Almost every Christmas for the past two decades I have dipped my pen in the ink well of fiction. This is the only time I have ever written fiction and it has become a family tradition for me to read the story to the family on Christmas Eve. The following is this year’s story.
The dimly lit parking lot was darker than normal as Martin exited his office building. He had forgotten that Daylight Savings Time had changed over the weekend so he didn’t anticipate the need to feel for the correct key to his car from a keychain. Even though he didn’t especially enjoy the colder winter months the darkness did nothing to dim his good mood as he slid behind the wheel of his Honda Civic and instinctively steered toward home.
Life was good for Martin. It’s about time things started turning his way.
His cheerful mood was a contrast to how he began the day. The dread of a late afternoon meeting scheduled with his boss clouded the entire weekend. He wasn’t sure where he stood.
Martin is an introspective man. He is aware that he spends far more time reflecting on himself than is healthy. People frequently told him he was doing a good job and all of his performance reviews reinforced their words, yet Martin knew he could do better. He was all set to promise the boss he would work longer hours and be more diligent although he wasn’t sure how that was possible.
Jillian had expressed her concern as Martin left the house earlier that morning so he anticipated she would do her best to make his evening as comfortable as possible. She was like that—always taking care of him. But, this time the surprise would be hers. Martin did not need cheering tonight.
The people at work called him Marty, not Martin. He deliberately chose that nickname because it was better for his line of work. Marty Williams has a much better ring to it for a television reporter. For nearly a decade he had been introduced as Marty Williams during the television news.
He spent the first year as a radio newsman, but was quickly convinced by friends and listeners that he was too good and too good looking to hide in a radio studio. His first television gig started as a weekend reporter for a station deep in the Midwest. Good work paid off and four years ago he landed a job with his current station, Channel 6. He was a feature reporter seen on the evening newscast three to four times a week.
The station had a new owner as of a few months back so everyone, especially all the news staff, was feeling their way, unsure of the future. The owner was very hands on with day to day operations. In fact, it was obvious that he had purchased the station primarily to promote his own political agenda. That’s not to say he’s an extremist, but he’s not very patient with those who disagree with him.
After a complete day of nervous anticipation it was finally time for Martin’s scheduled meeting with the boss. Not being a man to mince words, Mr. Mason got right to the point.
“Marty, I like you and you do good work,” he said as Marty had barely settled in the chair in front of the bosses’ desk.
“Thank you,” replied Marty. If he had been paying attention, Mr. Mason would have sensed that Marty was not expecting a compliment so soon.
“That is why I have a special assignment for you.”
“I like the way that sounds,” replied Marty, sounding more confident with each word.
Mason continued. “You know that one of the reasons I bought this station was to provide support for my values and beliefs. There are some things that are important to me in our country and this community and I think it is important that we speak up whenever appropriate.”
Martin wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, but at this point it didn’t really matter—he was still enjoying the boss’ confidence in him.
“Marty, I’ve been listening to some of the national news stations and reading the newspapers. One of the issues they are pounding is one I like and the one I want you to tackle. It is what many are calling, The War on Christmas.”
Martin nodded his head since he was familiar with the term and a little bit of the conversation.
Here’s what I want you to do,” continued Mason. “I want you to tackle this issue from a local perspective. In other words, tell us about the war against Christmas in our own backyard. Do you think you can do that?”
“Sure,” spouted Marty before really thinking about the task. “Do you want a story for this week?”
“No, no! I want you to take some time and do a bunch of research. I want a weeklong series that we will air during the week before Christmas. That gives you plenty of time to put everything together. In fact, I have told Hank to give you enough time each evening for a two minute report.”
Two minutes each evening is a reporter’s dream come true, thought Martin. This was big!
Mason wasn’t finished. He went on to tell Marty that he would have a producer at his disposal and full access to all the research personnel of the station to help with the reports. He wanted this to be something that captured the attention of the city and drove the point home that we must not let the liberals rob us of Christmas. He assured Marty that this would be the biggest thing for the entire news team that would carry them through the holidays.
That is why Martin drove home anticipating a great evening with Jillian and the kids. Not only would she be prepared with a special meal on the table, but his news would be the desert.
And it was a great evening. Everyone rejoiced in Martin’s special assignment. Jillian told him that he was finally on his way to becoming the reporter she always knew he would become. In fact, Martin was so excited he even called his parents in Grand Rapids, something he didn’t do very often.
