OPED: Finding the heart of Christmas in a nursing home visit

Silvio Laccetti
Tribune News Service
To appreciate life's blessings in the midst of turmoil, we will all just try harder. Maybe we should try less. Often, and ironically, less can be more. (Dreamstime/TNS)

At this time of year, many Americans become deeply conscious of essential living: love of family, enjoyment of friends, the value of “quality time” and the joys of simply being alive. Especially in these trying political times, many people of all faiths now fervently attempt to gain deeper sustenance and satisfaction from religious holidays. To appreciate life’s blessings in the midst of turmoil, we will all just try harder.

Maybe we should try less.

Often, and ironically, less can be more. Miraculously more. With only a little oil, the lamps of the Maccabees burned brightly for eight days, the miracle of Hanukkah. On Christmas, a Divine Child was born in a manger — of all places — surrounded by farm animals and worried refugee parents. In these instances, less proved to be more.

Simply trying harder to celebrate life and its meaning can produce incongruities. This year we may stretch our budgets buying iPhones or AirPods or VR headsets as gifts. But trying harder can lead to excess. It can obscure the heart of the matter.

The heart of Christmas is complicated; it is also amazing in its simplicity. Remember the old phrase, “Peace on Earth, good will toward men”? (Nowadays it has been translated and re-translated away.) Implicit in this phrase is the hope that humanity can live within the boundaries of its better nature. Accepting our better natures juxtaposes uncertainty, frailty and fear alongside the hope, the strength and the sustenance that we humans can and do give to each other daily.

It is certainly possible to find the heart of Christmas in various unexpected places. I found it in a seemingly most unlikely place, and I recommend that place to you.

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I speak of a nursing home. According to all the statistics I receive from insurance companies and groups such as AARP, it is a virtual certainty that, at some time in the future, we will either ourselves be confined there for several years or we will be visiting a loved one there. In our world, nursing home residents are the most marginal of all the living — almost ignored, almost forgotten, except on the holidays.

In the nursing home, the great themes of life and death, decline and sustenance are played out every day. Here is where essential unadorned humanity reposes. Here every minute can be an eternity of quality time. Every occasion can be a celebration of life in the valley of the shadows. In a nursing home, every day can be the day before or the day after a personal tragedy.

Odd isn’t it, that in a place whence almost no residents ever return, there should be so much potential for life, living and giving. Every day is Christmas when tomorrow may never come.

A personal lesson: I learned all of this firsthand a few years ago. This discovery was dramatically embodied in a Christmas Eve visit to my mother, who had been confined in a nursing home for several years.

It being the time of visitation, my mother and I journeyed to the top floor for our usual private visit in the social room that was decorated for the season. Now at this time there were gathered six or seven people, (patients and their older relatives, not a young person to be found) engaged in their own Christmas visits. We all acknowledged one another but did not conjoin our visits.

It being Christmas, I decided to play the piano, a few of the traditional religious carols. But instead of my playing the piano, I took my mother’s hand and began playing “Silent Night” with her frail index finger. We sang. It was soft, not very tuneful. Surprisingly we were joined by the voices of all the others from various parts of the large room. Softly we sang our songs united in our desire to celebrate the season and the good news of Christ’s birth. Eight or nine frail worried people joined together in a harmony of the soul.

Upon hearing this out-of-tune, out-of-phase impromptu concert, the activities director emerged from her office and asked if we’d like to have some real music played on tapes to listen to and sing along with. Amazingly, everyone said no. We were all satisfied with our own performance, our own offering to the season.

A poor thing it may have been, but ours it was, original, authentic, communal and alive. This “little” was, for all of us, much preferred to the “more,” which records, tapes or brass bands could have brought.

For me, that night remains one of my brightest Christmas memories and the most unexpected one.

Less was certainly more that Christmas, and we didn’t have to try hard to find it. This season, I hope others will find, unexpectedly, in some unlikely way, the heart of Christmas.

— Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. This essay is revised and updated from an essay published in his last book, “An American Commentary (2014),” a collection of his editorial essays.