That year was one of the last at which we honored the myth of Santa’s delivering our gifts while we slept. But it was at a cost, because already my dad was beginning to suffer from the pneumonia that he had contracted as a result of his dunking in the creek. While he eventually recovered from the illness, I’ll always remember his making the sacrifice of getting out of his sick bed to bring that Hi-Fi set to the house and place it “under” the tree to surprise me on Christmas morning.
In 1987, another memorable Christmas gift taught me that the best gifts aren’t always what you receive but are frequently what you give instead. Mike and Jeff were living together in Atlanta area, off Panola Rd, and they were struggling financially. Jeff had already bought a home and worked at Murray’s TV and Appliance store. Mike was living with him at the time. My friend, Belva Ann, had travelled from Oregon to visit with me at Christmas that year and we had spent the week leading up to Christmas making an old family recipe for “lebkuchen,” which are cookies made from flour and molasses. Making them was a tremendous chore because there is little moisture in the mix so combining the ingredients required almost superhuman strength. At the same time, I had compiled an audio tape of Christmas songs for one side and uplifting music for the other that I was duplicating repeatedly so that I could give everyone on my Christmas list a copy of that tape. The house was filled with the smells of the lebkuchen as they baked in the oven and with the sounds of that tape played over and over as I duplicated copies of it. The effort involved in each of those two gifts was extraordinary and the time required to complete them was extensive.
Around the 23rd, I spoke with either Mike or Jeff on the phone and they both sounded down in the dumps because their financial situation had dictated that they weren’t going to have much of a Christmas at all. After that call, I said to Belva Ann, “let’s go to Atlanta and celebrate Christmas with Jeff and Mike.” She had spent much of the week decorating my house here in Knoxville, but never one to shrink from a challenge, she agreed to my plan. We took all the decorations down and packed them into the car. We then went to Sam’s and bought all kinds of household supplies, coffee, paper towels, pillows, peanut butter, food stuffs, toiletries, and every imaginable item that Jeff’s house, in its financially strapped condition, might be missing. We wrapped each of the items individually and then boxed them into separate large shipping boxes and wrapped those. The car was packed to the roof leaving little room for anything else. And we drove to Atlanta.
On Christmas eve, Jeff was at work, but we pulled into his driveway, unloaded all the gifts we had brought, and with Mike in tow, headed out to find a Christmas tree. We came to a Christmas tree sales stand on the side of the road on Covington Highway where we spotted the perfect tree. The sales person said that since it was Christmas eve, he would just give us the tree. So we carted it home and began decorating it. As we did so, I noticed Mike whistling “Jingle Bells,” which signified to me a remarkable shift in his mood. Earlier when I had spoken to him and Jeff on the phone, you could hear in their voices the depression that the anticipated austere Christmas was causing. Now in his whistling, I could hear that somehow his mood had been rescued from the doldrums and restored to the appropriate mood for Christmas.
When Jeff came home from work on Christmas eve night, he was overwhelmed to see the decorated tree and all the gifts under it. While all of the gifts were mundane households items, they were things their household needed, and they brightened that Christmas morning and the lives of my two young sons in a way that I’ve seldom seen done since by more expensive gifts of things that they wanted. We celebrated that Christmas morning with a breakfast feast together, as we have so many times through the years.
But the best gift of all that Christmas was the memory Belva Ann and I had of “taking Christmas to Georgia.” Seldom have I experienced more joy in giving than I did that year. I received more from giving them that experience and the delight I could see in their changed mood than I thought possible.
All of us, I guess, have specific memories of Christmas times when we were really happy and joyful as a family. It is the memories that we treasure the most as we gain the perspective of age with many Christmases under our belts. These memories of mine help to remind me that there is a tremendous difference between “exchanging gifts” and giving. Always, the act of giving is more memorable than the gifts themselves. Such experiences reinforce the truth that it is more blessed (i.e., happy) to give than to receive.
May your Christmas be filled with joy. May you be surrounded by loved ones this Christmas day, and may you know that just as I treasure these very personal memories, I also treasure the joy of your friendship and our association.
Merry Christmas to all.