I’ve written before that I really don’t get into the proverbial Christmas Spirit until I hear “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway. Why that song? I can’t really call it. But I think it has to do with conflict and contradiction, disappointment and hope.

“Hang all the mistletoe, I’m gonna get to know you better… This Christmas…”

The words are as saccharine as any secular seasonal anthem, I suppose, but Donny’s delivery is all the difference. Beyond merely soulful, his voice is plaintive, imparting a meaning, an urgency, that goes far beyond anything written on the lyric sheet. When he sings, “and this Christmaaas, wiiill beeee/ a very special Chriiistmas, for meeee,” you can tell this cat is haunted by some ghosts of Christmas past, or more to the point, there’s some blues he can’t shake, some demons that he hopes–needs–this most expectant and anxious of holidays to erase.

I could be reading into it, inserting something that wasn’t originally there, infusing this soulful classic with a maudlin element missing when Hathaway recorded it back in 1970. It was before his genius flowered in 1973’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” a musical commentary on the black condition that brings water to my eyes each and every time I hear it. And it was almost 10 years before this brilliantly creative, but deeply troubled soul, took himself out of this world in 1979. But I don’t think so. It’s not me. “It” is in there.

This Christmas. Not last Christmas. Not the Christmases of our youth, framed in our mind’s eye as warm photos, fuzzy-lensed and touched up by fond memories, possessing a glow that is simply impossible to recreate. And not recent Christmases, experienced as adults, which, somehow don’t measure up to the grand spectacle on 34th St. It’s the promise of This Christmas, the miracle just around the corner, that is so compelling. The Christmas of our modern mythology, our great national sale-abration, has become the idealized inspiration for tremendous hope and despair, often within the same people. It’s this subtext that Donny is singing to us. To himself. That this conflict between what is and what ain’t will be resolved. This Christmas.

This Christmas, I’ve got my eyes open, scoping out the conflicts. It’s as obvious if you know where and when to look, as the illuminated decorations that go unnoticed during the day yet beam, unmistakable, in the night. So I’m driving slow through this Christmas, taking it all in. * Blink * Ideal vs. Reality. * Flash * Secular vs. Sacred. * Blink * Have vs. Have not *. Trying to reconcile the contradictions of the season.

I’m not breaking new ground, of course. Recently, while watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my family, I stepped out of my childish reverie long enough to recognize that Peanuts’ creator, Charles M. Shultz, was grappling with the conflict between the sacred and the secular when he brought the cartoon to life in 1965, two years before I was even around. It’s an irony that Shultz, whose Peanuts would later become one of the most valuable and prolific merchandising commodities of all time, struck such a sincere, even strident note against creeping Christmas commercialism, and the divorcing of the holiday from its religious foundation.

While my remembrances of the cartoon are mostly of Vince Guaraldi’s beautiful jazz score, and of that sad little tree, it was during Linus’ reading of the story of the birth of Jesus, from Luke 2: 8-14, that the “specialness” of this Christmas special hit me. Although Christmas has undoubtedly become something of an ecumenical holiday, expanded by the forces of the market into a mass cultural phenomenon, it’s nonetheless odd that Jesus gets so little props on his own holiday. It’s even more curious that folks will defend the non-religious aspects of what the holiday has become with religious fervor, to the point of being upset if folks don’t believe in Santa Claus. And it’s equally contradictory that some Christians will get so riled up about it all that they’d be ready to sucker punch Santa if they saw him in the mall. It seems to me that anyone who wants others to know more about Christ should probably try to be more Christ-like.

And what is Christ-like? For one thing, “no room at the inn” did not mean Mary and Joseph’s credit cards were temporarily denied. Or that they had to accept two double beds in a smoking room and pay full price if they wanted to stay. It meant, in essence, that they were homeless in their hour of need. They had much less in common with our economic elite than with those folks with the vacant eyes and outstretched hands whom we try to zone out of our downtowns lest they interfere with our shopping.

One of the most painful and pervasive Christmas conflicts is that between the idealized holiday and the reality. Family and relationship drama that is a burden throughout the year swells to Grinch bag-like proportions during the holiday season, when seemingly everything and everyone expects you to be merry and happy, basking in bliss and well wishes. The weight of that holiday baggage, perhaps, is what pushes folks over the edge, leading to the depression, drinking and drugging that statistically peaks this time of year. Folks get their hopes up. Last year was a hot mess. But not this year. This Christmas. Not again. Please.

