Our traditional Merry Christmas reflections

Editor’s note: The Herald’s editorial board members have a Christmas tradition of taking a break from commenting on the issues of the day to offer personal reflections on the holiday season.

Crampons could help with Friday decorations

Rufus M. Friday

Inside decorations at the Friday household reached ridiculous heights, literally. Each year, my lovely wife, Melody, turns our home into a “Christmas Wonderland” with her decorative mind. However, this year, it involved yours truly scaling heights that would have given Sir Edmund Hillary the jitters.

Each year is a theme, and this year it was “Ornament Wonderland,” which involved hanging gargantuan orbs from every eave and pinnacle inside our home. Melody has made a career of collecting Christmas items from every corner of the globe; from vacation spots we have visited to the five states that we have lived in -- she has a collectible and it’s displayed.

If Clark Griswold from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the king of outside displays, my wife is the undisputed queen of inside decorations; even my daughter Chanel has become her little decorative helper elf.

Christmas trees in every room; ornaments from almost every state and a few countries; miles and miles of garland; eloquent mechanical Christmas dolls from our travels; lights galore and then again, those darn enormous ornaments that were hung this year by moi, risking life and limb from 20-plus feet in the air -- without a safety net! “Honey, can you move this one 6 inches to the right of the ceiling fan?” “This one needs to be exchanged out with the smaller, more sparkly one,” she would say after I had rappelled down.

What started out 26 years ago in North Carolina in our humble abode with a simple Christmas tree and a few decorations has morphed into a Christmas amusement park -- all in good taste. Who knows what next year will bring -- admission charges, dear?

P.S. I cannot end my letter without a few rants and raves to Santa from my letter to him last year on wishes.

Santa, thank you for improving Jack Briggs’ golf game. He did not complain near as much this year about the cheating from his buddies.

You forgot to bring Matt Taylor the President Bush action figure, but he is still “giddy” with his new toy -- the Barack Obama action figure. I now have to live with him playing with that thing for four years.

Santa sending the gas prices into the stratosphere helped Ken Robertson and his lead foot in his new shiny red sports car -- no speeding tickets in 2008 yet.

Shelly Norman enjoyed her Hillary Clinton doll up until July, then flirted briefly with thoughts of a Sarah Palin one. Oh well, maybe in four more years, Norman.

Lori Lancaster truly enjoyed her rhinestone cowboy for the fair and the record attendance this year. Cecilia Rexus, our summer editorial page writer, a new kitchen.

Finally, Chris Sivula -- and I -- really thank you for the Kevlar body armor. This election season indeed was brutal on us, and the armor came in handy when editorial recommendations were published. But I am thankful, Santa, for this wonderful community that we call home.

Merry Christmas all.

Lessons learned from the Christmas beat

By Chris Sivula

Some of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned about Christmas weren’t taught in Sunday school but at the Herald.

Each December, reporters and editors in the Tri-Cities witness the selfless acts of generosity that are so often on display at Christmastime.

It’s a great view from the newsroom. This year, we’ve heard about a secret Santa distributing envelopes stuffed with $100 to perfect strangers in Kennewick.

Just this week, Herald readers responded to a struggling Kennewick family featured in an article about heightened needs this Christmas season.

But I got some of my closest looks at the Christmas spirit on assignments as a young reporter, fresh out of journalism school.

My first year on the job, I was sent out to Columbia Center to don a red suit and fake whiskers and sit in for Santa.

My second year, I was sent to clang the bell at the Salvation Army kettle in front of Grigg’s Department Store in Pasco.

I’ve written thousands of stories for the Herald and edited thousands more, but these two have stayed with me.

Both experiences defied expectations and left me with a new appreciation not only for the generosity of ordinary people but also for the limits of my assumptions.

My few hours in the fat man’s chair taught me that a child’s love for Santa is far more sweet and pure than the greed I’d been expecting.

Sure, children asked for a toy or two, but that seemed peripheral. I left convinced the power in Santa myth’s depends less on material wishes than on the simple magic of having someone care about our happiness.

A sled and reindeer aren’t required to play that part in someone’s life.

The following year’s assignment shattered my illusions about the nature of charity.

I should have known better -- I’d benefited from the generosity of people of various means -- but somehow I’d overlooked what was in front of me.

My eyes were opened watching the faces of the people dropping coins in the kettle. Young, old, men, women, children -- but none were faces of the affluent.

For most, calloused hands and threadbare clothes made it clear they knew something about hard times, and yet they did what they could to help strangers have a brighter Christmas.

That was nearly 30 years ago, and I still can’t pass a kettle without seeing those faces -- or slipping a dollar or two into it.

Dime’s worth of memory in retail giant’s demise

Ken Robertson

A news item I read the other day about the imminent demise of Woolworths in England revived some 50-year-old memories of the once-famous dime store retailer.

