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Observations: Something said, many times, many ways

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image Christmas came home to me in the activities room at a nursing home with a piano player singing "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire". In the foreground a walker from one of the residents. Photo Mitch Traphagen

I went through all of the motions, had even shopped for gifts, and still did not really appreciate that it was truly Christmas. It took a party at a nursing home with a woman playing piano and singing “The Christmas Song” (also known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) to really bring home the fact that it was, indeed, Christmas.

There is something about that song, something wonderful and full of reminiscence. After hearing it, the Yuletide carols that various groups coming into the nursing home sang had more meaning and my appreciation for things grew deeper. I was healthy and with most of my family. Outside, snow was falling and I could walk out of the building under my own power, which is considerably more than most of the residents of the home could do.

What is amazing is how many people in that nursing home don’t recognize their own children or know what day it is, but they know every word of the Christmas carols. One man spent day after day with his chin resting on his chest but immediately perked up upon hearing a church group sing Silent Night. I saw him singing along.

Each of the caroling groups had the same effect on me, as mentioned last week I had to fight back tears for reasons I could not explain. One of the groups in particular, from a local Baptist church, was incredible. It isn’t often that you hear carolers attempt Handel’s “Messiah” and “Hallelujah Chorus” but they pulled it off extremely well. They had to know they did a good job when they heard a few people whooping along with the applause. Neither applause nor whooping is a common occurrence in a nursing home. Hundreds of videos and recordings exist by just about every choir of any size performing “Hallelujah Chorus”, but in order to appreciate it fully, you really have to hear it performed live. Even with a small choir in the dining room of a nursing home, it was moving.

The sun makes a low arc across the sky, a celestial visitor barely reaching a height as to be noticed. But sunshine, in the few hours it is available, is most welcome. It makes cold weather almost tolerable and somehow beautiful with the air visible in diaphanous crystals of moisture. Minnesota is lovely with friendly people, but the winter months are harsh and unforgiving. Four months out of the year, the weather can be downright brutal. Most Minnesotans take it in stride. “It doesn’t bother me,” my brother says. But what choice is there? Humans don’t hibernate, at least not entirely. Besides, the weather probably works to keep the riff-raff out. Who in their right mind would run around breaking into cars or looking to rape and pillage when it’s 10 degrees below zero outside?

On the night before Christmas Eve, I moved from my brother’s house into a motel. My brother’s three boys were coming home for Christmas and I know they would have made room for me but his boys are getting older and each Christmas is more special than the last. They deserved to come home to the place they remember as children.

The motel room was tiny and the heat was going full blast, allowing me to feel truly warm for the first time since I arrived in Minnesota. When I pulled into the motel, I was the only guest. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and I assumed most people had to be in their homes already celebrating with family. When I woke up the next morning, I saw several other cars in the lot, along with a light dusting of new snow. I silently hoped that everyone there was almost home, soon to be with family, friends and a warm house awaiting them not much further down the road.

Sixty miles down the road for me, an airplane was landing in South Dakota, carrying my wife, Michelle, from Florida. She carried bright sunshine with her, but I felt compelled to warn her that the thermometer outside had only reached a few degrees above zero. Michelle certainly helped to make the season bright. We were dressed up as Eskimos and, as we stepped outside of the airport doors, Jack Frost was nipping at our nose. We jumped into the car and headed home for, as Nat King Cole sang so simply and beautifully, a Merry Christmas. I hope yours was, too.

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