Although it seemed like a long time, Martin knew his reports would need to be finished and in the can in a little more than a month. So first thing Tuesday morning after his initial cup of coffee and quick run through of his emails, he began putting together an outline of the five episodes.
Ideas simply spilled out of his head onto the paper. He would do an episode on city policy and the way they removed the nativity from the City Hall Christmas display several years ago. He knew he could count on a few council members for some juicy comments representing both sides of the issue.
Next he would tackle the local school board and their decision to remove any mention of the word “Christmas” from all their activities. Marty remembered the aggravation expressed by parents when they saw last year’s school calendar and the “Christmas Vacation” was replaced by “Winter Holiday.” There were some folks at his church that were still steamed up about that one and he knew they would love to appear on the Channel 6 newscast to discuss the issue.
Then he thought about taking a clandestine cameraman to the mall and catch salespeople saying, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” He would interview the managers of the stores to see if it was store policy.
Maybe for his feature episode, Marty would get John Mason to arrange an interview with Bob O’Malley. Everyone knows O’Malley and he would be a major interview for a mid-level size station like Channel 6. O’Malley is a big time commentator and author who has a daily show on the most popular cable news channel. Every year about this time he has an almost daily feature about the culture war on Christmas. He has almost single-handedly carried the battle that has become so popular. Marty knew that O’Malley got his start in a station owned by Mason down in Florida. He couldn’t wait for the opportunity to talk with Mr. Mason and get an interview scheduled.
Marty’s last idea would have to wait until the end. His plan was to contact home owners who put out large Christmas displays, especially those who did not have any religious overtones. He would then interview them; perhaps live on the evening news to see why they chose not to mention the religious aspect. After all, what is Christmas without Christ?
While Marty worked on his project for the next two weeks, Jillian and the kids took care of getting the family ready for Christmas. Margo was nine years old and still eager to believe in all the Christmas fables and festivities. Justin was only five so he was really excited about Santa and making sure he got everything on his wish list.
A big part of Marty’s family Christmas every year was their involvement at church. That usually meant several Christmas parties, getting the kids to all the musical practices, and attending the Christmas program. Most years they were even seen at the Christmas Eve service, something Marty especially looked forward to.
However, this year things were somewhat different. Marty’s commitment to his special assignment infringed on some of their family time so he was not available to help Jillian with all the transportation and activities with the kids. They were so busy getting everything together under the new schedule that before they realized it they had missed all the church activities. In fact, they even missed a couple of Sunday morning services, something they never did before.
Yet there was light at the end of the tunnel. Marty had the first few programs all set. He got some great comments from city council members about the importance of not allowing the government to promote Christian events and values. Similar concerns were also uttered by school board members.
Even at the mall it didn’t take long to find stores that had trained employees to use “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” They made it very clear they did not want to insult anyone by throwing a Christian tradition in their face.
Marty’s interview with Bob O’Malley was amazing. They were able to do a video link so travel was not necessary and Bob did not disappoint. He was at his best, criticizing all those pagans and liberals who want to run all the Christians out of the country. He was so into his rant that Marty’s producer actually left portions out of the piece when it was aired. He was afraid it was a little too inflammatory.
On Thursday morning, John Mason stuck his head through the door of Marty’s office and proclaimed, “Great job Marty. Just what I wanted and expected from you.”
Before Marty could say thanks, Mason was already half way down the hall on to do something else. Marty felt good. Jillian was right. He was finally being recognized for how good he truly was.
The Thursday newscast episode was the interview with O’Malley so all Marty needed to do was provide a short introduction. Since he had no preparations to make he used the day to make the final preparations for the Friday episode. The plan was to locate some home owners with large yard displays and talk about why they omitted any Christian references.
Several people at the station provided address for Marty to check and that was his plan for the day. He also wanted to speak with the homeowners to see if they would go on the air and explain their reasoning.
Marty understood their reservations. He was very careful through the entire series not to make fun of anyone in particular. He tried to be respectful, even toward those who were most adamant about leaving Christ out of Christmas, or leaving Christmas out of the holidays.
Marty and his producer, Jake, went to lunch together and then set out on their quest to find the perfect yard and the perfect interview. Once they completed tomorrow’s report they would wrap up a highly successful series. It was a feather in both their caps. Mr. Mason would remember these reports when it came time for salary review early next year.
The first stop was at the home of Frank and Missy Thomas. Even though it was the middle of the day, long before they turned on the lights, it was obvious this was a magnificent display. A huge Santa, complete with eight, anything but tiny, reindeer covered a good portion of the front yard. A Christmas tree standing atop a huge pile of presents was over to the side and row after row of lights covered the entire house. Large letters spelling out the words, “Happy Holidays” stood on top of the roof presiding over the entire display.
