Sunday, December 21, 2008

My Christmas Carol

Being of Scandinavian descent, my family immigrated to this country from Norway shortly after the Civil War, I sometimes think I’m genetically predisposed to exhibiting bah humbug-like behavior this time of year. Maybe all of those endless winters my ancestors spent on farms near Norwegian towns like Trondheim and Jevnaker actually froze something in my family’s DNA. Or maybe it was seeing too many productions of Henrik Ibsen’s dark plays, or the screaming paintings by Edvard Munch, that left me thinking that Ebenezer Scrooge probably wasn’t such a bad guy after all – maybe just a little misunderstood. I mean, aren’t we all be visited by ghosts in our memories?


The Ghost of Christmas Past who visits me is a sentimental ghost who recalls little brown paper sacks filled with hard candy and peanuts handed out to all the children after the annual Lutheran church Christmas pageant. It’s a ghost who brings back memories of stockings hung from living room curtains (ours was a house without a fireplace), and the exact number of gifts for every child – one of which was always a package of underwear. We all opened that one first – an expected appetizer of a present on our way to the main course of games and toys, wrapped in paper that had been carefully folded and saved from Christmases past.


Even those years when money was tight – and that was most years it seemed – there always was an abundance of food. There was Swedish meatballs, turkey and lutefisk. The lefsa my mother had been making for weeks would be gone by the end of Christmas Eve – as would the pumpkin pie; though a few pieces of apple pie would survive the evening meal. Christmas morning would find my dad in the kitchen frying blood sausage that we would smother with butter and dark Karo syrup – never really comprehending what we were eating.


By the 1990s, my Ghost of Christmas Future was looking far less sentimental and much more cynical. Being one of the youngest children of several generations of my family, each Christmas was now being recognized as the “first Christmas without (fill in the blank with whoever died the previous year)”. The large family gathering with guests sleeping on sofas and children stretched out on the floor got smaller and smaller each season. By then, we were far enough into the AIDS epidemic that Christmas became a time of wondering if this would be the last Christmas for friends who seemed too ill to survive another year. Christmas was becoming a season of diminishment, and the future seemed as dark as the winter’s solstice. So I did what any Scrooge would do, I threw myself into my work.


And my work, as it turned out, brought me my Spirit of Christmas Present.


There is no place I would rather be for the holidays – not a favorite Christmas from my childhood, or some future Christmas in a warm and sunny location – than Open Arms. Open Arms captures the sense of abundance and awe that I remember from my childhood and reclaims the hopefulness and activism that was once missing from my future.


I love the blast of cold air that comes in the building as volunteers walk through our doors. I love the sound of them stomping the snow from their boots before walking into the kitchen to start cooking or collecting their meal delivery bags. Although our volunteers don’t come bearing wrapped presents to put beneath a tree, they bring something I value much more at this point in my life. They bring a generous spirit and a gift of time.


I love the rich smells of hearty soups simmering on our stoves, of free-range turkeys baking in the ovens, and gingerbread cookies spread out on trays just waiting for the colorful frosting that will transform them into gingerbread men and women. I love watching children, and adults, bite the heads off first, before washing the cookie down with a cup of steaming hot chocolate or apple cider.


More than anything, I love knowing that hundreds of people who are confronting serious health issues will have nutritious meals to eat – every day of the year – because of the efforts of thousands of caring people in this community. And that is the gift that Open Arms has given me. You have given me the spirit of Christmas that I came very close to losing.


However you celebrate the season, I wish you much joy and good health.

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