What’s so great about Christmas?


Christmas_tree_at_nightBoy, that was fast. One day we’re gathered at sister-in-law Patti’s for Thanksgiving, the next day Tanya and her boyfriend Brandon were setting up our artificial Christmas tree. So we’ll enjoy the fully-decorated tree for most of a month. Actually, more than a month. We don’t take down the tree until after New Year’s Day.

Charles Dickens wouldn’t recognize the way we celebrate Christmas. At our house, we’ve got wooden, painted Santas on the mantle where eight decorated yet still empty stockings hang. Five Santas sit on the piano. Of course, this isn’t the 19th Century. We do things the modern way.

Even before Kroger’s had sold the first turkey for Thanksgiving, the store had decorations and special treats out on the shelves for Christmas. I may be one of the few Americans who doesn’t mind stores and shopping malls getting a jump on the big holiday. Christmas may not be all about money. But it’s partly about money. In fact, holiday spending accounts for a huge chunk of annual spending for most American families.

That’s all right, too. The spending not only means profits for companies and investors. It represents thousands of jobs all over the country. Complain if you will about stores getting a jump start on Christmas shopping even before the Thanksgiving turkey is sold. But celebrate the creation of jobs. It means a great deal for those households that will have money to spend for presents under the tree.

I love our family traditions. After Thanksgiving dinner, we draw names to see what family member we’ll buy a present for. We’ve done this for years. We set a dollar limit so that the exchange isn’t a financial hardship. Nobody has his or her feelings hurt if you decide the sweater you got on Christmas Day isn’t quite your style and you exchange it for a different style.

We host a Christmas Eve dinner for our immediate family. We might attend a service at our Unitarian church in the neighborhood. Some years Christmas Day we celebrate at sister-in-law Vicki’s some 40 miles west of Fort Wayne. This year the gathering will again star Rod and Cassandra’s two small children, Conner and Chloe and Aunt Patti’s 4-year-old granddaughter Mayzi.

Over the holidays, some family members will celebrate the coming of the Christ child and attend a church service. Those who aren’t particularly religious will still join in singing carols. At our house, with a huge hill in the backyard, we’ll help children sled, providing we get a decent snow covering.

When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, Dad and I would trudge several blocks north on Jefferson toward the library to a corner lot filled with fresh Christmas trees. Once home with a tree that wasn’t too crooked, we’d bring out the ornaments. Then we’d spend the afternoon decorating the tree. Mom would serve us hot chocolate. Our little family would be ready for Christmas.

If the traditions of the season provide a structure and routines, they also serve as memories that can brighten your spirits any time of the coming year. I have to smile when I recall one gathering of Mom and Dad’s friends at 602 Jefferson. That year an old classmate of Dad’s named Bus Day and I played catch with my new football in the living room. Yes, predictably, we knocked over the Christmas tree.

After so many years, I can still picture both sets of grandparents, pretending to be surprised and pleased at the gifts I had given them, no doubt bought with my allowance and earnings selling Grit newspaper in the neighborhood.

Never mind what somebody else thinks of Christmas, what’s wrong with it, whether we’ve lost the true spirit, whether its origins are pagan. To be sure, the celebration has changed through the centuries. Now it’s our era’s turn. Besides, who really can be confident that the Nativity stories have any historical basis?

In this culture, what hasn’t changed is that we treat it as the most special holiday. It brings families together. It nurtures forgiveness. It promotes sharing. The carols are fun to sing, on or off key. Through the years, Christmas creates precious memories that last long after your favorite toys have broken and your sweaters and jackets have been shipped off to the Goodwill. There’s just a lot that’s so great about Christmas.

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What would Mrs. Zesky say?


DeskStudentWell, it’s late August and the school buses are rolling already. When I was growing up in Defiance, Ohio, school started right after Labor Day. But never mind the history lesson. We’re here, with the start of another school year and my thoughts, as always, turn to Mrs. Zesky, my fifth grade teacher in Slocum Elementary.

I can’t imagine what her reaction would be to these schemes to improve schools that politicians and school reformers have dreamed up. But I can testify that the matronly Mrs. Zesky was one of my best teachers. Public school, folks. Counting three college degrees, I studied with lots of fine teachers, Mr. Zimmerman in eighth grade English, Miss Mouser in 11th grade English, T.G. Burks in philosophy, Dr. Willer in American literature. Mr. Feldhaus in Shakespeare. Nobody beat my fifth grade teacher.

Here’s one thing about Mrs. Zesky’s teaching. She gave every student a chance to answer a question. And to ask a question. Every child was treated with respect. No teacher’s pets. She wasn’t pressing her students to meet arbitrary standards established at the Ohio Department of Education. If we had achievement tests, we didn’t cram for them.

We learned American history, watched films about the Founding Fathers and the Civil War.
We learned our math facts. You knew you weren’t going to get out of her class and go on to sixth grade if you hadn’t mastered your math facts.

Bertha Zesky oversaw all this learning in a kindly, friendly manner. She didn’t scold or reprimand or embarrass a student. None whatsoever that I recall. She gave us a break on a regular basis from the nose-to-the-grindstone studying.

I don’t recall the reason that she led us to the empty classroom next door for story time. Anyway, she then read to us about the adventures of animals in the forest. Sammy Squirrel? Reddy Fox? That was 66 years ago so I probably have the characters wrong. What I do remember is that Mrs. Zesky made the characters come alive. It was such a terrific exhibition of the pleasures of reading.

I don’t recall her ever sending a student to the office of the principal. That would have been “Old Lady Lind” we called her. She was also my first grade teacher. Her stern demeanor suggested she probably deserved her nickname. Yet we all did learn to read. In fifth grade, there was more.

I don’t think Mrs. Zesky even made a student sit in the hall just to have some classroom peace. I guess we all behaved because she was so nice to us.

My favorite story came during the Christmas gift exchange. We all drew names of course. Limits were set on spending. To my horror, I drew the name of a girl whose family didn’t see that she came to school with clean hair and dress. To my regret, I suppose I and my classmates shunned her. Getting that name in the gift exchange was a humiliation I didn’t need at age 10. I don’t recall that I was crying. But Mrs. Zesky did call me to her desk to discover my distress.

No problem. Mrs. Zesky needed a name and she would give me her name. The teacher’s name! I had the honor of giving our teacher the Christmas gift. The girl whose name I drew would get a gift from the teacher. How special did that make her feel!

Several lifetimes later, when I was writing editorials for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, I also served on the board of the Education Writers Association. With that group, mostly education reporters, I visited a dozen schools and districts around the country. We heard from experts, political leaders and top school officials in a number of states, plus U.S. secretaries of education.

I suppose I picked up good ideas for editorials from these speakers and school visits. But as I reflect on the lectures and interviews, I can’t think of a thing that would have improved Mrs. Zesky’s teaching. Not a thing. She did it all without having a state senator looking over her shoulder or endless drills in math or science. Thanks, my dear Mrs. Zesky.

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