The Old Tyme Barber Shop on Howard Street in Live Oak, Florida, a few days before Christmas, 2008.
Photo: Julie Ardery

Family traditions are never more apparent than now, at Christmas time. Food and the presence of family are keys to anyone’s successful holiday.

In our family, the food tradition is to have oyster stew and ham sandwiches on Christmas Eve. Christmas dinner is cranberry sauce and turkey, with our family’s northeastern coastal origins (my great great granddad came to Missouri from Maine) accented by oysters, of the scalloped variety.

We’ve tried different menus but our tradition is so ingrained that anything else leaves us wanting.

“Wanting” at Christmas time is normal for the younger generation, whose modern sugar plum visions are more of I-Pods and Wall-E. Like food, family gift traditions remain pretty much unchanged, even as the contents of brightly wrapped packages change with technology and the advertising budgets of toy manufacturers.

Traditional, too, is the debate about whether or not such commercial aspects of Christmas as gifts and Santa are appropriate for Christians who disdain commercialized celebrations of the birth of the Savior. Some have even gone so far as to claim that Santa Claus has no place in orthodox Christian celebration. In our home, Santa stockings on the mantel share tradition right along with the Nativity Scene on the china hutch. Even though some fail to see it, for me, their meaning is one in the same.

Santa is a benevolent, unseen force whose works are evident everywhere. He brings us gifts out of love, even though we never quite make it down to the living room in time to meet him personally. He answers our fondest wishes and asks for nothing in return save that we believe in him and the generosity of giving. He is the benefactor, the giver of joy. Parents use him to brighten their children’s lives, to give them hope that all things come to those who are good the year round, or even for those who recant past misdeeds (even at the last minute).

Last night I took a page from my Mother’s book. She used to give cash in special ways like hiding it in Christmas ornaments or fresh fudge. I hid cash in the base of 13 candles by drilling out a hole and filling it with a rolled up bill. At the end of the evening I told everyone I had an idea for a picture. I asked them to stand in front of the tree as a group, each holding a lit candle. We took several pictures, then I told them they could keep their candles, but warned them not to burn the candle at both ends.
Photo: Richard Oswald

That is the Christmas message from Langdon: That hope exists for good little boys and girls, no matter how old. For ten-year-olds, ecstasy waits under the Christmas tree. But for those of us who have outgrown this childish indulgence, the promise from an unseen force who gives priceless gifts of His love casts a glow on life that cannot be erased by hate or greed, or even death. The Gift is there, under the Tree, for everyone.

You simply have to believe.

One of the newest of traditions in our family has been a story book, “The Polar Express” by Chris Van Allsberg. His story mentions little of religion as he tells a story about a boy who rides on a magical train all the way to the North Pole where he meets Santa and receives a special gift of his own choosing, a silver bell from Santa’s sleigh.

Upon leaving the North Pole, the boy fears he has lost the bell only to find it waiting for him under the tree on Christmas morning. He and his sister Sarah agree that the sound of the bell is the sweetest sound they’ve ever heard. In the closing of his book, Van Allsberg writes: “At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.”

Here on the farm outside of Langdon, with fresh oyster stew on the stove and baked ham cooling on the sideboard, with the tree trimmed and the house filled with the sounds of family, Christmas is all that it should be. I find I still believe in gifts, in life, and all things good. The promise survives.

I hear the bell.

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