A War on Whose Christmas?

Tenement Museum

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day at the Tenement Museum, on New York’s Lower East Side.  I was there to meet with the museum’s new president, Kevin Jennings, and to tour their new Under One Roof exhibit with Annie Polland, the EVP for Programs and Interpretation.  An affiliate historic site of the National Trust, the Tenement Museum tells the full American story about how many have come together to make our nation today.

Which brings me to the so-called War on Christmas.

The day I arrived, Kevin had just published an op-ed in Newsweek entitled “A War on Christmas?  What Christmas Are You Talking About?”  Early in the piece he asks the key question:

“In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.”

The entire piece is worth the read, because Kevin uses the three families highlighted in the Under One Roof exhibit— the Epsteins, who were Holocast survivors, the Wongs, and the Velez family, who migrated from Puerto Rico—to show how the holidays were celebrated in many ways in just one building in New York City.

Exhibit Timeline

The changing faces, and diversity, of 103 Orchard Street (photo credit: Tenement Museum)

From the lessons learned from the exhibit, Kevin ends with a strong call for inclusion.

“By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.”

Let’s celebrate our inclusive and real American story, not something that a certain news network has decided is a way to divide our country into Americans and others. And let’s stop letting those pundits and politicians weaponize “Merry Christmas.”

More to come…


Merry Christmas 2016

Singing at Christmas Day Dinner

Singing Carols at the Christmas Day Dinner at St. Alban’s Parish

Several years ago we first volunteered to help serve Christmas dinner at our parish.  This is a wonderful tradition that we had just discovered.  Several hundred people – some homeless, some single, some elderly without family nearby, some simply wanting someone else to cook for them – come together for several hours of turkey, stuffing, pies, caroling, and conversation.

That first year, as we were leaving, one of the children said, “Can we make this a regular part of our Christmas Day tradition?”  We’ve been there ever since.

Because Andrew and Claire were born five days before Christmas, we have always waited to jump into the season until after we celebrate their birthdays.  Plus, Candice and I have always wanted to focus on Advent, and then celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas through until Epiphany on January 6th. But this year we’ve actually scaled back some of the past over-the-top holiday celebrations.  Our decorations are simpler. We are content to be together as a family around a dinner table.  (No cell phones, please.)

And just as the twins helped bring the Christmas dinner into our family celebration, they now help us choose one event for each of the 12 Days of Christmas.  This year’s list includes a night of making pasta together.  Two evenings at the theatre. Brunches and dinners with dear friends. Dim sum.  A family hike.  And a belated 24th birthday celebration, since Claire didn’t arrive home until Christmas Eve.

If you celebrate the season, dear readers, I hope you have a wonderful time filled with family and friends you love along with outreach to those who need our love.

Browns at the Christmas Day Dinner

The Browns at the St. Alban’s Parish Christmas Day Dinner 2016 (photo credit: Suzy Mink)

Merry Christmas!

More to come…


Merry Christmas 2011

For a holiday filled with so many traditions, each year’s celebration of Christmas is different.  Some years the celebration revolves around visits with family.  In fact, so much of what I remember about Christmas from my childhood involves “visiting Mamaw and Papaw’s house” with a passel full of cousins and the accompanying aunts and uncles.

But there are also years where other considerations over-shadow the holiday.  In 1997, mom was one week away from dying (she passed away on New Year’s day in 1998), while Candice’s father passed away on December 26, 2008.  In both instances we were able to be with our parents over the holiday season, but the focus was understandably elsewhere.

This has been a quiet Christmas.  And that’s been fine.

The quiet holiday can have its own special joys.  Some of the things I’ll recall from Christmas 2011 include:

The joy of early gifts.  About 10 days ago, we visited the neurologist for a four-month check-up after Candice’s fall and the resulting seizures and severe concussion in late August.  To hear that the EEG was clear and that the MRI “looked like a different brain” from the one the neurologist had seen in the August MRI was music to our ears.  Candice still has eight months left for a complete recovery, but this was the best gift of the season.

