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Noel... and other Christmassy stuff

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"The season is upon us now, a time for gifts and giving, and as the year draws to a close I think about my living. And Christmastime when I was young, the magic and the wonder. But colors dull and candles dim and dark my standing under."
John Denver wrote those words to his baby Zachary 35 years ago; and while John is gone and baby Zachary is now a man, I visit that song this time of year like an old friend. It's a cause to pause for a little self-inventory, like a grocer checking his stock. Funny, how you always find you're running short on some things and overstocked on others. Patience, kindness - those are the ones you hope to find on the top shelf.

I've been here on this earth for 46 holiday seasons and I've never seen one quite like 2009. The economy has taken its toll on American families and makes this one of the toughest years to spend and give and be the kind of Santa you want to be. It's a lie though. A lie that's been fed to us by retailers since Macy's fought with Gimbels, passed down like a bad sweater from generation to generation. This time of year was never about money, nor was it ever supposed to be.

Do you remember what the holidays were like when you were young? Peel back the pages of your mind and think of the fondest holiday memories and I guarantee they'll have nothing to do with money. There's a reason we all watch "A Christmas Story" year after year, and it's not just to see that kid get his tongue stuck to the flag pole or to watch Ralphie 'shoot his eye out'. We go back to that movie because that is us, the way we used to be. A small house with a screen door that never shut. A used car in the driveway with a couple of bald tires. Most families I knew were poor financially, but rich in the ways that mattered.

I have three children and I have always told relatives who wanted to spoil them to give one gift instead of five. Kids with a pile of gifts barely get one package opened before moving on to the next. Give them one and it's special. Fifteen years ago, a few months after my father died unexpectedly, my sister wanted to do something nice for her brothers on Father's Day. She found some old film of my dad and me at the Catskill Game Farm and printed a picture of my father holding me up so I could see the animals. I was only three-years-old at the time the photo was taken. I look inquisitive and he looks happy and somehow it is the only picture I have of just my dad and me together. Photos and hugs were something we always meant to do, but seldom did. That gift probably only cost my sister five dollars, but it is worth a million to me. That's what I'm talking about.

I wish our kids could see what life was like when we were young, if only for a week. Do you remember what it was like to have just three TV channels and no DVDs or DVRs? If you wanted to see "Frosty", or "A Charlie Brown Christmas" you had one shot, once a year. Now that was must-see TV! Do you remember what it was like to sit with the Montgomery Wards toy catalogue and spend weeks circling the one or two things you hoped Santa might bring? Being greedy never occurred to you so you'd circle items, cross them off, then circle them again. Then, to your parents delight and dismay, you'd spend Christmas morning playing with the big box the toy came in instead of the toy itself. These days, it's easy to swipe the Visa or just stop at the gift card display and drop $300 on Old Navy, Red Lobster or Bed Bath & Beyond cards. Not this year. If you still have a job you should count your blessings and go easy on the debt. Maybe this is the year you seek out that one small gift, like my sister did, that means so much more than a blazer that will find its way to the closet floor by Memorial Day. Be creative. Maybe the best gift for someone is a promise to baby-sit so a friend can get out some Saturday night with the hubby. Perhaps it's an offer to walk with a friend three times a week if he or she is trying to lose weight, but are too embarrassed to ask for help. Point is, there are little things that don't cost a dime, but mean so much.

Because I write, people sometimes ask me what my favorite book is and without hesitation I answer A Christmas Carol. I like it because we all fall short of being who we should be and in Dickens' classic he makes sure Scrooge wakes up before it's too late. But running a close second would be the lesser known The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans. It's about a man who is obsessed with success and loses sight of what should matter most - his family. He, his wife and daughter move in with a widow, and after stumbling on a Christmas box in the attic they begin to read old love letters and see their elderly host has been keeping a secret from them. I won't spoil it for you only to say the old widow asks her house guests but one question over and over again, "What was the very first Christmas gift?"

It was a child, of course, and babies don't want Nintendo or Guitar Hero or overpriced handbags, they just want you. And that's a gift you are fully stocked on and one you can give readily and without debt. John Denver understood that, and despite being a millionaire when he and his wife adopted a little baby boy, his gift was a simple song. Why don't we finish where we started.

"A savior king was born that day, a baby just like you.
And as the magi came with gifts, I come with my gift to you.
May peace on earth fill up your time and brotherhood surround you. That you may know the warmth of love and wrap it all around you. It's just a wish, a dream I'm told from days when I was young. Merry Christmas little Zachary, Merry Christmas everyone."

I'd take that over a Snuggie, wouldn't you?

John Gray is a Fox23 News anchor and contributing writer at the Troy Record. He can be reached at

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