As a child, I did not have Christmas in a traditional sense or really, any sense.
My older brother Jay, my younger sister Janice and I grew up in abject poverty and were often homeless as children, a result of the severe dysfunction of our alcoholic parents. By the time I reached 17 years of age, we had been evicted from 34 homes.
Homes which often had no electricity, phone, or heat in the winters of the Boston and New England area.
I have more than one memory of living in a car at Christmas time.
No Christmas in the way our friends, cousins, or schoolmates celebrate the holiday.
Despite all of that — and more likely because of all of that — I fell in love with the true meaning of Christmas at five years of age. It was then that I acquired a cheap little plastic Nativity scene. It included the wonderful little smiling face of the Baby Jesus.
At five years of age, I did not know much about religion nor did I honestly care at the time. I was more concerned with finding enough left-overs to feed my little sister, my brother, and myself.
But, there was something about that smiling face of the Baby Jesus in that cheap little plastic Nativity scene which did deeply touch me for some reason. So much so, that I began to talk to that tiny face. A face which became my friend. A friend I could cry to as the darkness of our continual dysfunction swirled around us.
A few weeks after getting that little Nativity scene, they came to evict us out into the cold yet again. They found me hiding in a closet clutching that Nativity scene and the face of my new little friend, tightly to my chest.
Interestingly, those years of poverty and dysfunction never made me bitter or even sad. But they did activate and greatly expand my “empathy gene.”
When I was a child, I discovered books. And it is no exaggeration to say that the reading of books helped to preserve my sanity, and maybe even saved my life as they tilted me in a much safer direction than that of some around me.
For a few minute or a few hours at a time, the words of others magically transported me away from the cold, the hunger, and away from the everyday pain of our dysfunction.
There was literally no greater gift I had as a child than the power of those words and books to transport my mind to better and happier places.
Some believe the traditional and spiritual meaning of Christmas is on the way to extinction. I hope and pray they are wrong.
Christmas for me has always been about the joy derived from helping others in need. It has always been about the messages of hope and giving taken from that tiny smiling plastic face so many years ago.
We will never be able to solve poverty or dysfunction on a macro level. Ever. But we all know someone — be it a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a work colleague — going through some tough times who we can help on a personal one-on-one level.
If ever there was a time to reach out to those in pain, this truly is the season.
Through the course of my life — like all of us — I have loved and interacted with those who have lost a loved one, those who are quite ill, those who know only loneliness, those suffering from addiction, and those enduring memory loss.
In a Christmas novel I wrote, I sought to weave all of those lives together and give them a greater purpose in the unity of not only newfound friendships, but the common cause of helping desperately poor children in need.
That was the kind of Christmas I believed in.
A time when, for at least one brief moment, we remember that the greatest gift we will ever receive is helping those around us most in need.
Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration. He is the author of the novel, “The North Pole Project — In Search of the True Meaning of Christmas.“
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