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For Christmas, even an SOP can become a tradition

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You had to have the last word, last night, you're so much fun to be around; You had to have the front page, bold type, you had to be a big shot last night!

DEC. 12, 2012: Several weeks ago I was asked to speak today during the annual Christmas program for the Watertown Noon Rotary Club and provide a message of hope and inspiration.

Naturally, I began to think about the beauty and mysteries of Christmas traditions, which led me to think about the Christmas traditions that were so important to the Gorman family as I was growing up in Muskegon, Mich.

But after two weeks of thought, I had nothing. And then reality struck me… my family didn't have any Christmas traditions. We only had Christmas Standard Operating Procedures.

We had to. My parents had eight kids. And while we all know that back in the day, God spoke a word and brought order out of chaos, we also know that children –- especially when there are a lot of them –- spend much of their time trying to undo the handiwork of our Creator.

It was no secret that our neighbors never saw the eight of us as “those charming children next door.” Some neighbors –- especially those who had wimped out and only had one or two kids — referred to the Gorman 8 as either the Mongol horde, the Seven-Year Locust or –- on occasion — the Scourge of God.

My long-suffering parents knew that no matter what they created, what they bought, what they fixed or what they enhanced, all would be destroyed. Maybe not immediately, but most certainly eventually. Getting your hopes up after a week because the newly purchased coffee table still had no gouges in it was nothing more than vanity. We did not know the hour nor the day, but we all knew that gouge was a' coming.

Christmas morning was the same way. No matter what my parents did to make our living room look festive and magical, 10 minutes after the eight of us showed up, the place looked like it had been ransacked by Somali pirates.

Our first Christmas Standard Operating Procedure was that “no child may come downstairs until the parents call for you.” This rule gave my parents the chance to get some coffee, sit down to admire what they had done, maybe even take a picture.

But each year, their routine was causing more consternation for the horde. Our family often went to midnight Mass. After we came home and all the kids were in bed, my parents would stay up to wrap presents. Who knows when they finally got to sleep? Naturally, they were in no hurry to get up early Christmas morning and release the hounds of hell.

And so there we children were every Christmas morning. Six o'clock, seven o'clock, eight o'clock. Waiting for the call that would come around 8:30. Half of us lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, the other half lying in bed and staring up at the bottom of a top bunk.

The call would then come and in 10 minutes it was over. And then the second Christmas Standard Operating Procedure took place. The four oldest kids went about the room picking up every piece of scrap wrapping paper and bringing them to my mother, who would flatten out each piece, one at a time, and then put them in a trash bag.

Yes, it would have been quicker to have the kids throw the scraps away themselves, but my parents knew that in our general enthusiasm to finish any chore quickly and with as little thought and care as possible, we might accidentally throw away a newly opened toy. Or a younger sibling.

To tell you the truth, I don't remember any Christmas gift I ever received as a child. Of course, if you wolf down a fine meal, you won't remember much about that either.

The only Christmas I remember is this one:

In 1967 my parents decided to host a foreign exchange student, a practice they continued on and off for about 30 years. Alejandro, or Jano, was from Mexico City. He was my age and we were supposed to hang out together. But we just didn't have much in common and looking back, we were never very tight.

But there he found himself in our home on Christmas morning, sitting in a corner chair in the living room, staying out of the way and watching the wolf pack at work. My parents got him a couple of small presents and so he was finished opening his gifts long before everyone else.

When it was over and the scrap-gathering was about to start, I noticed he was still sitting in the chair in the corner with a detached, far-away look on his face. He was 15 years old and 2,300 miles away from his parents. He knew what Christmas was supposed to be and this sure wasn't it.

“So, Jano,” my dad suddenly blurted out. “How do you like Christmas in America?”

“It is fine,” Jano forced himself to say.

“Well, you have another present,” my dad said, “but we couldn't fit it under the tree.”

The horde had no idea what my dad was talking about. The room grew silent. Then around the corner and down the hallway, we could hear a bedroom door open. Then we heard footsteps. And into the living room walked a young man, around 20 years old, wearing pajamas and a bathrobe.

And then Jano shrieked. He shot out of the chair and ran into the arms of this stranger and began to weep uncontrollably.

After what seemed like a minute with all of us watching in uncomfortable confusion, my dad said matter-of-factly, “This is Jorge, Jano's older brother. He goes to school in Chicago. Their parents asked if we could get them together for Christmas.”

Looking back my parents were probably like most parents. Through examples large and small they were trying to teach us that Christmas was not about the presents under the tree, but the presents that don't fit under a tree: renewal, redemption, forgiveness.

I can still hear my father say, well, more like bark: “If someone needs help, don't say to the person 'let me know if you need anything,' because the person will never ask for help. You just start helping them.”

And I can still see my mother's living example that even though there were 10 of us, there was always room at the table for one more.

Some of us are waiting for New Year's Day to resolve to be the person we want to be – the person we should be. But why wait? Don't most of us already have a running start by Christmas morning? Haven't we just spent most of December sincerely wishing each other peace and good will? Haven't we spent more time this month talking about widows who need visiting, deployed soldiers who need adopting and battered children who need protecting?

We can wait for January, but the truth is we will never be as close to the heart of God as we are today.

Hey, wait a second... maybe the Gormans DO have a Christmas tradition after all!

Thank you and Merry Christmas.

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