There are a lot of Christmas stories out there. There seems no end to the heartwarming, inspirational, spiritual and emotional tales that make the rounds at this time of year.
The holiday season seems to draw them out of every culture, every country, every possible origin around the planet and it gets overwhelming sometimes. Here in the mountains Christmas isn’t a big grand thing. We tend to keep it quiet and low key but we still enjoy a good story.
It’s been years since I sat down to watch It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But that doesn’t mean they lack relevance or value to my emotional landscape at this time of the year. Rather, I just find it harder and harder to enjoy what I’ve seen so often before.
What I prefer to do is search out undiscovered stories. There’s a lot to be found when you put your mind to it. You could conceivably just walk down your street and ask the local oldsters about their most memorable Christmas and you’d soon have enough to keep you entertained a good long time.
What makes a Christmas story special is its ability to make us remember what the nature of this season is all about. I don’t mean a specifically Christian image nor do I intend to proffer one idea of Christmas over another. But the stories that have power and resonance at this time of the year are those that contain a human element we can all relate to, fat men in red suits and flying reindeer notwithstanding.
So my new favourite is a story about a man who never amounted to very much in the eyes of the world, a man who might even be called a failure. It’s a story that I can certainly relate to because it’s all about searching for the key to becoming the person we were created to be. It’s about the search for identity and how the particular magic of Christmas grants it to us sometimes.
It’s a story about a man named John Pierpoint who lived in the mid to late 1800s in New England. He never made it as school teacher because he was too easy on his students. He never made it as a shopkeeper because he gave his neighbours too much credit too easily. When he tried to be a lawyer he failed at that too because he often chose to work for nothing. He became a preacher but his church tossed him out for his views against slavery.
He turned to politics and ran for governor of Massachusetts on the abolitionist or anti-slavery bill. He lost. So he gathered his resources and ran for the US Congress but he failed to get elected there too. He ended his days as a file clerk in the US Treasury Department in Washington. He left behind no great achievements, stunning inventions, great books or works of art. But what he did leave behind is something every single one of us is grateful for at one time or another.
One day, when he was a preacher, he sat at a piano and wrote a song for his congregation. Things were hard that winter and he wanted to give them a song about simple times, simple pleasures. He wanted to remind them that spirituality finds its greatest measure in community. So he wrote a simple little song about life filled with the spirit of community and the great, grand adventure of dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh.
John Pierpoint wrote Jingle Bells. Almost 200 years later people everywhere smile when they sing it. It’s a song about neighbours and friends coming together to find a common spark of joy. It’s about sharing spirit and giving of ourselves. Jingle Bells resonates event today because it harkens all us to family, community and belonging.
But the real story comes after all of that. Slavery was ultimately abolished. Education curriculum was changed to help students. Credit practices evolved, pro bono work became common practice for lawyers and churches gained credence in their stands against injustices. Everything John Pierpoint struggled for in life became an eventual reality and that’s the Christmas story here.
See, we spend enormous time and energy trying to give the perfect gifts. We want Christmas morning to be resplendent in the light of our choices. But the truth is that the most precious gift we can offer is what we leave behind for the generations to come. My people say that if we live our lives as though they are a gift, that’s what they become in the end.
There is no better gift to offer anyone around us than a life well lived. Period.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, is out from Doubleday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org