Back before Thanksgiving, my wife, Tricia, and I were thinking about the upcoming holidays, looking forward to This Christmas, and how it would affect our foster son. This Christmas will be his first without his birth mother. Are his holiday memories happy? Painful? Both? How did the drama of ideal vs. reality play out in his young life and mind? What he wants, we can get. But what he needs doesn’t have a price tag attached, and, if it did, would be beyond what’s afforded by the modest bonus check Wake County Human Services sends in December for the purchase of a Christmas gift for a foster child.

Beyond his needs, though, we got to thinking about the families in the system in general, and the Kinship Families (Relative Placement Foster Families, as they are also known), in specific. These are folks who’ve stepped in to take care of the children of family members who are having problems, providing a home for young relatives who’d otherwise be placed in the homes of strangers, like my wife and I. While we receive a monthly stipend to help cover the expenses we incur in caring for our foster son, Kinship families do not, generally receiving only medical coverage.

Although the circumstances that lead to children being removed from the custody of a parent are by no means limited to the lower economic ranks, a large percentage of foster children are from poor backgrounds. And chances are, a lot of the people who “take in” these children from their beleaguered relatives share that economic background. For them to care for these children, with virtually no financial support, when they may already be poor is a huge undertaking, a supreme sacrifice and a genuine leap of faith.

Several years ago, at work, I participated in an adopt-a-family project where my office selected a needy family and chipped in to furnish Christmas gifts for the children. Not just the buying, but the delivering of the gifts was a wonderful experience, the feeling of helping. But it was a short-term thing. One Christmas. That Christmas. I’ve often thought back to that family, wondering how they fared. Did the children finish school? Was the mother able to find better housing for them than the drafty shotgun shack with the slanted kitchen floor and the busted heater?

This Christmas, my wife and I decided to build on that example, and then some. As head of the Foster Care and Adoption Ministry that she started at our church, and our liaison for Wake County’s Faith Partners Initiative, Tricia implemented an adopt-a-family program in which we sponsored several Relative Placement families for Thanksgiving. The goal was to start small, assign a family to different ministries within the church (each consisting of about 10-20 people), provide meals for five families for Thanksgiving, and then repeat that for Christmas plus, hopefully, collect some gifts. The response was overwhelming. We collected and delivered enough food baskets and turkeys to take care of seven families for Thanksgiving.

As we’d hoped, those that helped deliver the food connected with the people. We heard firsthand accounts of folks who’d almost stopped hoping, after being promised help by other organizations and let down, when things fell through. It’s one thing to read in the paper that the recession has led to cutbacks in charitable giving, but being able to see the need, to imagine yourself having so little and then losing some of that, is chastening. We learned of a woman who was recently unemployed and trying to fight cancer with no medical care. And yet she still steadfastly cares for children who were not born her own. Her faith, her resolve and conviction, can’t help but be a source of strength to anyone who meets her.

I brought my sons along to drop off a basket to an older gentleman, in his 70s, with three young granddaughters, just getting by on a fixed income. That this man, a war vet who gave 23 years of his life to our nation’s service, was living in poverty is a sad testament to the priorities and very character of a nation so quick to send folks around the world for the contrived war du jour. Especially when even his humble existence, in his tiny home, which he so graciously opened up to his granddaughters, is a vast improvement over those who come home in body bags, roam the streets like zombies, or wither, neglected, in VA hospitals. Me and my boys brought him a basket even as the president zoomed to Iraq for Thanksgiving Dinner and a photo-op. More conflict and contradiction. He asked us to pray for his daughter who was on “that mess,” one of countless casualties of the war raging at home.

Tricia and I called each of the families up recently, to get clothing sizes and some gift ideas for the children. What was amazing to us, in this gimme world and selfish season, was the number of these parents who declined to provide any suggestions for toys. “Naw, that’s ok, the food and clothes will be plenty.” One woman told Tricia that she invited two neighbors, an elderly woman living alone, and another single parent with two young children, who lived in her trailer park, to share her Thanksgiving dinner. She explained that she had never really had enough to give, and felt so blessed to receive the food basket, that she immediately thought to share it with others that she knew had nothing. We were speechless. I still am. There’s nothing to add to that; it speaks for itself.

We’re not special. And damn sure, not perfect. None of this really cost a lot. Nor did it take a lot of time. Just an idea, some follow through, and a lot of people willing to give just a bit of themselves. But it was all heart-felt, and we pray it provides some hope for all of us. Two meals, sans symbolism, isn’t really going to change anything. We intend, however, to continue the momentum, and hopefully establish long-term relationships with these families–not materially, but spiritually, and as a community.

And if we can do that, then This Christmas. Will be. A very special Christmas. For me. EndBlock