By Ray Lenarcic

Among the things that distinguish Christmas from other holidays are its many traditions. I just participated in one by sending out this year’s Christmas cards. For that custom we can thank Englishman J.C. Horsley who in 1843 created a cardboard illustrating happy people toasting each other followed by a caption reading “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You.” One thousand cards were printed that first year. In 2017 in the U.S. over two billion will be exchanged, much to the delight of recipients and Hallmark. Ever steal a kiss under the mistletoe? The tradition was popular with English servants in the 1700’s. Anyone refusing a smack was doomed with bad luck; try using that line this year-you might get lucky. Or slapped.

During my youth, we used to leave milk and cookies for the bearded one. This tradition derived from Norse mythology. Children left treats for Odin’s eight-legged horse in hopes that the god would leave gifts for them in return. Enjoy egg nog? Better you than me (an IPA guy). The drink dates back to the Celtic Druids and was supposed to enhance fertility and vitality. Might try it this year. And how about yule logs? The old Celts and Gaels celebrated the winter solstice by burning logs decorated with holly, ivy and pine cones.

Every Christian country has its special yuletide traditions including my paternal grandparents’ homeland of Slovenia. For those geographically impaired, Slovenia is a small alpine country located in southeastern Europe. Formerly it was the northernmost of the states comprising Yugoslavia. My favorite “old country” tradition is the Christmas wish, and it’s based on the following story handed down over the generations.

First and foremost to Slovenians, the majority of whom were Catholic, Christmas was a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Mass, family gatherings and the wolfing down of holiday specialties like potica and streukla highlighted the day. Unlike our culture where most children receive a plethora of presents, Slovenian kids received one. If it was merited. At a time long ago parents were bothered by the fact that their children seemed to have forgotten how to behave properly. They were disrespectful to adults, bullied the weaker among them, called each other names, mocked those with physical disabilities, and lied and cheated with impunity. Having had enough of this, the parents’ solution was to establish a new set of rules. The children were told that if they didn’t abide by the list of do’s and don’ts from New Year’s Day throughout the year, their Christmas wish would not be granted.

No lying. Telling the truth could sometimes be painful, but far less so than the pain experienced by people who were victimized by their lies. No cheating. No name-calling. Respect other people’s feelings by remembering the times when they were made fun of and how that felt. No bullying for the same reason. Be kind to others, especially the less fortunate. As good as they’ll feel because of your empathy, you’ll feel even better by the doing. Show respect to your elders, especially your parents.

Around October, children began thinking of their Christmas wish. Once they were ready, they’d write it on a piece of paper and leave it in the “wish box” after a Sunday Mass. On December 1st, Father Christmas would collect the papers and begin making his decisions.

As the story goes, a little boy named Frederick, one of the better behaved children in his rural village, wrote down as his wish a puppy. Earlier that year his dog died leaving him so sad that he thought his heart would burst. That Christmas night by the fireplace he waited for his Christmas wish. And waited. But nothing. His parents tried to console him, but to no avail. As he lay in bed that night, tears rolling down his cheeks, he couldn’t understand it. He’d been so good that year. Later, as his mother tucked him in, she whispered-“Goodness is its own reward.” The little boy smiled, turned over and went to sleep.

The following morning, Frederick went out to the barn to do his chores. As he began to feed the chickens, he heard a noise. A whimper. He walked to the back of the barn and there it was, sitting in the corner. The cutest little puppy he’d ever seen. Frederick wrapped his arms around his new best friend and shouted for anyone to hear-“Thank you, Father Christmas.” Peeking around the corner were his smiling parents.

The idea of earning one’s Christmas wish is comforting. Living our lives, children and adults, in accordance with the principles which guided Frederick could not help but make us better persons and as a result, ours a better world. If a young Slovenian farm boy could do it, so can anyone from the man in the White House to the homeless guy living under a bridge. The tradition of the Christmas wish taught children the importance of living one’s faith, a lesson sadly in need of being re-learned by many in today’s America. Frederick earned his Christmas wish. Have we earned ours? God bless us, everyone!