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This Christmas, may your gifts be love and acceptance

The doe and her two yearlings brought company during the night. When I woke to reload the woodstove, their clan had gathered in the moonlight outside the bedroom window.

An urban friend once spent a sleepless night here because, she said, it was too dark and too quiet. I love the blue-dark of moonlight on the snowy meadow. I love the quiet. And I’m coming to love Christmas.

I’ve had a lifelong love-hate relationship with this holiday. There are happy memories – release from the prison of school for two whole weeks, the sharp smell of fresh-cut pine, a steaming casserole when I came in from sledding. But what started the slide downward was Christmas 1950. I was a 5 year old standing in our kitchen, not crying (as instructed by my father, whose own cheeks were tear-stained), saying goodbye to my mother as she went off to the hospital to die. She tousled my long brown hair and said I should be a good boy. I said I would. Then they wheeled her out, and I cried. My father said it was OK.

In fact, my mother lived. But so have the memories, 60 more years of Christmastime family gatherings and desperate isolation, laughing children and bone-cold burials, inflated expectations and staggering disappointments. I often used Christmas as a time for self-pity. I didn’t get (as a child) or give (as an adult) the right gifts. My children deserved better, much better. I wasn’t adequately loved. Bing Crosby was happier than I was. I failed Christmas.

I didn’t fail alone. Bud, my friend whose voice soared from Broadway stages and stirred a thousand audiences at the Phantom’s opera, gave up looking for joy; he took his life two months ago. A gentle colleague gave birth to her first child and, two days later, learned that her only brother had killed himself. Brothers and friends give up hope. More Americans will die of suicide in 2013 than of automobile accidents, and the rate goes up for the holidays. Twice, I’ve thought I’d join the statistics.

Not this year. My Christmas memories may not have changed, but I have.

Already as a child, I wrestled with the religion of Christmas. I’d never seen a night sky packed with feathered creatures serenading shepherds; I liked singing carols but I was definitely no angel. I couldn’t figure out how three wise men could get from The East to Bethlehem in a few hours – on camels, for crying out loud.

I still cannot define God. I have no doctrinal argument for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” But I’ve accepted that this holiday is not about me being happy. It’s about the certainty that the Divine is with the human, that God has come – and still comes – to ceaselessly nudge us toward good tidings of peace, comfort and joy. I did not get a new set of beliefs; I was simply given the gift of acceptance.

My friend Bud had the voice of an angel. Stacey’s husband was once baseball’s most famous pitcher. I knew them both in their prime, and they’ll be missed this Christmas. Neither could live happily without the sound of the crowd’s applause. They were too much like me, wanting to be made happy.

My mother lived another half century after our sad parting, and I survived periods of self-destructiveness. Almost but not quite too late I learned the power of gratitude that needs no arguments about feathered angels, worshiping lambs and high-speed camels. Gratitude merely coaxes me to see God at work all around me, to hear a Divine call to justice and compassion, to remember that widows and orphans and editors all need grace.

I’ll scatter cracked corn because the doe and her yearlings are back at the snow line, looking toward the house. It’s their Christmas too. We’ll take a walk in the dusky woods dressed in ermine, then come back to the fireplace and admire pine boughs woven through the balcony railing, glorious in candlelight. I’ll say, and I’ll hear, “I love you.”

The smell of pine may pull me back to that 1950 kitchen where I promised my mother I’d be good, my saddest Christmas. But I’ll remember it differently now. My present that year was not the cardboard gas station my father brought home. It was what he brought home in late January: my mother, alive and smiling.

It only took 60-some years and a heavy does of gratitude for me to see through my self-pity to the actual gift. It’s amazing, a Christmas miracle as sweet as an angel’s song or an infant’s cry, good tidings of great joy.

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