“This just might be what we are looking for,” Marty said to Jake as they parked in front of the house. They were even more pleased when Frank Thomas answered the door when they rang the bell.
After introducing themselves and explaining the purpose of the visit, they asked Frank to show his display. He turned on the lights and walked them through the yard, pointing out the individual items and telling the story of why they were chosen. It was obvious that Frank was well-spoken and would make a great interview for the evening news.
Arrangements were made and the schedule for setting up the interview was confirmed with Frank. Marty began walking back to the car as Jake made the final preparations. Just as he opened the door to get in the car, Marty noticed a Christmas display across the street. It was so small that it was not surprising they did not see it when they parked.
It was an unadorned Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Two Magi and one shepherd stood outside the small lean-too stable. A miniature sign, barely visible from the street read, “Jesus – Savior of the World.” Marty could only see one spotlight pointing toward the front of the display.
Marty gently closed the car door and walked across the street. He found himself standing on the sidewalk staring at the diminutive display, mesmerized by its simplicity.
He wanted to know more so he walked to the house and knocked on the front door. He expected to meet an elderly couple, someone who was doing all they could to try and keep up. Instead he was surprised when a healthy young man answered the door.
“Hello, how can I help you?”
Marty hesitated a bit and then introduced himself. “Can I ask about your Christmas display?”
“Sure, what do you want to know?” Justin asked.
“Do you feel bad when you look at the massive display across the street?” Marty asked.
“I use to,” he replied. “In fact, I tried to keep up with him for years, but finally had to give up.”
“What do you mean, tried to keep up?”
“Well, I had just as many lights and figurines as Frank, but all my stuff was Christian stuff. You know, camels with the Magi and sheep with the shepherds, even a huge spotlight that looked just like a light from heaven. Driving past my house was like having a religious experience.”
“What happened?” asked a puzzled Marty.
“One day last year, after Christmas, as I was putting all my stuff away, I realized that Frank and I were at war. He was having a holiday, and I was insisting that everyone have Christmas. The winner was whoever was willing to spend the most money and put in the most time decorating. I realized we were both losers. Neither one of us was celebrating Christmas. It’s like most wars; the truth is that everyone loses something in the battle.”
For the first time since Marty started his beloved project he was actually thinking about the meaning behind all the rhetoric.
Justin continued, not realizing he was interrupting Marty’s thoughts. “I decided—well our whole family talked about it, and we decided to quit fighting about Christmas and start observing Christmas. The first thing we did was sell off all the old decorations. Everything except what you see in the yard. All gone! Even saved rent on the storage space where we kept all that stuff.”
By this time Jake had walked across the street to join them and listen to the conversation.
“This Christmas,” Justin continued, “we took all the money we would spend on decorating and giving elaborate gifts to one another, including the time it took to decorate and shop, and gave it all to others.”
“What do you mean?” asked Marty.
“We have tried to celebrate Christmas just like Jesus did that first Christmas. We gave to others. What we have learned is that we were actually the ones having the war against Christmas. We had made it all about getting, and enjoying, and celebrating, it was all about us. We were the ones who took Christ out of Christmas. Poor Frank across the street didn’t know any better, but we had no excuse. We knew Jesus and we knew better, but we were just as guilty of losing the truth about Christmas.”
Marty’s head was swimming as he thanked Justin for the conversation and walked across the street to the car. He and Jake had a lively conversation all the way back to the station. If they were honest, they both felt a little guilty over the way they had portrayed Christmas for the past week.
Thoughts of being too busy for his family and not taking the time to attend church, much less making an effort to do anything for anyone else during the holidays were foremost in Marty’s mind. All this talk about the war on Christmas and Marty finally realized he was on the front lines, but fighting for the wrong side.
Something needed to be done to make sure his weeklong series had the proper conclusion, but Marty wasn’t sure he had the courage. Fortunately Jake was thinking along the same lines so they were able to encourage each other. They might make the wrong choice, but at least they would go down together. Perhaps they could stand together in the unemployment line.
Marty was standing in front of Frank’s brightly lit house when he heard the anchorman introduce the final episode in the weeklong series, “Whose Winning the War on Christmas?” with Marty Williams.
“I’m standing in front of one of the most amazing holiday displays you will see this year and we are going to visit with the man responsible. Frank has been working for years to put all this together.”
