Christmas Lights

 by Joanie Butman

My cousin moved to South Carolina when he was an adolescent. As an Italian Catholic Yankee arriving in Greenville, he already had three strikes against him. Regardless of where you relocate to, assimilating into a new community as a teenager is no easy feat. Northerners adjusting to the south must be difficult at any age because there are advice books written about it! All I did was cross the bridge from Brooklyn to New Jersey, but I might as well have landed on another planet. I couldn’t get out fast enough.

Meanwhile, Mark was doing his best to meld in like every teenager does, not wanting to draw attention to himself or stand out in any way. I’ve never lived in the south, but the way he describes it traditional southern hospitality doesn’t always extend to those of us raised north of the Mason Dixon line. Much like New Englanders, people from the south can definitely be wary and reserved with strangers, depending upon where you are. So you can imagine his dismay upon returning from school one day to discover his parents had installed a huge, flashing Happy Birthday Jesus sign on the front lawn! So much for flying under the radar. Infamy is definitely not what one seeks at that age – at least not of that kind. Nevertheless, it was thrust upon him, like it or not. This photo is a gross exaggeration, but in the mind of a teenager, this is probably what it seemed like!

Fast forward forty years, which is when he shared this story with me. My uncle had suffered a number of mini-strokes and was failing mentally. Every time my cousin visited, his dad would try to give him random articles of clothing – his shoes, socks, even extra underwear. My cousin would patiently thank him and assure him that he didn’t need anything. His mother encouraged him to just accept whatever was offered and throw it out after he left. On one such day as Mark was leaving, he went through the garage and spotted the dreaded Happy Birthday Jesus sign and thought, “That’s what I want!”

No longer hindered by an adolescent’s fear of being conspicuous or flamboyant, Mark was determined to proudly install that sign on his lawn. He lives in Charleston, SC where there are strict rules regulating the uniformity of his neighborhood. He had to obtain approval from the Board of Architectural Review in order to display it, which is comparable to getting a papal dispensation from the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, in honor of his dad and the Christmas season, he once again has achieved infamy for that same sign – only this time it is with pride, gratitude and affection for the legacy his parents instilled regarding the meaning of Christmas.

During this hectic time, when the reason for the season tends to get lost amongst the gifts and festivities, may we all choose to be so bold as to let our own light shine for all to see as a reminder of the gift we received so many years ago on that first Christmas. While we will no doubt receive our share of gifts (that we may or may not choose to keep), that sign represents the only gift we will ever need, the one that’s one-size-fits-all, the one that keeps on giving, the one that can only be appreciated when we choose to accept it, open it and share it with others. Once you do, you will shine His light wherever you choose to live. 

God grant you the light in Christmas,

which is faith;

the warmth of Christmas,

which is love;

the radiance of Christmas,

which is purity;

the righteousness of Christmas,

which is justice;

the belief in Christmas,

which is truth...

--Wilda English