The Greatest Gifts

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The visitors arrive like Magi, some bringing gifts that likely have as little practical use to the recipient than something he or she might wear to their own funeral. The living room buzzes with conversations, small talk about universal themes: family, health, weather, the ghosts of Christmases past. You busy yourself in the kitchen, preparing the too-big meal for the too-anxious crowd that sits on your mismatched batch of chairs, wondering at the boxes beneath the tree. After dinner, their hunger sated but not their appetites, each family member, in turn, receives his or her share of the under-tree giftscape, leaving behind the debris of the season’s here-and-gone tornado of emotions and memories. You scan the scene, moving from one rosy-cheeked child of God to the next, each resting within their nest of torn wrapping paper, a display of joy and excess that’s often confused you, dipped you in anxiety and guilt, burned your fingers and laid waste to purse and parlor. That’s when you realize the gifts given and received tonight weren’t wrapped in paper and bows, maybe weren’t so practical but always will be the most essential. The greatest gifts have always been the giving and the givers.

With Christmas only a week away, these thoughts dawned upon me in another pre-sunup wake up call. 

More Than a Man Behind a Beard

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The Santas have come
to the malls again,
carried in by the warm breeze
from ovens opening to release
the Thanksgiving turkey
to its joyous greeting and
Black Friday leftovers demise.
These red-clad stand-ins aren’t
really the jolly one, though.
Just like Teddy Bears aren’t
named Teddy and definitely
aren’t bears. Not really.
Well, they are in the imaginations
of children and those who wish
to hold onto memories from childhoods
too early lost to revelations
from the older ones who still
feel anger about losing theirs.

I wonder if the shopping mall,
sidewalk and Salvation Army
Santas enjoy their roles as
symbols of something lost
or soon enough so. Just as
they’ll lose their jobs
come the 25th of December.
If I was one of them, sitting
on my photo prop throne or
ringing my alms-seeking bells,
I’d prefer to think I’m grasping
a month in my life, mere minutes
over 30 days, perhaps as some
child’s lifetime memory of something
pureand good. Something greater than
just a man behind a beard.

Angel Dust

There’s a Christmas tree up there
behind the altar–closer than
the Nativity scene to the right–
a mixed message in a season
full of messages. The oversized
angel atop the twelve-footer is
running cover for keeping
the Christ close to the Mass
in this church’s Christmas.

But she’s just one more angel
in a hall echoing with them.
They all look down upon the rows
of sinners and saints who
look up from time to time
searching for solace,
or salvation or something
I’m pretty sure I’ll never realize.

The angels and some kneelers
look down on tree-topper and me, too.
That’s how it’ll always be here–
house rules, home vs. visitors.
That might be why Christmas Angel and I
only show up when we’re called to.
It’s how we keep from collecting
too much of their dust on our wings.

Stille Nacht, 1914

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British and German troops meeting in No-Mans’s Land during the unofficial truce.

Liebe Mama, the letter began when she opened its mud spattered
paper, unfinished, like the life that penned it. On the other side
of The Channel it read Dearest Mum. And then their stories began
of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when the guns ceased
their booming bursts for that time and young men
peeked over the mole-run, rat-hole front lines
with no fear of dying without a head to send with their bodies,
home to Liebe Mama and Dearest Mum.

They told of going over the top clutching tobacco and biscuits,
candy and sausages, instead of Enfields or Mausers,
to trade season’s greetings instead of death.
And carols were heard instead of the screams of the shells,
the wails of the wounded, unanswered calls to Mama and Mum.
But these were mud soldiers, the ones whose bodies would fertilize
the poppies one day, perhaps, when church bells would ring
for Christmas services and not to bury mein junge or my boy.

It’s said the clean uniforms at the rear called a cease
to the cease fires in later years, because such fraternization
was not in keeping with victory for King and Country.
And so barely again did boys in Khaki or Grau join hands
in the brotherhood of men who looked alike covered
in the mud of Flanders or to the addressees of these,
their last letters home. For after the final strains of
Stille Nacht, there’d come no more silent nights except
where now poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row.

