By Floyd and Mary Beth Brown, Western Center for Journalism
“Christmas has always been a very special day for as long back as I can remember,” Ronald Reagan once reminisced, writing in a letter. “Maybe this was due to my mother and her joyous spirit about the day.”
Although President Reagan could have spent his White House Christmases with family at his beloved ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., he instead stayed in Washington, D.C. This way, his sacrifice allowed Secret Service agents and other aides to spend Christmas at home with their families. He was a thoughtful person.
Reagan grew up in a desperately poor family. His father was a shoe sales clerk who had trouble keeping a job, partly because he was an alcoholic. “There were very few decorated trees in the years of my growing up, Reagan said when recalling his childhood. But never defeated, my mother would with ribbon and crepe paper decorate a table or create a cardboard fireplace out of a packing box. And she always remembered whose birthday it was and made sure we knew the meaning of Christmas.”
His mother Nelle was an optimistic Christian woman who always looked for the positive side in every situation. President Reagan explained, no matter how bad things were for their family, his mother was always finding someone worse off than them. Reagan’s most vivid early memory of his mother was of her taking a covered dish to a needy family. Nelle was always gladly helping others.
Perhaps those lean years are one reason why Ronald Reagan once said a particular Christmas gift was especially memorable for him, calling it “a gift truly in keeping with the spirit of the day. It became his favorite gift. His older brother, Neil, gave it to him after struggling to find a suitable gift for his brother. At the time, they both were middle-aged adults with successful careers.
Neil solved his dilemma by writing a letter. In the letter, Neil told his brother he had found a truly needy family with small children “who wouldn’t go to bed with dreams of Santa Claus in their head.” Ronald Reagan recounted how his brother Neil changed that and “became Santa himself, providing a Christmas from tree to turkey plus toys and gifts for all.” Included in Neil’s letter was a very detailed, blow-by-blow account, describing the “joy of the children and the grateful happiness of their mother.”
This act of charitable giving by Neil reads like the ending of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” thus becoming President Reagan’s most unforgettable Christmas gift. He called it “a gift that will never grow old,” as he enjoyed re-reading the letter and thinking about the family’s reaction to Neil’s generosity.
Helping and serving others gives true joy and happiness, not only to the recipient, but even more so to the giver. Maybe Neil’s gift was particularly touching to Reagan because he knew what it was like to go without. Today, there are still families out there who are in difficult circumstances, facing a bleak Christmas. A gift like Neil’s may be the perfect gift for you to give to that someone in your life who has everything. Your church or locally based charities such as the Salvation Army are aware of needy families. You could make a difference and receive special Christmas joy by giving to a family who has hit hard times. Then, write a letter similar to Neil’s describing the family’s reactions, and give it as a gift. This is the true spirit of Christmas.
While speaking to the nation on Christmas Eve 1984, President Reagan said families and friends across America will join together in caroling parties and Christmas Eve services. Together, he said imparting his usual optimism, we’ll renew that spirit of faith, peace, and giving which has always marked the character of our people.
At the end of his tale, Dickens writes, “it was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May this be said of all of us. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
Merry Christmas from all of us at the Western Center for Journalism!