My dad was not a man of grace and refinement. He was, and I can correctly describe him this way, a bona fide tough man. I can only recall seeing him cry twice. Once when his mother died, and once when I told him I had joined the Marine Corps. He was also never afraid to share his opinion on the issues of the day that interested him.
I have written stories of my dad, as witnessed through my eyes, numerous times. Most versions are probably incomplete, but it was my perspective at that time in my life. That perception was based on my age, my knowledge at the time, and my interaction.
When someone moves out of your life, either through relocation, separation, divorce, or even death, we tend to leave that person frozen in time in our minds. For example, as a former teacher, when I interact with former students, they still come up to me and call me “Coach” or Mr. Bowman. I think back on them as they were, but now see them as they are. The challenge we have as we get older is to let our perceptions change as we often reflect on the people and the times that shaped us without complete information.
Growing up we embraced the concept of Santa Claus, yet we kept our focus that the season was about a miracle in the birth of Jesus Christ. My dad and several of his brothers had played the role of Santa Claus in holiday festivities. My Uncle Ed played Santa Claus for the city of Baltimore. My dad donned the suit for the United States Navy at an orphanage in Korea. A little girl asked Santa for a Daddy. It impacted my dad to such an extent that he never played Santa Claus again.
One Christmas, my dad decided we would be that one family in the neighborhood who had all of the holiday lights on their house. While not to Clark Griswold’s level in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, it was not far from it. We lit up the neighborhood. Other neighbors also joined in with decorations that year. As my dad looked at his handiwork with the Christmas lights, he noticed the gap in the huge window in the front of our house.
My dad disappeared into our utility room and retrieved some lumber. On our carport in the cold, he started measuring, cutting and crafting something. What was it going to be? My brother and I were not certain. He painted the ends, then wrapped it in thick aluminum foil, to which he wired lights to it. He had made a perfect cross. My dad had built a giant wooden cross. The amazing thing was we were not a particularly religious family, yet he wanted an illuminated cross to shine through the darkness for all to see. It was at the center of our house. The message was not lost to me.
At Christmas, we reflect on a baby in a manager. It is the picture in our minds of a simple manger, a feeding trough out of which livestock would consume food from that the Savior of the World rested in as a newborn baby. It is an amazing story to consider. From the meekest of women, in one of the most unassuming of small towns, in modest accommodations, Jesus Christ was born. In fact, he was laid to rest each night in the most self-effacing of cradles. However, we are reminded it was His death, not just His birth that truly changed the world. That was why my dad focused on the Cross as a proclamation of our faith.
While the faith aspect of the holiday is often lost on many people, it is the central part. We should take the time and discuss the importance of faith in their lives, and share stories and traditions with their family and friends, lest the stories are lost. Yes, as children we still expected a white-bearded man to show up with gifts between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and bring prizes as rewards for our good behavior.
From that Christmas on, at least in my house, we started placing a greater emphasis on things that were more important and had a more significant eternal value. I had discovered that my dad, unbeknownst to us, had also been purchasing hams for people every Christmas—People who had influenced him or who he knew had no money or were less fortunate. He did that in secret. The only reason my brother and I knew that fact was that he sought our help when he was no longer physically able to do the task himself.
My perception of my dad was often skewed by personal battles between us, but of this I am certain—my dad understood Christmas and celebrated its true meaning. In his own way, he sought to spread cheer to his family, friends, and neighbors. Even for non-believers, the core elements of Christmas — being good, spreading love, and kindness, as well as giving selflessly to others, are traits worth imitating. It is something we must pass on to the next generation. I learned those values as a child growing up here in Tennessee. I would never trade that memory of a Christmas Cross.
Merry Christmas to All. And God Bless Us, Everyone.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.