In my hometown, F.W. Woolworth was a Main Street mainstay in the 1950s and 1960s, a place where a kid with a dollar or two worth of nickels, dimes and quarters earned peddling newspapers could buy all the Christmas presents on his list.

From a tiny aftershave for Dad (39 cents) to a small plastic zebra for horse-loving big sister (10 cents), Woolworths carried it all. Cards dotted with mother-of-pearl buttons, hairpins and clips, toy cars and trucks, housewares, 45 rpm records with the new hits from Elvis or Pat Boone -- they all sold at bargain prices.

And by shopping with a little care, there might be a dime left for a Coke at the lunch counter, where shoppers and clerks grabbed a quick ham sandwich and a steaming cup of coffee for lunch.

Of course, a boy hoped his parents shopped down the street at Ben Franklin’s, a higher-echelon five and dime with Dinky Toy race cars and Revell, Aurora and Monogram plastic models of Navy warships, Air Force planes and Army tanks. Their prices started at $1 and might reach $5 for a big ship model of a World War II aircraft carrier.

The downtown dime stores were a heady place for wishes, hopes and dreams for nearly a century.

It’s no wonder that from 1913-1930 the 57-story Woolworth Building in New York City was the world’s tallest and dominated the city skyline.

As Christmas 2008 approaches -- 130 years since Frank Woolworth opened his first store -- I wonder what the wishes, hopes and dreams of today’s 10- and 12-year-old girls and boys are.

Hannah Montana guitar rings and cuff watches? New iPhone wallpaper sporting Ferrari’s prancing black horse or Lamborghini’s bull? Or the latest boytoy or babe? A 42-inch flat panel TV for the bedroom wall? The newest Halo or Tomb Raider videogame?

I suppose Hannah has no more pablum to her than Pat Boone. I’m sure few of the current boytoys will look any seedier as they age than the bulging, drug-laced Elvis did at the end. And Ferraris have remained a symbol of automotive excellence since they won their first Grand Prix in 1951.

Maybe today’s kids will remember Target or Best Buy fondly in 50 years. And the still-dark morning they stood in line for a Black Friday bargain.

Visitor’s perspective renews Christmas spirit

By Shelly Norman

This year, my family is host to a foreign exchange student.

Zhongling (or Vicky, as we call her) is from mainland China. This will be her first Christmas.

My “new daughter” tells me the Chinese recognize Christmas as a Western holiday (something to do with a baby) and sometimes send cards to each other, but they don’t get the day off from work or school.

It sounds similar to the way we celebrate Valentine’s Day.

A few days before Thanksgiving, we drove past the first Christmas lights of the season. Vicky was amazed -- and that was just a few strands. Imagine what she’s thinking now.

Vicky has never wrapped a gift, hung a stocking or made a gingerbread house. It’s fun to introduce these traditions to her.

My own kids, all tweens and teens, are not quite as enchanted by these activities as they once were. In fact, I know for sure that some of their participation is based solely on trying to placate dear old mom.

So we decorate the tree and we read a Christmas story at bedtime (I bribe them to listen with hot cocoa) and we practice our family “talent” (that word is used only in the broadest of definitions) for Grandma’s Christmas Eve party.

But, as the Grinch found out, Christmas is “something more” ... something that’s less concrete and more complex than taping decorated paper to the outside of a box.

It’s easy to get caught up in the business of the season and brush off the excesses by reminding ourselves to remember the “real meaning of Christmas.”

Zhongling’s working vocabulary doesn’t include the words, “Messiah,” “Savior” or “Redeemer.” And I’m pretty sure that the feelings of respect, reverence and love that I feel about those words are not conveyed in her electronic translator.

Zhongling also doesn’t have a background for the phrase, “The real meaning of Christmas,” which is something we toss around pretty lightly this time of year.

Now that I think about it, it’s kind of a cop out. “Remember the true meaning of Christmas” doesn’t say what that meaning is.Being a part Vicky’s first Christmas has made me re-examine what Christmas means to me and has forced me to put those feelings into very simple words.

In seeing Christmas through Zhongling’s eyes, I’m seeing it in a whole new light.

Focus on what matters in tough economic times

By Lori Lancaster

Doom and gloom abound this holiday season.

The economy is slumping. Many of us thought we were living in a bubble in the Tri-Cities, but the impact is now being felt. Companies scaled back on holiday parties and layoffs are taking the place of Christmas bonuses at some area businesses.

Retailers are bracing for what is on pace to be the worst Christmas sales period in 40 years. The lines at food banks are longer than anyone can remember. Charities are finding donations are fewer and smaller.

Financial scandals are further rocking the economics of our country, with charities shuttering their doors after suddenly finding they are penniless having invested with the wrong company. Companies that once seemed infallible are beginning to wobble.

So what are we to do?

Since it’s unreasonable to think that we can hibernate for the winter and hope for brighter days come spring’s awakening, we can only do what generations before us have done: Toughen up and muddle through the tough times as best we can.

