The mayor's 'Christmas Message'

Christmas is a religious holiday. It's also a government holiday in this land of religious freedom and separation of church and state. And it's a big commercial event in which any spiritual or religious meaning tends to get swamped in stuff. In this context, how can the mayor's "Christmas Message" be anything more than a perfunctory formality — I have to write it; you don't have to read it?

Well, let's start with this ... My religious upbringing was determined by a legal contract. My Swedish Methodist father somehow managed to fall in love with my Italian Catholic mother, and the only way she could continue to receive the sacraments was for them to sign an agreement that their children would be raised Catholic.

So my brother and I went to Mass every Sunday and Catechism on Saturdays but with no religious or spiritual guidance at home ... ever. Once, the nuns encouraged me to bring my father into the fold, and I discovered how hard it had been for him to sign that agreement. (His father, two uncles and two brothers were all Methodist ministers.)

Christmases, which we celebrated with my mother's family on Christmas Eve, were noisy marathons of discussion and arguments, amid large volumes of food and presents. Around hour three, an in-law would make predictably offensive comments about the Pope, and eventually a contingent would troop off to Midnight Mass. It was food, family and stuff — no Baby Jesus, Wise Men, light in the darkness ...

But one year someone brought a stranger, a person not well known to any of us but stranded for the holiday. I can't remember who it was, but that person, by his or her mere presence, transformed the event. Instead of just blending in, they became the center of interest. My disputant relatives became curious, sensitive and generous with their attention. The happening was so successful it was repeated the next year and soon was an unofficial part of our Christmases and clearly the most meaningful for everyone.

I often wondered how my intense, argumentative relatives found such tenderness for people they didn't even know. And it was a quiet Christmas miracle that this brought out the finest qualities in our guests, some of whom over the years became part of the family. In reflecting back, I wonder if it had to do with my mother's family being immigrants who knew firsthand what it was like to be far from home in an unfamiliar place.

This was how "the spirit" crept into my Christmas. There was no sermon, no doctrinal or Constitutional dispute, and the food and gifts became a setting for something very human, real and touching. I think all of us here in Ashland, in our compassionate and generous instincts, especially at this time of year, can find each other and help bind our community together.

And so — in this particular sense — may I wish you all "Merry Christmas!"?

John Stromberg is the mayor of Ashland.

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