Opinion: That Elusive True Meaning of Christmas


By Skip Hellewell

Like most everyone, the Beautiful Wife and I are on our annual search for that “true meaning of Christmas.” It’s a serendipitous delight, a state of mind that is subtly elusive yet sometimes found when we least expect it. May I tell three stories that guide our search?

The first story is about the transforming power of a thoughtful, unexpected gift. It comes from my late mother, who came of age in the depths of the Great Depression. Her father, a hard-rock miner, died of pneumonia when she was two years old, and her mother struggled to provide for the three children. On this certain Christmas, her mother had gone away to care for an ill relative, leaving the three children to do for themselves, though under the watchful eye of Aunt Kate, who lived nearby. My mom was old enough to earn money and had purchased gifts for her two brothers, which she secretly wrapped.

After the brothers had gone to bed on Christmas Eve, she put their gifts under the tree. As she went to bed, she was happy for her brothers, yet sadly aware there was nothing for her under the tree. The next morning, as her brothers happily opened their gifts, she was surprised to find a large box with her name. Her mother had secretly sent it to Aunt Kate, who had slipped it into the house when all was still.

In the box was a green taffeta gown, nice enough to wear to the church New Year’s dance. That was the night our father first took notice of her. From then on, they were a couple; they later married, and their love endured sixty-seven years and the rearing of ten children until his death. The magic of that green taffeta gown became a family legend, so much so that when mom passed away, a new green taffeta dress was slipped into her coffin for her reunion with dad.

The second story tells of the gift of loving effort. The BW has a tradition of making “Santa Balls” for the grandchildren. A Santa Ball is created by collecting many small gifts over the year that fit the grandchild’s interests, then wrapping them up in the yard after yard of crepe paper strips until they’re about the size of a softball. The balls are then wrapped in pink crepe paper, decorated with a Santa face, cap and beard, and placed on the mantle for Christmas Eve. After the Christmas Eve program, the balls are opened. Though Santa Balls takes months of searching and hours of wrapping, grandchildren can open them in a burst of flying crepe paper and shouts of delight in a few minutes. My only guidance to readers is that if you have children or grandchildren that might enjoy Santa Balls, be aware that it’s a tradition not easily stopped.

The third story comes from the Gospels. Seeking to center our Christmas on Christ, we are reading the account of His life found in the four Gospels. Each night we take turns reading from a horizontal harmony that places the Gospels side by side in chronological order. We’ve read our way through the Annunciations and the births of John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ. We renewed our memory of the stories of the presentation at the temple, the visit of the Wise Men, the flight into Egypt, and the return to Nazareth. We’ve followed Him on his trip to John the Baptist, the baptism, the forty-day fast and temptation, the call of His disciples, the miracles and teachings. These are familiar verses, precious in their message, burnished through years of reading. We hope to finish by Christmas Eve, the perfect time to catch that true spirit of Christmas. There’s meaning in that. 

(If you would like a copy of the reading list, contact Skip at the email below.)

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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