Christmas Without the Holly and Jolly


I froze in my tracks, fearful Mr. or Mrs. Kelsey would see me and know I heard them screaming at one another.  It was 1960 something in my childhood neighborhood.  A week before Christmas, most of the houses sported wreath-trimmed doors and lights around the roof lines.  I currently stood, statute-like on the sidewalk, in front of one of the few undecorated homes, witnessing a whang banger of a fight between two of its occupants.

On Cherry Street, the Kelsey family boasted legendary status and terrified other children much like the Herdman crew in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”  The painful realities of six children raised in a home by two alcoholics often spilled over into our neighborhood sidewalks and community park.  Several of the boys delighted in bullying my brother, who was small for his age. One time they chased him to the top of a ball diamond backstop with a vicious dog.

Sometimes, on our way to school, we would walk by Mr. Kelsey, slumped and unconscious on the sidewalk outside the neighborhood bar.  Mrs. Kelsey held down a job at Woolworth’s.  Most evenings you’d see her on their sagging, front porch, working her way through a six pack of Schlitz, bare feet propped on the paint-blistered railing.  She scared me.  It’s not that other parents in my neighborhood didn’t drink, but it shocked us to see a woman drinking, barefoot on her front porch in the daylight. It was wild by our neighborhood standards.

Mrs. Kelsey screamed at her husband and children a lot.  She yelled at neighborhood kids like me who stood up to her bully children.  Many parents, mine included, tangled words with her numerous times about her brood’s behavior.  Today, though, both the Mr. and Mrs. screamed near their open front door.  I had never heard the two of them fight before as they were rarely home at the same time.  The air felt toxic and dangerous and finally I turned and fled home.

There’s lots more things I could tell you about the Kelsey’s but the one that I think is most significant concerns my mom.  Beverly Kelsey scared the jeepers out of most of the women on Cherry Street.  My mom probably felt intimidated too but somehow, she managed to work in enough conversations with this neighborhood anomaly, to share Christ with her.  Since my mother is at home in heaven these days I can’t get the details of how she built a bridge between her and Beverly Kelsey, but she did.   I don’t know if Beverly experienced salvation like some of the other neighbors my mom led to the throne room.  Heaven will tell.

As a kid, all I could see was the meanness and dysfunction of the Kelsey family.  In reflection, I think of the those kids differently.  They always mocked our new Christmas clothes and toys. Sometimes they’d grab things and break them or try to keep them.  I realize now, they probably experienced meager presents under their tree and I don’t recall ever seeing any of the girls wear pretty clothes or hair ribbons, even for our school Christmas concerts.  How awful it must have been for them to return to school and listen to everyone’s happiness and excitement about their holidays.

Maybe you grew up in a Kelsey style family so your childhood Christmas memories aren’t so great.  Or maybe you’ve got some Kelsey’s somewhere in your life in the form of neighbors, co-workers, or extended family.  Screaming, fighting, drunkenness and other disturbing behaviors are the norm in many families right now.  The Christmas season with its expectations of joy and peace can just make the unhappiness in a home seem worse.

That’s one of the great things about the Christmas story.   Jesus’ birth happened in a rough situation attended by rough folks. Shepherds existed on the bottom of society.  Isn’t it interesting that God sent a live, angelic invitation to these social outcasts, and no one else, to come worship His son?

I suspect there is someone in your world who makes you uncomfortable in their lost-ness.  Please ask God to help you build a bridge.  Swallow your fear and awkwardness and invite them to a Christmas service.  Take them a plate of cookies in Christ’s name.  Host a coffee for neighbors or co-workers.   God sent an entire host of angels to some of the smelliest, most crude people of the day and Joseph and Mary welcomed them.  

It’s not too late, Christmas is still here.   Ask God for opportunities and ideas to connect with the Kelsey’s and Herdman’s in your sphere.  They need to know that Christ came for them.


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