Marty quickly introduced Frank, asked two very short questions in order to save as much time as possible, and then started walking across the street. The camera followed as Marty spoke.
“We have been talking all week about the War on Christmas, but I’ve come to the conclusion that we might have been looking at the wrong battlefields.”
As he spoke those words, Marty walked up next to the small nativity scene in Justin’s yard. “
These neighbors have traditionally matched the gorgeous display across the street, but things have changed this year. This family has come to the conclusion that they were so caught up in all the Christmas stuff—like gift receiving, holiday lights, and celebrating, that they had already lost the war on Christmas. Consequently this family has used all the resources they would normally spend on themselves at Christmas and given it to others. It is their way of commemorating the gift of Jesus, which is what Christmas is truly about. Perhaps, instead of fighting for Jesus and trying to drown out our opponents, if we could simply exemplify the Christmas spirit then maybe there would not be a war on Christmas. After all, who could possibly be against that? At least that is what I’m going to try and do in this final week before Christmas. I hope you join me. This is Marty Williams for Channel 6 News.”
Marty handed the microphone to the technician and slowly walked to his car. Normally he would return to the station to tie up any loose ends and tell everyone good night. Not tonight. Instead he went straight home. He needed to talk with Jillian and explain why he had risked his job. He knew she would support him, she always did, but he wanted her to understand.
Just as he pulled into the garage, Marty heard his phone beep. He recognized it as an alert for a text, not a call. Good, he didn’t really want to speak with anyone. However, when he pulled out his phone the first thing he noticed was that it was a text from John Mason—the boss. It took some courage to tap the phone so he could read the message, but he did. All it said was, “I want to speak with you first thing Monday morning.”
Great. Now his weekend was ruined. Why didn’t Mason simply fire him on the phone? What was there to talk about anyway?
Just as he had expected, Jillian was ready for Marty when he got home. The kids were already in bed, but she had a late night snack prepared for him and a shoulder ready for him to cry on. He might be without a job come Monday, but he knew Jillian would always be there.
After a restless weekend, Marty arrived at the station earlier than normal. It seems that Jake received the same text because he walked in right behind Marty. They felt like two condemned men walking to their own execution.
Mason’s secretary was waiting for their arrival and soon after they got to Marty’s office the phone rang and she told them that Mr. Mason was ready for them.
“This is it,” Jake said as they walked down the hall.
“Gentlemen, sit down,” Mason said as they entered his office. “I’ve got something to talk about.”
They tried to get as comfortable as possible even though they did not expect to be there very long.
Mason dove right in to the conversation, just like those with the confidence of being in charge typically do. “As soon as I heard your final episode on Friday’s newscast, I’m going to be honest, I was ready to hand you both your walking papers. The first four nights you did exactly what I wanted. You clearly explained how those liberal idiots have taken away our holiday, right from under our noses. I was all pumped for the big finale, waiting for you to put the final nail in the coffin so we could all ride off in the sunset knowing that the final shot had been fired.”
It was bad enough that he was going to be fired, but now he had to listen to a long rant before getting there. Marty was ready to bolt out the door. He didn’t need all this.
“And then Friday happened,” Mason continued. “I tell you, when I saw that pathetic little nativity display with that cheap sign, I thought what is Marty doing. How is he going to get out of this? It was like you were going to show how pathetic Christmas really is and undermine everything we had done all week.”
“But then your final speech, no, it was really a sermon. In fact, the best sermon I’ve heard about Christmas in a long time.”
It’s not usually a good thing for a television reporter to be speechless, but that accurately describes Marty at that moment.
“You made me think about my own Christmas celebration,” continued Mason. “Our family has been a little over the top this year with gift giving. Now I feel bad about it. You have ruined Christmas morning for me. And then the station. We put a ton of money into your Christmas series, but we really haven’t done anything to give to our community. We are been so focused on identifying and fighting the enemy that we failed to see the enemy is probably us.”
“Marty, you’re a genius! Jake, you too. The response from listeners over the weekend has been overwhelming. I’m glad I didn’t follow my first instinct and fire you guys Friday night.”
He wasn’t nearly as glad as Jake and Marty.
“You have given me a lot to think about this Christmas season,” Mason started again. “I’m not sure what changes we are going to make, but there will be some. I’m grateful that you guys had the courage to do the right thing. Now, let’s get things wrapped up around here early today so we can get home to our families and prepare to celebrate Christmas the right way—without open warfare.”