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January 5, 2012

From Fly Creek: Christmas and varied blessings

— I’m still astounded! The last farmers’ market before Christmas, I was sitting up front, directly under the ceiling heater, shmoozing with the hoi-polloi. (That’s  an awkward linguistic mix,but let’s let it go.) As I sipped my hot coffee, a gloved hand came to rest on my shoulder and a warm voice said, “Merry Christmas, Jim.” I looked to my left—it was Santa Claus!

“Santa!” I said, and started to rise. But the gloved hand pressed down, and St. Nick stepped to my side. His blue eyes, how they twinkled; and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

“Merry Christmas, Santa!” I said, and wondered at once if that were a proper greeting. (For instance, if the Almighty should sneeze in your presence, would you say, ‘God bless you’?) But as St. Nick laughed heartily, I blurted out another response.

“Santa, I can’t believe you remember my name! I haven’t sat on your on your lap for 65 years!” He chuckled and winked.

“Santa doesn’t forget anything,” he intoned. Then he patted my shoulder and slipped into the crowd like — what? — the down of a thistle.

Well, that was a great launch into Christmas. I’d already had a fine build-up by leading three Sunday discussion groups for the Cooperstown Presbyterians.

What a gift that was for me!

I was back in the professorial saddle again, surrounded by bright, well-informed students who were leaning into the discussion with excitement. These days I’m on energy rationing now (or should be), and each of those sessions cost a couple of days of recuperation. But were they ever worth it!

Christmas Eve, as always, was spent at the Fly Creek United Methodist Church, with bright candles, banks of poinsettias, scents of evergreens, and with scores of old friends in attendance. As expected, Tom Pullyblank’s sermon was masterful: carefully planned, full of historic references, and rich in emotion. The choir, always good, was truly splendid.

And Christmas afternoon I went to jail. Down at the Detention Center, I sat with eight young men, all released briefly from double lock-up (One never asks why). I started with a blunt question: “Why in God’s name would I want to put myself in jail on Christmas afternoon? You have to be here — but I don’t.”

I explained that the answer to my question was right inside it. I was there in God’s name, as are all the volunteers who visit the imprisoned. And in that light, I could wish them the merriest of Christmases.

“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” True detention is what we construct in ourselves, and there’s a sure way out of those walls. That’s what Christmas is about.

And so we talked and laughed and sang a bunch of carols. The guys’ singing was more raucous than tuneful, but no matter. Afterwards they shuffled away and back into double lock-up, maybe a bit freer in spirit.

I’d learned from one of the eight that an inmate, one who’d been in and out of jail a dozen times at least since I’ve been visiting there, was back in again, and this time in solitary confinement. They brought him in to see me in shackles, a big, scrawny kid as loose-limbed as a marionette.

“Jim!” he shouted, as he turned the corner; and his face was as joyful as St. Nick’s. For the few minutes that we had, we sat and visited, old friends in an odd, poignant way. We shared prayers, wished each other Merry Christmas, and then he had to shuffle off again, shackles clinking against the floor. He turned by the door, grinned, and shook the chain linking his wrists. “Sleigh bells ring!” he sang, off key.

God bless that poor broken kid. God bless them all. Back to that farmers’ market before Christmas: When Anne and I left, we started up Main Street to the car — and met Santa Claus again, standing right outside Fred Leminster’s store. (Red suit  and fur trim, white beard andbig smile, he somehow looked larger than he had back in the market.)

“Merry Christmas, Anne and Jim!” he called out. And then he gave each of us a red lollypop. I walked up the street in wonder.

“Anne! He remembered your name, too!” What a guy