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JOSEPH N. BELL

Christmases Past and Present : Redefining Our Sense of Family Has Special Holiday Poignancy

December 25, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

A lot of years ago, early in the Great Depression, my mother invited two young families to share Christmas dinner with us. The families' breadwinners had just lost their jobs in the place where my father worked.

I remember wishing that they weren't there. It wasn't so much selfishness on my part as a sense that somehow they were violating a family rite. Because these people were not part of my family, I regarded them--on this distant Christmas Day--as interlopers. They were changing the normal flow of family events on a day that had been steeped in family tradition all of my young life.

I would like to report that as the day wore on, the recognition that we were bringing a small measure of joy to what must have been a terribly gloomy holiday to our guests got through to me finally and turned this into my most memorable Christmas. That's not quite what happened. I remember only squalling babies and confusion from which I withdrew as often as possible. I was greatly relieved when they finally went home.

That's not a feeling I'm proud to recall today, although I think I've finally kicked the guilt. But I suspect I remember that particular Christmas in such detail because it illustrated so vividly the very rigid and constricted sense of family that I embraced as a child--and which I didn't shake off until I was deep into my middle years. Maybe all children build this kind of fence around their immediate families. And maybe it's part of the natural order of things to grow away from it--if we ever do.

Oddly enough, Christmas--the ultimate family holiday--also offers the greatest inspiration for breaking away from this narrow sense of family. After all, the man whose birthday we celebrate today probably had the most expansive sense of family in human history, which isn't a bad model to follow.

But old thought patterns are hard to break--even with such a potent role model--and I usually have to be prodded by circumstances to grow.

In the last few years, I've done a lot of redefining of my sense of family. I have acquired a new immediate family to add to--not replace--the old one. We have been blessed to move into a neighborhood of people so supportive that it has all the best elements of an extended family. And we have strengthened bonds with friends by helping them through crises as we--in turn--have been helped. All these things have led to a greatly expanded sense of family.

So has writing this column. It has created, rather unexpectedly, a whole new set of relatives. Over the three years I've ruminated twice a week in this space, I've made hundreds of new acquaintances and re-energized a lot of old ones. And, as within any family, there have been rumblings of irritation and sometimes violent disagreement along with the good stuff coming from people who have been reached, touched, irritated, enlightened or amused by the words written here.

You've let me know in many evocative ways which of those buttons I may have pushed. Your letters, whether they agreed or disagreed with the points I made, have been quite remarkably reasonable and thoughtful. You've pointed out my mistakes patiently and sometimes with high glee. You've approached me at dozens of private or public gatherings to offer a handshake and a comment. And somewhere along the line I became aware that my family was growing.

These thoughts, which are more easily entertained at Christmas, swept over me most powerfully last Sunday in a tiny, struggling church in Boulder, Colo., that I attended with my youngest daughter. The instrumental music ranged from a little girl heroically attempting her first public violin performance on "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" to a professional flutist dancing through familiar hymns. The singing was enthusiastic and bravissimo .

And the Christmas pageant that formed the centerpiece of the service was delightful. The part of the star that the wise men followed was thoughtfully divided among four 2-year-olds who wandered on and off the set scratching at the cardboard stars draped around their necks, and the role of the newborn Jesus was played by a real baby who handled his lines impeccably.

I found all this warming, and although I knew none of the people in the congregation, I felt a strong sense of family. And from there it was easy to let that feeling of family wash over to the people with whom I have become acquainted through this column. I suppose the next obvious step is to embrace all humankind as family, but that's too abstract for me at this moment. I hope to get there one day, and I think I will.

But this year, I just want to enjoy the expanded sense of family that is such a very long way from the feelings of that 10-year-old boy in the 1930s.

I ache for the people who are lonely on this day and hope they may find some small sense of family in whatever surroundings they find themselves. I know my mother would have invited as many of them as she could to her table.

I feel a great sense of gratitude to her for putting before me an example of Christmas generosity--at a time when we didn't have very much either--that I was unable to accept at the time but has always been there for me to draw on when I was ready to look. It took longer than it should, but I'm looking now. And the feeling is no less rewarding because it is late.

So have a merry one--all of you--and maybe set an extra place at the table. For new family.

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