AS I WAS packing up my Christmas ornaments this weekend, I took a moment to reflect on the holiday season.
I sensed that this past yuletide was one of the more stressful and cantankerous in recent memory. Perhaps it was the strain of the war in Iraq, or stress over gas prices. Maybe people had a harder time finding the right presents. Definitely the right-wing canard that there was a war on Christmas got people hot-headed. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but the mood was different than during Christmases past.
In the days leading up to Christmas, this mood affected me, too. Shopping in Beverly Hills, I found that certain stores didn't sell Christmas items, unless you count Rudolph or a snowman, saying it was "offensive" to sell religious items, even though they had decorations for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.
Maybe God sensed my frustration, because he sent to me two very different messengers to re-teach me what the Christmas spirit was all about.
Just before Christmas, I received an e-mail from Tim Kelly Sr., father of Philadelphia's own voice of an angel, Timmy Kelly.
Timmy, born prematurely at just over a pound, and who has fought medical ailments and blindness, was a fan. His father asked if I wouldn't mind meeting Timmy one day. Like most Philadelphians, I've been in love with Timmy from the time I saw him sing at Gov. Rendell's inauguration.
They say he has the voice of an angel, but I've never seen an angel make 250-pound men cry the way Timmy did when he sang at Lincoln Financial Field before the Eagles played the NFC championship game in 2005. So, I called Timmy's father right back and said I would take them out to dinner that very night.
I'm not the world's best driver. I often get lost. On my way to meet Timmy and his father in Northeast Philly, I somehow ended up in Germantown. My blood pressure was rising. I pulled next to a car and shouted out the window, trying to ask directions.
A black man and his children were inside. Since we were blocking traffic, he told me to pull off to the side so he could give me directions. No one would let me in, and I was sucked down the expressway. My blood pressure was through the roof.
Miles later, now pulled off to the shoulder in frustration, I heard a beep. It was the same car.
"Funny that I bumped into you again all the way up here," I said.
"Coincidence? No, I've been trying to catch up with you to give you those directions," he said. "I must admit the fringe benefit has been that my sons and me got a lot of laughs out of watching you drive."
Not only did he give me directions, but we chatted for an hour. He was Muslim, and talked about his holiday season, and I told him about mine. We talked about his kids, and how he was raised in Philly but moved his family to Jersey for what he thought might be a quieter life.
"Tell you what," he said. "I'll drive you to where you're going. Just follow me." He was going about 25 minutes out of his way. He didn't care, he said, it was the benevolent thing to do, especially during this season.
I got to the Northeast, finally, and had dinner with Timmy and his parents. Not to get political, but if the pro-life lobby wanted to show what a severely premature baby could become, this should be their poster child. At only 11, Timmy was wise and mature beyond his years. He talked about how he was blessed to have all that he had.
"I only hope that one day I'll get to hear you sing again," I said.
With that, he stood up in the restaurant and sang "Silent Night" for me. Patrons who were wrapped up in their holiday hassles stopped. The entire place went silent, like the song says, as Timmy graced them with his voice. When he was done, the mood in the restaurant had changed. Trivial frustrations didn't seem so big anymore.
Timmy asked me if I believed in leprechauns. I told him of course I did, I'm half Irish, after all. He took my hand and put three gold coins in it. "These three coins were given to me by leprechauns," he said. "They'll give you luck. Be sure you keep them."
I have those three coins in my pocket now. They are a constant reminder of what the Christmas spirit really means, and what I learned that day.