Never was the Williams clan so far flung at Christmastime, so far removed from any semblance of togetherness. The center would not hold. Mother sailed away on a sea-cruise that included snorkeling with my brothers Rodney and Tim in the balmy waters of Nassau's Blue Lagoon. Sister Kathleen and her husband Don drove the kids to a white Christmas in his boyhood home at distant Detroit. My sister Rebecca and her husband Dale winged it all the way to England to visit his relations in Blackpool. And I loaded up the kids and traveled over the river and through the woods and across the plains and round huge cities to far-off Kenosha, Wisconsin, to visit my wife Jeanne's family.
For the first time in half a century, none of my parents' children gathered around cracking fires or gently glowing trees in Tennessee homes at Christmastime.
This was in accordance with a plan, which, in turn, was part of a greater plan.
My family has arranged it so that every other year we hold a traditional Christmas with all the trimmings at my mother's house in Seymour. And every other year some of us journey elsewhere.
In December, those arrangements dovetailed nicely with my personal plan for a minimal Christmas. It was a plan I hatched when I realized all those songs about coming home for Christmas were just making me ornery.
It's not that I've become an old scrooge, at least I don't think I have. It's just that the good news of Christmas--that feeling of peace and love emanating from a manger, or a tree--has become buried under so much tinsel and commerce and bad news that some years I have a hard time getting in the spirit.
Some years, Christmas rolls round too soon. You kiss a loved one Happy New Year as the clock strikes midnight, and before you know it the Fourth of July and Halloween have come and gone and Elvis is crooning about a blue-blue-blue Christmas once more, while news programs make dire predictions of how holiday sales will affect the economy and morbid fireworks explode in the Holy Land.
Besides, I had too much to do this winter to concentrate on Christmastime chores, including a modest addition we're making to the house. So when Jeanne came to me with a list, I cut a deal. I'll work on the addition, I told her. You do Christmas. She went for it.
I sent no cards and bought presents only for immediate family. I cancelled the annual trek up the hillside to harvest a cedar. Instead, Jeanne bought a potted Norfolk pine and adorned it with a few sacred ornaments. I tactfully asked friends and distant relatives to buy no gifts and expect none in return. Cold, I know.
Yet suddenly, all those corny Christmas songs sounded so much better. Unencumbered with shopping lists, receipts and clutter, I actually found myself growing misty-eyed over old chestnuts like "I'll be Home for Christmas" and "Silver Bells" and "Please Come Home For Christmas."
It all reached a pinnacle on Christmas Day as I sang "Silent Night" with hundreds of others in a large church in Kenosha. I had been sitting there listening to those famous words, "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, round yon virgin, mother and child, holy enfant, so tender and mild," thinking that just maybe that night had not been so silent. Then I realized what I was thinking and set aside such skepticism and allowed the sound of all those voices to work their magic, allowed myself to believe there once existed such a night, silent save for the stirrings of a baby in swaddling clothes, and the lowing of animals as they knelt in deference to new life in the old, old story. I traveled back then to Christmas Eves more than forty years before, when I would sing such songs with brothers and sisters, my mother and my late, lamented father as we gathered round a cedar tree, forming a magic spell that's available to me always, once I surrender to it. It's with me even now, if you'll pardon a late Christmas card sentiment from one who's traveled far.