And what better time to start than Christmas?

After all, the reason for the season, as they say, has nothing to do with how many fleece jackets, Chia pets or flashy ties we buy. Your faith may dictate specific rituals and rites this time of year, but what most of us feel -- regardless of religion -- is that this is a time to gather with family and friends and celebrate. That’s the best part and it can come without a price tag.

Sure, giving gifts to our loved ones can be fun. But it’s not necessary. They’d much rather have the company than boxes to unwrap. Some travel costs may be involved, depending on where your group gathers. But with the price of fuel dropping, that’s a bright spot in our bleak economy.

It may be trite, but Christmas really is the time to appreciate the nonmaterial things in our lives. We’ve gotten carried away with the material in the past.

So for those among us who like to see the cup half full, the sorry state of our economy is actually a blessing in disguise. It is forcing us to think twice before we spend and take into account what is really important: the people we cherish. And that is all that matters at Christmastime.

Tree-cutting escapade brings history to life

By Matt Taylor

That picture of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776 gives me the shivers.

I have a personal connection. Sort of.

You know the story. Washington and his troops caught the Hessians by surprise during the Revolutionary War. It was bitterly cold, windy, miserable, incredibly dark and scary in those overloaded boats.

I know the feeling.

About 170 years after that world-altering event, we Taylor “boys” went for the family Christmas tree in North Florida.

In World War II to get a tree we simply went out in the woods and cut one down.

Our best family friend was Banks H. Goodale, an old-school physician who made house calls, took vegetables for payment and regularly went hunting and fishing with my two older brothers. Dr. Goodale knew about a stand of pines and cedars on an island in a tributary of the St. Johns River. We wanted two trees -- a big one for us and a not-so-big one for him. Our Jacksonville house had 12-foot ceilings.

With the doctor and my cousin, we Taylor boys crossed the wide river in a rented boat with the five-horsepower kicker barely making headway. It was a clear day and we were in high spirits.

Spotting a tree my mother would like was the challenge. She was a particular woman and didn’t want one that was short, flat-sided or had bare patches. We trekked deep into the woods.

On the way my brothers Lansing and Henry shot mistletoe out of a tall tree.

The day grew older and colder. The wind picked up. It took a long time to pull both trees out of the woods and lash them to the boat.

I fought through branches to find a place to sit.

Dr. Goodale shoved off. Somebody said, “My gosh, we’ve barely got two inches clearance above the water!”

The five of us, the kicker, a shotgun, mistletoe and two heavy trees displaced a lot of water. No, I didn’t include life vests in the list. There weren’t any. And I didn’t know how to swim.

Huddled down among the fragrant, fresh branches, I expected the black water to spill in at any moment. My brothers, too, were quiet.

Yes, it was bitterly cold, windy, miserable, incredibly dark and scary, for Revolutionary soldiers, and for our little expedition.

Thank goodness we all made it.

A great-grandfather’s wishes for little Layla

Jack Briggs

Dear Santa:

It’s not that I am becoming paranoid, but ....

In my previous letters I have asked for peace on Earth, and you have given me Darfur and the Congo.

I got more personal last year and asked that all my golf putts from two feet fall into the hole. And this fall, on a par 5 at Horn Rapids, you gave me what I am claiming to be a Tri-City record of seven putts.

The twist this year is I’m back to personal wishes -- but they are not for me.

You see, on July 26 (my birthday!) we were blessed with our first great-grandchild -- a girl, Layla.

She is exceptionally bright. She rolled from her tummy to her back at four months. And her Christmas list (sent to us in immaculate handwriting and without a spelling mistake) asks for a Baby Einstein DVD.

But to my Christmas wishes for her.

I’m going to take the peace-on-Earth bit as a given now that we have a new administration, and, with the Dow where it is, investing in her college fund should give her a solid financial base.

I would like Layla to stick around here after she earns her Ph.D and raise a family that also sticks around. So my first wish would be for the Tri-Cities to speed up the diversifying of its economy. We’ve been at it long enough to expect better results.

I would like the Save the Ridges group to succeed, so Layla can tramp to the top of our hills without having to trespass in someone’s backyard.

Keep our rivers clean and our air breathable (because Layla has asthma genes floating around in her somewhere).

Pull the Tri-Cities into one -- which shouldn’t be too hard because the parochialism of the past is fast dying and Layla will benefit from a more coordinated attack on regional needs. She’d enjoy an aquatic center and, later, a performing arts center.

Give her a white Christmas every year and a non-gasoline car with front-wheel drive to pull her safely through the snow.

Layla will be going to Harvard, but for those who can’t make that trip for either academic or financial reasons, let them have the option of an expanded Washington State University curriculum and campus in the Tri-Cities.

I can’t wish for more in my allotted 400 words, but keep her healthy, wealthy and witty.

P.S.: And please stop her crying whenever she sees me!