For the unmerry on Christmas

PHOTO: Jernej Furman, Flickr CC-BY

As Dec. 25 approaches, regional writers of my ilk begin searching for whimsical ways to describe a Christmas holiday that so dominates America’s public calendar. In previous years I’ve penned stories about my kids, shared my own Christmas memories or tried my hand at holiday farce. 

Obviously not everybody celebrates Christmas in the religious sense, but our country rather insists that you acknowledge its cultural significance. This is true even if you spend the holiday eating Chinese food and streaming anime movies. The words “Joy,” “Hope” and “Love” seem tattooed on the collective derriere of an entire nation.

All of this centers on the assumption that you, the person reading this, are out there having some Ho-Ho Jingle Bells Old Victorian version of a Merry Christmas.

But this year, more than ever, I understand that many of you aren’t feeling jolly right now.

Last month, my mother suffered a massive stroke. She remains unable to speak or move her right side. She’s just 62 and this came out of nowhere. One day she was caring for infants at an Iron Range childcare center, the next she was fighting for life alone in her home. Fortunately, she was able to call us so we could come help her.

My mom is very private. She wouldn’t like me going on about this. Nevertheless, she was the one who taught me to read and write before kindergarten. She will have to accept the consequences of that decision. The fact is, we are experiencing a Christmas unlike any that have come before.

When you walk the halls of the Very Serious part of a big hospital, you realize how human suffering slots into the routine. It isn’t just our family flailing about, wondering what to do. Every room has another family going through the same thing. And the truth is, that’s been true long before my mom had her stroke and will remain true long after. We just don’t notice. We don’t want to, even when it happens to us.

A few weeks ago, just days after my mom was airlifted to the Twin Cities, I tried to raise my spirts with outdoor Christmas lights. This has been a happy tradition for me since my wife and I first moved in together. Lately my teenage sons have joined in, which makes it even better.

We did pretty well this year, but I stayed out later than the boys to put up a new string of lights. On the way home from the hospital one night I had bought some white lights that I wanted to attach to the empty bean arch in our garden. I thought it would be nice to create a little archway of light in the darkness. I wanted a place to stand when I come in from the garage to feel merry and bright or some such thing.

As it was coming together, I realized that one light had apparently been fully depressed into a nearby dog turd — fresh not frozen. Try as I may, I couldn’t get all of the dog doo out of the tiny decorative depressions of the plastic bulb. 

I wish I could say I brought it inside to wash off, but I gave that almost no thought at all. I wanted to be done. So I strung up the rest of the lights and turned it on. It was perfect. Almost.

This is how it is some Christmases. If every light on a string represents a Christmas, I can honestly say most of mine have been completely free of canine dung. Not all of them, just most. In total, we see more light than dark.

No matter how your beliefs shape your view of Christmas, I see the holiday as the celebration of a promise. Christians see the birth of Christ as a new beginning for humankind, the hope of miracles to come. Ancient pagans saw this time of year as proof that all things must pass, even the long, dark nights of late December. 

I find comfort in both.

Mom is still in a Twin Cities hospital recovering from a life-changing medical event. We’re torn between two places. I can’t tell you how much I wish I had a magical sleigh right now. Unfortunately, we blew the budget on the helicopter ride. 

Truth is, things might get better or worse. The promise of Christmas is that there will be another one next year. If we’re lucky, we’ll all be there together.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. So sorry to hear. Deepest sympathies.

  2. Your metaphor was, unfortunately, quite apt.
    So sorry to hear about your mother’s health situation. I’ve had several relatives, including my parents, go through that. The recovery can be long and slow, but often a lot of progress can happen. Remain hopeful! Your mother probably hears and understands what everyone around her is saying. I had to tell some of the nurses not to talk in front of her.
    I’ve wondered if a stroke will be my fate, given the family history. In a few weeks, I will have spinal surgery and I do fear an unfortunate outcome. I’m 6 years older than when my dad had a stroke.

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