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Bay Window: Unexpected Christmas spirit

There he was, wrestling Christmas lights as if they were alligators. He had been itching to put those things up for weeks.

Some people seem to feel the Christmas spirit year-round. I like those people a lot. But for me, it’s hard to feel that spirit until Christmas finds me.

I never know when it will happen. Only that it will. It seems doubtful, at times, but I keep hoping. And, sooner or later, like magic, there it is.

Faith dims, but hope persists, singing of spring in a frozen heart like a redbird in the snow.

When I was 10, my stepfather twisted his ankle so badly that he couldn’t work for six months. And suddenly, for my family, hard times got a lot harder.

Just before Christmas, my mother said Santa would be a bit late. I didn’t ask why. I knew. Children always know.

“How late?” I said.

“Maybe spring.”

On Christmas Eve, my stepfather limped home with our only gift.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, sliding a box of tangerines under the tree. They tasted good. And in that taste, Christmas found me.

My first child was 4 and his sister was 2 when their dad had his first bout with cancer. The surgery went well; no other treatment was needed. But fear lingered like a bad case of flu. Just before Christmas, I learned it wasn’t flu; I was pregnant. And in the promise of that baby, Christmas found me.

Twenty years ago, driving home from my mother’s funeral, my brother seemed lost in his thoughts. Joe is blind, but he often sees things others tend to miss.

It was December. The church had been decorated with garlands of fir and bright red bows.

“Did you smell all that lovely Christmas greenery?” I asked.

“I sure did,” he said. “It was beautiful. I know Mama loved it. I’ll bet this is her favorite Christmas ever.”

And in the vision of a blind man, Christmas found me.

The darkest Christmas of my life came two years later. I had to tell my children that their dad was losing his battle with cancer and had only weeks to live. They didn’t want to believe it. He had beaten it so many times before they were sure he would beat it again. But that night at dinner, they looked in his eyes and saw what they had refused to hear.

I had to let them see it. The hardest and best thing a parent can do is to let truth be truth.

After dinner, we opened gifts. Mostly, I recall the quiet. We’d never had a quiet Christmas.

Finally, my daughter, bless her, set up a putting game she had given to her dad and dared him and her brothers to beat her.

I was scraping dishes when I heard a sound I’ll never forget. My children were laughing with their father. I’d heard it before, countless times, but never like that. And in the beauty of that sound, Christmas found me.

For all the years that have followed, Christmas has found me wherever I’ve been, on the coast of California, with my children and grandchildren; in the mountains of the Carolinas, visiting family and friends; and lately, in my new life in the desert outside Las Vegas, with my not-so-new husband, who would decorate for Christmas in July, if I’d let him. This morning, I watched from the window as he huddled in the yard stringing Christmas lights on the fence in 40 mph winds.

I wish you could have seen him. I can’t swear he was swearing, but his lips were moving and the air looked blue all around him.

I laughed so hard I nearly snorted eggnog out of my nose.

And in that laughter, Christmas found me.

Christmas finds us when we least expect it, at odd times and strange places, in tastes and smells and sights unseen, in the promise of a baby, the laughter of children and the joy that is found in the depths of sorrow and in the gift of being alive.

To you and yours from me and mine, may Christmas find you now and forever happy and well.