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November 30, 2011
A mild shock greeted us when we got home Sunday evening: an illuminated 20-foot inflatable Santa Claus had sprouted on our next door neighbor's lawn. We had spent the weekend in picturesque Sag Harbor, where huge inflatable things in people's lawns are probably against the law. But it was good to be back home.

"Besides'" I said to Q, "remember the Connecticut girls."

The Connecticut girls live in a wonderful 18th century farmhouse filled with antiques. One of them is a dealer in contemporary art, so the farmhouse doubles as a gallery. Its considerable grounds include many wonderful trees and remarkable sculptures. The neighbor's tasteful houses are all similarly gracious. But none of the neighbors have a giant inflatable snowman in the front yard, as the Connecticut girls do.

"What do the neighbors say?" I asked. The Connecticut girls just smiled.

"Wyatt wants to play you something," Anna said on the phone, and soon a terrible racket came on the line. After a moment, I recognized it: it was the mechanical dog Greg gave him for his first Christmas: it shakes a small bell and and barks a tune resembling "Jingle Bells." It emits an annoying little whine at the end of each performance.

"You still have that thing?" I asked. I had thought the singing dog would have been sleeping with the fishes long before this.

"We'll have it forever, I'm afraid," she said. "Wyatt just loves it."

A long day and a rare headache detoured me into the corner diner before catching a train home. I never have headaches; I hoped I wasn't coming down with something. Maybe I was hungry. Chic restaurants abound in the Chelsea section of New York these days, as they decidedly did not when I was in school there decades ago, but something drew me instead to a homelier setting, something a little more plebeian. The corner diner did not disappoint: it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in there, with large-eyed plastic reindeer and plastic elves smiling on the walls, ornaments hanging from the ceiling and a garland not found in nature looped around the cash register. I almost never have a hamburger, and this one tasted so good. I also never paint pale green holly leaves with coral-colored berries on my windows, nor do I edge them with spray-on snow. But once in a while, we like to do something a little out of the box. My hamburger was truly delicious, and the headache did die down -- even with the canned music they were playing, a disturbing rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" that sounded a lot like the flying monkeys' chant in "The Wizard of Oz". Taken as a whole, food and ambiance together, my supper at the diner was Martha Stewart's vision of what Hell must be like.

A lighted garland topped the Eight Avenue entrance to Penn Station. The Salvation Army man still manned his bucket at the door, hoping to catch people heading for home after working late. The train station plays classical music for the travelers; they were playing the opening scene of "The Nutcracker" as I rode the escalator down to the concourse, and I had just two minutes to catch my train, so I missed the March of the Wooden Soldiers. My taxi turned into our street. "It's the one right after the big Santa Claus," I told the driver. Our little house is not yet adorned for Christmas; that comes later for us, and will be considerably more modest in scale. But a world starved for liturgy grasps at what it can; there is a longing we should recognize behind the kitsch, a longing for home and holiness, love and innocence. The tinsel garlands tremble in a cold wind. The maddening twinkle lights struggle to light the darkness. We all know where we long to be, even if many have had no teaching in their entire lives about how to get there, and labor under the doomed belief that our place there can be bought. Our task, one by one by one, is to show by the way we live our lives that the gift everyone seeks need not be bought. It has already been given.

Church people mostly inveigh against the premature entrance of the secular Christmas into our lives. They keep wanting the world to savor Advent, something the world is pretty unlikely to do. We should stop scolding and lighten up about that; there are worse things going on in our world today than plastic reindeer. Now is a good time to see what we might do about some of them.
To that end, I invite you to consider a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development as your main gift this Christmas. Do you need another sweater? Another tie? Another gadget? Neither do I. I'd rather have school uniforms for children in Haiti or a goat for a family in Africa. Deciding how to give to ER&D is fun at this time of year: we browse through the offerings in Gifts For Life, which enable us to channel our giving to projects close to our hearts and envision the good they will bring about. You can do the same at Or telephone 1-800-334-7626,ext 5129 and request a printed Gifts For Life catalogue. If you do, email me and let me know what you got!
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