The Christmas truce, Weihnachtsfrieden in German, was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front around Christmas 1914. In the week leading up to the holiday, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. Maybe this free write poem is a reminder that it can be done, if only for a short while, with hope for something more permanent someday.

Nipping at His Nose

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He could sense the holiday
in his nose more than
in his heart, but his nose stood
more blatantly exposed
to the environment than
his figurative ticker.
It’s not that he was blind
to all the lights and crowds and
super sales that assailed his vision
whenever he peeked above
his snow-wet shoe tops.
But the aroma of gingerbread
and evergreen braided with
a certain chill on the air
from the north by east or west,
–it didn’t matter–they all
brought forth flurries
of memories from his past,
ones that attached themselves as
“pleasant” and “family” and “home”
to his madly visual mind.
He grinned a childish grin,
pulled his hand from its
warm flannel resting place
close to his literal ticker and
touched the cold skin on
the part of him inhaling
all those Decembers past.
Cold felt the warm and
warm felt the cold and
together they awakened
what was always that certain
joy in his world-frozen soul.

Regifted

On Christmas Day, Dad would always smilingly
watch us tear into the gifts Santa “left” us
(even as a kid, I figured—incorrectly—no one
“gave” you anything just because)
and then he would head to the kitchen
to begin making the Christmas feast.

But even after the ham assumed its place
in the oven beneath brown sugar, cloves,
pineapple and ginger ale, Dad didn’t
resurface much into the rest of the house’s
rampant, raucous, ripped-paper riot.

He kept to himself a lot, parked in the kitchen
as Dean Martin or Perry Como warbled
Christmas tunes and he sipped at little glasses
of Manischewitz wine or big ones of beer.
If I gave this any thought at the time, it was fleeting.

I sparked this moment of an old man’s out-of-focus
recall yesterday, as I wrestled with my own
emotional solitary confinement amid
the warm and spectacular sharing of familial joy
surrounding me at this blessed time.

It was both frighteningly revelatory
and a comfort to me. See, I considered myself broken,
a disappointment to my loved ones, who try so hard,
with great affection and understanding,
to buoy Dad-me amid my Christmas castaway ways.

But it turns out I’m just a man who loves
his family and loves Christmas, just not himself,
no matter how he’s wrapped. I’ve thought a lot
about this lately, now that rampant, raucous,
riotous life is fleeting, and I realize I
might just be a regifted version of my dad.

Midnight Mass

Over the boom of the juke box playing Dean Martin’s version “Ave Maria,” Don the bartender yelled, “Hey, Chet, don’t you think you should be seeing to your reindeer instead of coming into some bar?” as Chester Bonaparte swayed and limped into The Palais on Broadway that Christmas Eve afternoon.

The whole joint erupted in laughter, even Chet, his chubby cheeks red as the gin blossom nose that provided the pivot point for a face lit by his jolly, if runny, blue eyes, and anchored by his white scruffy beard.

Four hours later, Don tossed Chet for getting humbuggingly belligerent, though still chuckling, with three wise guys from the uptown Brockley Gang, saying, “It’s for your own good, Chester, so you can go home in one piece and make merry, go to Mass, maybe sleep it off and see what Santy brings.”

When Chester stumbled off the bus and then down the stairs to the dark doorway of his basement apartment on Sherman Street, he fell against a jingling package left by his sister Katie, who was an Eastern Airlines stewardess on the Albany to Philadelphia run.

At midnight, the bells of St. Patrick’s pealing up on Central Avenue, Chester lifted his head from the pillow and gave a jolly little laugh at how the empty mini-bottles of Canadian Club, Johnny Walker Red and Smirnoff vodka that he’d hung from a bush he stole from Washington Park sparkled in the flames from his burning kitchen.