But as far as I'm concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman - sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby. And the Wise Men are always going to be Leroy and his brothers, bearing ham. When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord - Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us everywhere: 'Hey! Unto you a child is born!'
"The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" - Barbara Robinson
Here is how this book begins: "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse." These truly nasty kids bully their way into the lead roles in a church Christmas pageant because they want hot chocolate and cookies, and by the end of the book, their unexpected Christmas spirit has us in tears.
What can I say? I'm such a sucker for a redemption story. Whether it's Scrooge, the Herdmans, George Bailey, the Grinch, little Susan Walker - or me, I just can't resist the story of someone who once was blind, but now they see.
This is what I wish for all of you this Christmas: To see, to fly above the despair. To understand why Christmas resonates throughout the world, even in places where they don't especially care (or even believe) that Jesus was born in a manger.
Christmas is that Spirit which transforms and you certainly don't have to be a Christian to let it work its magic. It might have been a different day designated by so many of the human race as the time to transcend our pain and fear, to reach out to each other in a way we don't allow ourselves to do the other 364 days of the year, but this seems to be the one. So let's celebrate it.
Some people manage to tap into that Spirit the rest of the year, while the rest of us keep our hearts "safe" behind concrete and razor wire. Silly, really - because a heart not used regularly shrivels up, becomes hard and small. (Like the Grinch.) Even a broken heart is better than one that's never used.
That Spirit is in all of us. Think of the very worst person you know (yes, worse than the Herdmans - or George Bush, or Saddam Hussein), and even they have that Spirit inside. It's up to them whether they'll ever let it out, but it's there.
Every other day of the year, I focus on what's wrong with the world. Today, I'm writing about the thing that's so very, very right - the human impulse to shine a light in darkness. To help, to shelter people in need. To love.
We all have lives that are far from perfect. Sometimes we go through hard times that seem to never end, and people we allow ourselves to trust let us down, again and again. And yet.
And yet, there's hope. Every single year, Ebenezer Scrooge opens his heart. Every year, George Bailey gets a glimmer of understanding about what a very large part is played in very small ways, and Clarence gets his wings. A wounded little girl who didn't dare let herself believe in Santa Claus learns faith isn't rational, and Linus helps us see the spiritual yearning at the real heart of Christmas.
We're here. We're alive. Love each other, if you dare. Be brave with your hearts. Merry, merry Christmas.
Hey! Unto you a child is born!
(First published at Suburban Guerrilla on Dec. 25th, 2005.)