“Dad would really like that for Christmas this year.” It’s a pretty normal thing to say. That is for someone who isn’t me, because this is the fourth Christmas I’ve had without my Dad, and I still find myself saying that as I fight my way through the shopping malls filled with aggressive soccer Mom’s ready to fight over a hatching robotic bird (come on, America—we are better than this). But I still say it, and there’s part of me that probably always will.
When Dad was alive, he could be really hard to buy for. He was a man who had everything. And there was always a good chance that he had two of everything and they were both brand name.
When I look back on Christmases gone by, there were some years where I really struggled to find a good set of Christmas gifts for my Dad. One year, I fell for a TV infomercial for a set of screwdrivers that you never had to remove from the screw while you turned—as if they one thing my Dad could really use was another set of screwdrivers to add to the hundreds he already owned. The Kobalt Double Drive Screwdriver set–complete with magnetic tool belt pouch and free shipping and handling. I don’t even remember the benefits to this particular purchase, but they had a fancy name and I’m pretty sure Bob Vila or a Bob Vila impersonator had endorsed them. And they were sold at Lowes’. And if I called within the next 15 minutes, they would give me two of them. I could give one to my Dad and keep one for myself in case I wanted to send the impression to a visitor that I actually knew how to complete a home repair.
There were also years, however, when I was able to find really cool gifts for my Dad. It usually had something to do with an experience we could share together. I’ll never forget the year I got him tickets to a Miami University hockey game for Christmas. Dad wasn’t an avid hockey fan, so I think he was kind of confused when he opened up the tickets (even though he would never let me see that). But once he got to the game, everything changed. A carpenter and builder by trade, Dad was completely enamored with the intricate architecture of the Goggin Ice Arena in Oxford. He especially loved the white marble floors that make up the concourse, inlaid with silver trim in figure eight patterns to mimic skate cuts in the ice. And although he didn’t really understand the rules of the game, he was a competitor at heart who loved the energy of a Miami hockey game. By the end of the game, we were both into it, cheering on the RedHawks even though he didn’t always know what he was cheering for. It’s a night I’ll remember for a long time. One that was very special for both of us.
No matter what gift I eventually settled on, the process of finding something for Dad was always rather difficult. For as many possessions as my Dad owned, he never let those possessions define him. Sure he loved gifts, but he loved the gift-givers even more. My Dad found true joy in community and loving other people. He loved spending time with people on the holidays and making others smile. The special charm of Christmas was never about what awesome gifts he might receive—which made shopping for him a particularly frustrating task. I could’ve found peace in the fact that my Dad would have loved any gift I got him, but I often found myself stressing out to try and blow him away with something he hadn’t even thought of. Over the years, I don’t know how many times I succeeded.
Now, the Christmas shopping is still frustrating, but for an entirely different set of reasons. The Christmas season used to feel like a warm embrace, but now it feels like a slap in the face—and Christmas shopping has become one of the primary experiences that makes the season so emotionally difficult.
For all the years he was alive, I struggled to find Christmas gifts for Dad. Now that he’s gone, however,I see hundreds of things in the stores that I would have loved to buy for him. Sweatshirts he would have worn well. Tickets to events he would have enjoyed. Movies he could have laughed at. Tools that he could have….well, added to his other tools.
The exhilaration of gift-giving has been stolen from me. It’s been irreparably tainted. The tradition is now enveloped with sadness, and it’s difficult for me to accept that. With every item I pass in the stores that makes me think of my Dad, I grow wearier and feel like I’m losing him more and more. I’m always trying to find ways to cope, but I’ve been largely unsuccessful. The joy, albeit stressful, of giving my Dad a gift is gone. The tradition is extinguished. And it’s really, really tough to admit that.
So, this year, I’ll start a new tradition, but I’ll still buy for Dad. A few months ago, I started a new job in Downtown Cincinnati. I have to park about fifteen minutes away from my office building, which gives me some time to pay attention to the city around me. As I exit the building and start to walk down Main, the sights of the city hit my square in the face. The ballpark, the skyscrapers, the streetcar…and then, the homelessness.
There is a man who leans against a light pole on most days as I walk by. I’ll confess—I’ve never spoken to him. I’ve made eye contact a few times, but his glazed and vacant expression never connects with mine. He holds a sign, which I’ve never taken the time to read. And as the Cincinnati winter settles in, I notice his coat always looks a little thinner than all the other streetwalkers. He never chats with anyone, but stands with his sign and a few belongings in a backpack. I never see him eating, even though I usually walk by him with an apple in my hand for the ride home. I never see him drinking a Starbucks coffee like so many of the other pedestrians. He is the city that the city doesn’t see. A man loved by Jesus but ignored by the world—including me.