The joy of seeing children grow into adults before your eyes.  In August, we dropped Andrew and Claire off at college.  We’ve seen them briefly in the ensuing four months, but we’re now a week into the winter break and the changes – and independence – that come with the college experience are on full display.  As empty nesters, we’ve had more than one conversation about how best to respond to these new adults in our midst.

The joy of listening to Andrew’s music.  Since he was a young Cathedral Chorister, Andrew has worked hard to develop his musical talent.  This season we’ve enjoyed his singing – in a 12-person ensemble at the beautiful Strathmore Music Hall with the Cathedral Choral Society’s A Dickens’ Christmas and on Christmas Eve at our parish, where he sang solos and joined with the choir during the choral prelude for the Christmas Eve service.

The joy of seeing Claire’s passions grow and mature.  We’ve always called Claire our “outdoors girl.”  She’s loved nature, science, swimming, and people in equal measure.  California, with the opportunities for exploring a new environment, has been a great choice for her to learn more about the world in which we live.  She’s taking a couple of wonderful classes to explore where she may want to focus her scientific bent. I loved our father/daughter lunch at the Tabard Inn where we talked about the different fields that piqued her interest.  In her first semester she’s taken on a new commitment to swimming that has moved her fitness to new levels. And she continues to teach us all lessons about ways to make and nurture friendships.

The joy of a well-crafted Christmas sermon.  We’re still getting to know our new rector at St. Alban’s, but Deborah’s sermon on Christmas Eve – where she spoke as if giving a remembrance by one of the shepherds – was one more in a series of well crafted, challenging, and meaningful sermons that she seems to produce every time she steps into the pulpit.  When Andrew and Claire announced that they were “fans” of the sermon, and Candice and I agreed, it was clear Deborah’s made a big impression.  Christmas sermons can be dreadful.  This was anything but.

The joy of good food.  Following her fall and recovery, Candice is back in charge of our kitchen.  And that’s a VERY good thing.  It doesn’t matter if we are eating a simple soup at lunch or a lavish holiday dinner – I am one lucky man.

The joy of reflection.  Taking time off to be with family and friends allows time for reflection.  I was fortunate enough this year to have two weeks off, and the change of pace has been welcomed.  (Candice would say necessary.)

The joy of friends.  At holiday parties, Lessons & Carols, dinner with another family that has been battling brain injuries of their own, lunch in an Irish pub, at the back of church…all of these places and more are where we’ve connected with friends old and new and fed our spirits.

The joy of giving.  Finally, the old saying that it is more blessed to give than to receive is easier to recognize during a quiet Christmas season.  I’ve found that true this year time and again.

I know there will be Christmas holidays in the future full of cousins, babies, aunts and uncles…and they will be great fun.  But I’m thankful for our quiet 2011 Christmas.  In whatever way you have celebrated Christmas – or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice – I hope it has fed your soul.  From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

More to come…


Merry Christmas 2009

We left the blizzard of 2009 behind us and headed out to Tennessee to visit with family and friends for the Christmas season.  It has been rejuvenating and restful to be with those folks you don’t choose, but with whom you share so much.

Some highlights:

Seeing my 84-year-old father with 11 of his 13 grandchildren and all five of his great-grandchildren. (He’ll get to see the other two grandchildren next weekend.)

Having Andrew and Claire reconnect with all their cousins and their cousins’ children. The latter group includes two babies born about four months ago (Leighton) and just 10 days ago (Oliver).  Little babies are such great additions to Christmas.

Visiting with my sister and her family who have returned to the states after 17+ years overseas. Their older son David is maturing into a wonderful young man while their younger son Nathan is full of life and mischief.  My brother-in-law is a real artist in the wood shop, having built most of the beautiful furniture in their house by himself.  And it was great to hear my sister Carol play and discuss the Oud – a Middle Eastern lute.  After a short attempt at picking my limited repertoire of Middle Eastern melodies, I decided that the bowl backed Oud and my slightly bowl-shaped waistline were mismatched!

