TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif - One evening in the winter of an early-adolescent year, when girls and hormones and bullies and hormones and middle school in general ensured life was as dramatically miserable as possible, while my mom drove us home in the full-size Bronco I would later take to college, I took a step toward adulthood by saying, "I know Santa's not real, but still, this Christmas, I..." and she cut me off.
What did I mean Santa's not real? Look around! People are singing and whistling. People who rarely talk to each other are making an effort to do so. So-and-so is being nice to his wife and kids. People are giving presents to each other and making donations to people they don't even know. And when people get together, they make an effort to be happy. It doesn't always work, but they try. They try to be happy and they try to see the best in each other. That's the spirit of St. Nicholas, of Father Christmas, the warm, happy glow of Christmas. Maybe there's not a fat man in a red velvet suit like you see on commercials, but don't say the spirit of Christmas doesn't exist.
It stuck with me (obviously). Every year, amid the barrage of merchandizing, the nauseating overload of new, flashy renditions of old, abused carols, even among the squalor and lust of Bangkok, there's still a part of Christmas that reinforces the spirit of St. Nicholas. There's still the message of peace and goodwill and sharing and caring, even if it's hidden behind a 15-foot animatronic snowman telling you the more you buy, the happier you'll be; Linus still breaks through the commercials to deliver the meaning of Christmas and the Gospel of Luke.
Granted, the strippers and streetwalkers and beggars and scammers and monks who seem to crowd every available patch of Bangkok sidewalks might not have been motivated by the Christmas spirit, but not so for the foreigners who stopped, gave money, and bowed to the monks, all with, "Merry Christmas!"
So to this day, I try (sometimes successfully) to fill myself with the spirit of St. Nicholas every Sunday as I warm up my tuba before church. I remind myself it's an exception for people to come to church, especially this time of year when it's foul weather or great ski weather or winter break, time to visit family or be visited by relatives, so I should be especially happy to see them.
And every week, without fail, I watch the congregation come together (puppies, porcupines, people, and even musicians) with warm handshakes and hugs and, "Hi, howareya, whoareya, whereyabeen, howyabeen, OHMYGODWHAT'STHAT?" And every week, without fail, I am reminded that church, at least as we do it at St. Nicholas, is not about changing people or condemning people or guilt trips, damnation, obligation, extortion, or even dressing up to beat fashionista gossip; I'm reminded it's about coming together with people who care, who aren't welcoming the bad but embracing the good (even in a porcupine and tuba, although embracing either [especially the porcupine] is discouraged).
Every Sunday of the year, to the degree I'm open to it, I get the chance to embrace the spirit of St. Nicholas, the warmth of Christmas, and every Sunday, no matter how I felt walking in, I leave church with the same, warm glow that's at the heart of Christmas.
- Russell Richardson, MM, MFA, St. Nick's tuba player and publicist