By Adam Miller
My dad, Reverend Phil Miller, says his childhood wasn’t all that bad, but I’ve known him for 37 years and know well his chronic holiday angst that he tried very hard to hide.
The one memory I remember him sharing was of decorating the tree alone every year. Of course he laughs about it, because he’s a good man and he loves his parents — may they rest in peace — but that has to have a dreary effect on your feelings toward Christmas and trees. And I’m sure there’s more than the lone decorating at the root of those feelings. There always is.
Somehow though I had a different childhood. A good one. One in which the whole family decorated the Christmas tree. And even if we fought ferociously at times, and even though I sometimes wondered if the tensions might cause the room or the house to explode, I always knew that a greater force was at play bringing a relative peace and good will toward us.
We lived in Texas during my dad’s seminary years and never failed to wake at 4 a.m. a few days before Christmas to fly home to Georgia. I’d wake on my grandparents’ couch to the lingering smell of last night’s fire and the tick of the clock over the mantle. To the smell of bacon. To my grandfather, Papa Ray, sipping cheap coffee and my grandmom filling the rooms with her voice. And later in the week to Santa’s unwrapped gifts stacked neatly everywhere. We wondered what magic allowed even him to make it through the cast iron of the wood-burning stove.
When my dad got his first ministry job we moved back to Georgia where we experienced a little bit different tempo. Dad had taken a job at Smyrna First Baptist Church to minister to single adults.
Christmas doesn’t slow the world down for anyone in America, but for retail workers and pastors the world spins double time. Sunday School parties and church productions seemed to take up the space between Thanksgiving and Christmas so that when Christmas finally arrived a relieved sigh spread across the land of our family.
My mom, Linda Miller, would start baking and cooking a few days before, and my dad would take us on hikes. That week we’d get together with family, and on Christmas Day we’d eat Chinese food and go to the movies.
Yes. Like in that movie “A Christmas Story.”
There are moments I still believe in Santa because it reminds me of the magic my parents helped to invent even when they were probably wondering if the checks would bounce.
You want to give your kids magic even when magic isn’t possible. You want to be the magic for them that you maybe couldn’t have as a child. And they were, because they fought for it. At times they fought because of it. I can think of worse things to fight about.
But there was something more than these traditions that floods the memories with warmth. And I think it might be that my mom and dad believed we were celebrating something significant, and it wasn’t Santa Claus. They believed the nativity story dad read every Christmas was something that actually happened in his own heart.
He’d had his own “personal Advent” years before in, of all places, a Navy chow hall in San Diego. I think he was determined that no amount of angst or activity or American materialism would stop Christmas from coming.
I think I’m determined to do the same.