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bleak christmas

Christmas in America (Photograph: Jesse Rieser)

So it's Christmas Eve, come 'round again. This will make 74 times I've been present for the celebration of the birth of Christ, the message of peace and love he brought, the hope his nativity represents, all symbolized by the image of a desperate Middle Eastern family seeking shelter, their newborn bedded down in a straw-strewn manger, the trough from which the beasts of the field were fed, those animals clustered around, their bodies providing the primary source of warmth.

I have a pastiche of memories of those Christmases in my past, though if someone asked me how I spent Christmas in 1957, or 1973, I couldn't recall the particulars.

I am reminded that on all those happy Christmas Eves there were vast numbers of kids without expectation of toys, adults who were far from their families, or alone in the world, with no money, no room at the inn.

My earliest Christmas Eves were in Illinois. I spent a Christmas in France, and five or six in Washington State. I spent a dozen Christmases in the higher Sierra, when my daughters were kids. I spent a couple of balmy Christmases in Florida when I was a teenager, but I don't know what presents I might have received, or how the hours were passed. We were living in a trailer park for one of those two years, with mom, dad, and four kids in an 18-foot Airstream trailer. Dad had added a screened-in sun porch not long after we arrived there, and I can vaguely recall that the Christmas tree was on a concrete pad out where my brother and I slept. By the time we spent our second Christmas in Florida, we had moved into a little house across the street from the Episcopal Church where I served as an altar boy. It was not a particularly happy time for the family, and by the next Christmas we were back in Illinois, our circumstances further reduced by dad's failed attempt to make his way to something better. For a working man without a high school diploma, a combat vet without contacts or connections, moving to a right-to-work state where wages were low was probably not the best idea Dad ever had, though I look back on what he did with respect for the courage it surely took. It's the American way to seek greener pastures, but many people never take such big risks, and if they do, many are dashed in the attempt.

Ten years ago, I spent another Christmas in Florida, in Key West this time, with my wife and grown daughters. We ate out on Christmas Eve, went to a movie at a retro movie theatre, then returned to the cottage we'd rented--a lovely evening, with a great tropical morning following it.

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Those daughters will be sleeping under our roof in Magalia this year. Our first born will be bringing gifts from her home in France, and our younger daughter will be coming up from Sacramento. I will be doing much of the cooking, and taking comfort and delight in having us all together.

Most of my Christmases have been merry and bright, made so by the loving presence of family. Though they never had much money, Mom and Dad always saw that there were presents under the tree on Christmas morn (usually from the Montgomery Ward or Sears catalogues from which my siblings and I compiled our lists for Santa). And the Christmases I've shared with my wife and daughters have been among the best moments of my life.

But, as I share these shards of memory, I am reminded that on all those happy Christmas Eves there were vast numbers of kids without expectation of toys, adults who were far from their families, or alone in the world, with no money, no room at the inn. Here on this ridge, there are homeless people, including children, shivering through the darkness until dawn on this holy night. There are widows or widowers spending their Christmas for the first time without the company of a beloved spouse. There are desperate alcoholics who have alienated the people who love them, fighting their addiction, or succumbing to it, alone. For many, this is not a merry time. For many, Christmas brings on "seasonal affective disorder," a bit of psychiatric jargon devised to describe the depression so many are afflicted with at this time of year. And even a man as blessed as I have been knows the sadness that comes with the memory of so many departed loved ones whose names have been erased from our address book.

I didn't write this column to diminish the joys more fortunate people may be enjoying. In the spirit of the season, however, we all might do well to give a thought to those for whom Christmas Eve can be the darkest night of the year.

To them, and to any who read these words on this storied eve: Do all you can to make merry, to light a flickering candle against the darkness, and to take hope in the spirit of rebirth and renewal symbolized by that babe in a manger, born 2016 years ago tonight.

jaime oneill

Jaime O'Neill