This man deserves a Christmas. This man deserves a Christmas as much as I ever will or my Dad ever did.
So, this Christmas, I’ll still buy for my Dad—but I’ll give it to this man. I’ll pick up a coat or some gloves that my Dad would have loved. I’ll get him a gift card for a local restaurant. I’ll box this all up and wrap it with the same love and attention to detail that my Dad always wrapped his gifts with. And a couple days before Christmas, I’ll stop and have Christmas with this man. I don’t know if I’ll tell him about my Dad, or just hand him the gift and let him know that I want him to have a merry Christmas. And although I know that a coat and a gift card can’t change the world, I hope they give this man an ounce of brightness in his seemingly difficult life.
But let’s remember—Christmas gifts can change the world. Think of the one that was given over 2,000 years ago in the form of God’s only Son. Think about the difference that gift made. Who knows where this one will go, but I’ll just trust that God wants me to give it—I’ll let him figure out the rest.
I’ll give this gift because I’m thankful for the one that was given to me—the gift of a Heavenly Father who loves me every day, and the gift of an earthly Father who made that love tangible to me for so many years. I believe that God sends Dads to this world with a very special mission—to have them exemplify the type of love he shows us in an earthly body. Not every Father answers the call; but for 26 years, my Dad answered it each and every day. I’m so thankful that I had a Dad who made Christmas special, but more importantly, a Dad who took the spirit of Christmas and lived it out throughout the year. I want to be more like him this Christmas, and this new tradition will be a big step in that direction.
I know the joy that I get when I open a Christmas present, and I know the joy my Dad used to get as well—even if he was opening yet another set of TV infomercial screwdrivers. But I don’t know the pain this man on the street experiences in his everyday life. I don’t know if he’ll even be able to enjoy opening that gift because of all the overwhelming things that make up his life. But this is something my Dad would’ve done. And I just trust that God wouldn’t be putting this on my heart if He didn’t have a plan for it.
As much as I’ve tried to make the Christmases stay the same after Dad, I’m learning that a more appropriate response (for me at least) has been to change them into new traditions. My Dad changed my life for the better, and his memory should do that as well. My life should be a testament to the man he was, and so should my Christmas traditions. So I’ll hold onto as many traditions as I can without him, and I’ll make new ones in his absence that honor his legacy. I’ll make traditions inspired by his love for all of us, and I’ll continue to shop for him even though I’ll give the gift to someone else.
As much as I hope this gift to the man I walk by will help him, selfishly I hope it will also help me. When I make my Christmas shopping list, I can still have a category for “Dad”. When I go out into the stores and have that “Oh, Dad would really like this” moment, I can still make a purchase. I can buy a gift for Dad. I can wrap a gift for Dad. And I can give it to someone who could really, really use it.
I’ve learned that new traditions aren’t all about missing my Dad; instead, new traditions are about doing things that he would have done. My Dad was the type of guy who would have bought a few gifts for a homeless man he didn’t know. My Dad was the type of guy who would have wrapped that gift delicately and put a unique tag on it. My Dad was the type of guy who would have walked right up to someone he didn’t know, but someone who he knew needed a hand-up, and given it to him without hesitation. I’m not that type of guy, but because my Dad was, I’ll try to be.
For those of you who miss your loved one this Christmas, I hope you’ll go out and shop for them. I hope you’ll find a way to give your loved one’s gift to someone who could really use it.
“Dad would’ve liked this,” I say to myself as I shop. “He really would’ve enjoyed opening this gift.” Now, in the eyes of another man, I hope I’ll get to see a glimmer of the same glistening sparkle I always saw in my Dad’s eyes on Christmas morning. I may be saying goodbye to him again this Christmas, but I’ll say hello to someone else who just might need it.
Dad, It’s so hard to believe that another Christmas has gone by and you’re not here to experience it. You always made the holidays so special for Mom and I, and the tree is always a bit emptier when you’re not around it. There were so many things you enjoyed around Christmas—especially watching our family dogs open gifts and tear them apart. We were all joyful around the holidays because you made it that way for us. In your absence, I hope we are keeping the spirit alive that you always gave to us. And, I’m sorry for all the screwdrivers. Merry Christmas, Dad, and until we celebrate together again, seeya Bub.
“They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. Everyone who heard the shepherds’ story was amazed. Mary treasured all these things in her heart and always thought about them.” Luke 2:16-19 (GW)