Talking with my father about two books of evocative historical photographs from the Tennessee Valley Authority, where dad worked for more than 30 years. When you see the photos of the serious erosion of the farm land and the extreme poverty of the Tennessee Valley of the 1930s – and hear my father talk about seeing it first hand with his father and uncles – you are reminded how government programs cannot be explained in the simple black and white terms of the current crop of political pundits.

Having an old-fashioned guitar pull with my brother Joe and the next generation of family pickers – Joe’s son Joseph and Carol’s son David. I’ve been playing music at family gatherings since my brother Steve and I use to play with my cousin Johnny (aka Hershey) at Mamaw’s house in the 1960s.  It is great to see the tradition continue.

Having a cup of boiled custard, thanks to Joe. When I think of Christmas, I think of my mom’s boiled custard (with SEVEN cups of sugar in a one-gallon recipe) and chocolate covered peanut butter balls.  Candice knows how much I love these treats, but she also knows that my arteries need to remain open for the old ticker to work, so I don’t get them often.

Being with my sister Debbie, who is – as I told her tonight – the new Mom in our family. My mother died 12 years ago this New Year’s Day, and Debbie does so many things just like my mom that I can shut my eyes and go back in time.  Watching her three girls and their five children (all under the age of six) open Christmas presents while Debbie and her wonderful husband Mark kept their cool so reminded me of Christmas mornings years ago with Mom and Dad.

Eating, eating, and then eating some more. On Christmas Eve we had a fabulous noonday spread at Joe and Kerry’s artistic and comfortable hand-built farmhouse (pictured in the guitar pull picture) featuring roasted turkey (from an outdoor grill – thank you Jason), ham, corn pudding, Waldorf and green salads…and on and on.  By Christmas Eve night we were back at it, eating the traditional Brown family “breakfast” of pancakes, eggs, bacon, some more ham, great apple and pear turnovers and fruit before all the kids were snug in their beds.  Christmas Day we still had room for some wonderful soup from Carol, a great cheese tray that Candice put together, some veggies and other finger foods that we grazed on throughout the day.

Watching the 6th Harry Potter movie on Christmas Day with four Potter experts. Because Andrew and Claire had reached the age of not wanting to go to the movies with their parents when Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince arrived in theatres, this was the one movie in the series I hadn’t seen.  Watching it today (a gift from Andrew to Claire) with my two kids and David and Nathan, all I had to do was start a question (such as “Why does Snape have to be the one to kill Dumbledore?”) and I got four in-depth answers.

Laughing my head off with Carol and Debbie as we sang songs from a 50-year-old family songbook. I think the in-laws, spouses, children, nieces and nephews thought they were all part of the strangest family ever, but looking at that old book, seeing the tunes and photos that I use to study as a child and being reminded of singing around the piano with mother touched a deep and loving part of our hearts.

Having a quiet Christmas morning to open presents with Candice, Andrew, Claire and my dad. Gifts were chosen that were both thoughtful and loving.

Christmas in our family has had its share of sorrows.  Candice’s father died on December 26th just last year, and my mother barely made it through the holiday before dying of cancer on January 1, 1998.  But most of my memories are of great times.  This year reminded me of the family traditions we’ve blended together, of the new generations that enrich our time together and of the love that people thrown together as family can share for each other even when they are as different as we’ve always been.

Thanks Daddy, Candice, Claire, Andrew, Debbie, Mark, Ashli, Jason, Kyle, Kate, Brittany, Chris, Thomas, Leighton, Rachel, Brad, Oliver, Joe, Kerry, Erin, Joseph, Samuel, Isaac, Carol, Raouf, David and Nathan.  Merry Christmas to all!

More to come…