Mr. Smith's Neighborhood

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Christmas in My ‘Hood December 25, 2007

Dino and Christmas Tree

Where Are We 2,000 Years Later?

It is Christmas Eve and, as a youngster, this was my favorite night of the whole year. It was the night that my mother’s family came to our home, we had a fabulous fish and seafood dinner, and then we stayed up all night playing games, singing and waiting for my Uncle Red to ascend from the basement as Santa Claus.

Things have changed through the years but it is still a special night, the time when my children join me as we try to keep certain family traditions alive. The changing context of family life and the demands placed on parents do not make holiday celebrations very easy. My family has adapted by going to to The Crab Shanty on City Island (Bronx, NY) for our fish and seafood dinner, saving us the time and work to shop, cook, serve and clean up. It is money well-spent.

During the last few years, devoid of children on Christmas Day, I have enjoyed the time alone in marvelous meditation on the true meaning of the day. My recent marriage has made visiting family on Christmas Day a necessity, so I’ve turned to those quiet hours around midnight on Christmas Eve to remember a special birthday.

Just over 2,000 years ago, a very special child was born into a humble, holy family. While researchers and various religious organizations continue to put forth theories, suppositions and proselytisms about the circumstances of the baby boy’s birth and youth, we know for certain that Jesus later emerged on the shores of the Jordan River to be baptized by St. John. Jesus would use the next three years to teach lessons that have influenced 2,000 years of humanity.

We are also certain that Jesus preached a gospel of love for God and love of one’s neighbor. My favorite gospel is the one where the Pharisees attempt to trick Jesus by asking him to name the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus gives a wonderfully simple answer. First, we should love God fully; secondly, we should love our neighbors as ourselves. It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

There is not a major religion in the world that does not preach this same message: love God and love your neighbor. Somehow, between organized religion, government, the aristocracy and our own lust and greed, we have put the love of God and love of our neighbors as afterthoughts. Our lives are about all choices and, as a wonderful message from E-Home Fellowship tells us (read both pages), the answers lay not in religion but in our hearts.

This is going to sound silly, but the other day was a very sickening day because one woman at my job has a heart full of hate and has targeted me and my wife. During our dinner that night (which included some take-out Chinese food), my wife cried over some nasty things this woman said to her. We opened our fortune cookies and one fortune read, “Hate has never been conquered by hate … only love can conquer hate.”

Those words have touched my heart and soul for many years … some of the “more experienced” readers may recognize those lyrics from What’s Going On? by Marvin Gaye in 1970 (a protest song about the Vietnam War). The full lyrics were, “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate … You see, war is not the answer … for only love can conquer hate.” Over the years, especially after the events of 9/11, those words have eased my pain and filled my eyes with tears.

Rather than file a grievance against this sad bureaucrat, I said a prayer for her and her son. It wasn’t easy, and it may have little or no effect on her personality and attitude, but hate was not allowed to rule the day.

What Jesus brought us on His birthday 2,000 years ago was the gift of love. He brought the love of God to us. He gave us His life, a life that showed us how to love God and love our neighbors. He gave up His life so that the sins of man may be forgiven. Most of all, Jesus showed us how life should be and how we can live a simple life devoted to God and our fellow man.

And that is what Christmas is truly all about … love and simplicity. It is love of family, love of neighbors, and love of God. That realization came to me long ago when I realized that my fondest childhood memories of Christmas were really all about love. And it is at this time of year that many of us find ourselves drawn away from the shopping, the malls, the crowds, the insane drivers on the roads and a government that puts Caesar and Herod to shame.

Christmas for me is driving down Pelham Parkway in the Bronx to see a house that is a true Christmas spectacle which makes Clark Griswold’s house look naked. Christmas was me, my sister and my cousin playing toy instruments along with Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass to the songs from South of the Border. It was sitting next to my grandmother, enjoying her homemade Sicilian pizza and stolen sips of her Anisette, while we played poker to all hours of the morning.

Christmas for me was always about giving (once I was old enough to buy gifts for others with my own money). Gifts that I received from others never really made me happy or sad, and they still don’t. No gift could ever top the greatest gift of the season: the gift of Jesus. It is the love and sharing of the Christmas spirit that makes me joyous, not the physical gifts themselves.

And it is always at this time of year that I ask myself about what I’ve done with the gift of love received from Jesus. There is no way that I’d ever be able to fully do this gift justice, and I can’t say that I’ve even done the best I could. I’ve given lots of love as a teacher, but not enough. I’ve given lots of love as a parent, but that love is not anywhere near perfect. I’ve given lots of love as a friend, but could have done better. I’ve given love to strangers, but I could have done more.

And, like many people in this world, the person who I’ve probably cheated the most is myself. Over the years, I’ve let my employers, my bosses, the government, various commercial industries and other ridiculous enterprises suck the life and love out of me. That meant there was less love for all those around me, and less love for myself.

So, this year, following a horrific year in my health and, subsequently, my career, I’m making a pledge to myself to simplify my life. I am taking back control by refusing to get caught up in the rat race. There is nothing good that can come from commuting two hours a day to work. I refuse to pay any more taxes to New York … if American colonists had been paying taxes like these, regardless of the services that SOME of the money buys, they would have killed King George and every politician in England.

I’m tired of making oil companies, car manufacturers, utilities, pharmaceuticals and other profiteers rich at the expense of me and my family. I discovered that I can live a very simple and fulfilling life. Life should be about loving God and loving our neighbors, pursuing a Gnostic existence devoted to the love of God, enlightenment and enriching the life of others through all that we do. My career in education dovetails nicely with this goal.

In the meantime, as I wish you a very Merry Christmas full of peace, love and happiness, I hope you are able to fully embrace the love embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus (you can also find that same love in other religions). Love God and love you neighbor … those are the two greatest commandments. At the same time, ask yourself one simple question:

How far have the people of this world come in fulfilling the two greatest commandments since a holy child was born this night 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem?

As for me, I am going to look at my little symbolic tree, listen to Dean Martin sing (“Let It Snow”) and then I am going to thank God and Jesus for all the love in my life. In the words of Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beauty, I am “grateful for every single moment of my stupid little life … You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”

Again Merry Christmas to all and, to all, a good night!


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