Is this a great country, or what? Is this not a great season of the year, when sentiment runs proudly amok? It was ever thus.
Once upon a time, when newspapers competed with each other with good writing and responsible editing, gruff old city editors dispatched their best reporters, often a woman called "the sob sister," to search for "weepers" during the dead week between Christmas and the new year, when the zeitgeist slows down and not much happens.
These were often stories about incurably ailing children, typically about a little boy whose mother and father had sacrificed for months to buy a toy train to cheer his final days of this life. If the gruff old city editor got a particularly heartbreaking tale, the family's house would burn down on Christmas eve, taking the toy train and the Christmas tree. In the hands of a talented sob sister such a weeper could soak an acre of newsprint with readers' tears.
The gruff old city editor knew that stories of sacrifice sold papers in big batches, and the classic story of secular Christmas sacrifice is O. Henry's short story, "Gift of the Magi." Della and Jim were poor but rich in the gifts of love, living happily in a modest cold-water walk-up. Their only fine possessions were Della's long, lustrous hair, which fell almost to her knees, and Jim's fine platinum watch, a cherished inheritance from his grandfather.
With only a dollar or so in her pocket, Della was desperate for the money to buy a gift for Jim, and on Christmas Eve she sold her hair for $20, just enough to buy a fob and a gold chain for Jim's watch. She made a festive dinner and waited eagerly for Jim to arrive, praying that he would still find her the beauty he had married.
When Jim walked in at last, carrying a small package, he stopped short at the sight of Della shorn of her locks. He gave her his gift, a set of combs worthy of her hair, bought with money from the sale of his watch. Their gifts recalled the gifts of the three wise men, the magi, given on the first Christmas to the newborn king of the Jews.
Gruff old city editors are mostly gone from newspapers now, along with the stories of sentiment and sacrifice that were once as prized as Della's hair and Jim's watch. But now we have stories that accurately express the ethos of the new age. Perhaps there was an excuse for the weird and not so wonderful this year, with the appearance of the rare Full Cold Moon on Christmas Day. Such a moon last appeared on Christmas Day in 1977 and there won't be another until 2034.
Stories of the grim season abound. Someone called for an ambulance for a woman complaining of dizziness at the airport in Birmingham, Ala. The medics started for a hospital with her when she sat up, pulled a gun from her purse and fired three times. Fortunately she was a bad shot. The bullets missed everyone. But in the confusion she commandeered the ambulance and took off alone. The cops ran her down several blocks away and the medics were called back to calm her and retrieve their ambulance. "Where can you go with an ambulance?" an officer asked. Good question.
The Christmas grinch was as busy as ever. The city of Bethlehem, N.Y., of all places, was told it had to take down a sign wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas," lest it offend atheists, infidels, fallen away heathen or whoever needed something to be offended by. Associate grinches in Longwood, Fla., were offended by a cell telephone tower disguised as the Cross. The tower stands 180 feet tall just off Interstate 4. A growing number of churches, not only in Florida, are renting space in their steeples for cell phone transmitters. Does this violate separation of church and state, since cell phones are regulated by the government? The lawyers are working on it.
The usual holiday house fires, some maybe the work of arsonists, broke out across the land. The most famous damaged the early childhood home of Bill Clinton in Hope, Ark. Someone had scrawled graffiti across a wall, and firepersons sniffed a fire accelerant. But the fire chief said if the fire was set it was likely a prank by misbehaving kids. There was no indication that someone was trying to send a political message.
Bubba, after all, is still regarded as a good ol' boy in the place called Hope. Hillary, not so much.