*Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat December 20, 2007
as "This season of hope"
as "This season of hope"
Copyright © 2007 by Ralph Couey
About 15 years ago, I received a phone call from a friend who owned an ad agency. It seemed that a local hospital board was in need of a Santa to hand out the Christmas bonuses at their meeting. I had nothing scheduled that night, and my friend had access to a Santa suit, so I accepted the offer. Since then, I’ve been privileged to wear that distinctive red and white outfit many times each season. The gigs have been many and diverse, parties, downtown festivals, meetings, conferences, and leading a motorcycle Toy Ride for the Salvation Army.
Over the years, I’ve talked to around a thousand children and adults around this time of year, basking in the glow of that special sense of joy which seems to permeate the Christmas season. In recent years, the increasingly diverse nature of our nation has led to a more secular cross-cultural kind of celebration of this “holiday” season. Whatever you choose to call it though, there is one element that is present in all celebrations: Hope.
On a cold, snowy December night, I was ensconced in the Santa chair at a local bank in Columbia, Missouri. The line of children and parents snaked across the expansive lobby and out onto the sidewalk. Mindful of how miserable it was for those waiting outside, I was doing my best to keep the line moving, trying to balance expediency against the need to make every child feel special in that brief time we had together. At one point, a man brought up his three children. Their eyes were lit with excitement and our conversations were animated as they related their wish lists. At one point, I glanced up at the father and was surprised to see on his face a look of sadness. While his kid’s eyes danced with joy, his eyes were haunted, dark orbs above gaunt cheeks. He obviously hadn’t slept well, if at all, and as I watched him, I could sense the pain of his burden.
When his kids had finished, I stood up to stretch my legs and drink a little water. The man hesitated, and then came closer. In a low voice, he said, “Santa, I have a request, too.”
We moved a few feet away from the crowd, and the man told me his story. A year before, his wife had passed away after a long and heroic battle with cancer. In trying to take care of her and their children, he had missed so much work that he lost his job. He talked at length about the crushing loss of his wife, and how hard it had been to grieve, and help his kids through that process with the dizzying responsibilities of single parenthood thrust upon him. He had applied for public assistance and said how hard it was to sacrifice pride for survival. “I can’t be much of a man if I can’t feed my children.” He desperately wanted a job, not only to keep his household going, but also to try to make some Christmas happiness for his children, who were missing their mommy terribly.
I was somewhat at a loss for words. I was ready to handle requests for Barbie dolls and basketballs, but unprepared for extending solace. Thinking quickly, I suggested the state-run jobs agency and a few local charitable organizations that could help him with presents. That seemed to help a little, but it obviously wasn’t enough. I desperately wanted to reach out to him, to find words that might give him some comfort. I told him that manhood had little to do with a particular job or a paycheck. Being a man meant being strong for his family, especially in hard times. A child looks to their father as a fortress of love and protection, an example to follow. But mostly, I said, “if you love your kids, and they know it, that’s really the best thing for them right now. Find your hope; share that with them, and your family will survive.” He smiled a little, shook my hand and spoke his thanks. He gathered his kids and left the bank, and I returned to the long line of young, excited faces.
A few days later, I was driving between Columbia and Kansas City. It was a moonless night, the undulating prairie cloaked in darkness. At one point, however, I saw about a mile off the highway, a single farmhouse decorated and lit for the season. It was quite a sight, an island of brightness amid a sea of darkness. In that moment, the fog of hype and greed parted and I saw the Christmas season for what it really was: Hope. That child lying in that manger would be a light of hope dispelling darkness in the lives of people for 2,000 years. I was also reminded of our vital role, to be the instruments of hope, and joy.
For the most enduring characteristic of Christmas, the thing that makes this time of year so special is that there are no “strangers.” For a brief, precious moment in time, we are all “family.”