Leonard Pitts: And so this is Christmas

(© 1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.) "A Charlie Brown Christmas" - When Charlie Brown complains about the overwhelming materialism he sees amongst everyone during the Christmas season, Lucy suggests he become director of the school Christmas pageant. Charlie Brown accepts, but it proves to be a frustrating struggle; and when an attempt to restore the proper spirit with a forlorn little fir Christmas tree fails, he needs Linus' help to learn what the real meaning of Christmas is.

And so this is Christmas.

So sang John Lennon in 1971. The Vietnam War took 2,414 American lives that year, so the song was a prayer of harmony and peace with a scrim of irony. Nor did the irony end there. Lennon was shot to death nine years later, 40 years ago Tuesday.

And if the events of 1971 seemed sharply at odds with the hope of the holiday, the same can surely be said of 2020. On the surface, things seem much the same as they ever were, the same crush of manufactured joy and consumer avarice Charlie Brown’s been complaining about for 55 years. On TV, the same photogenic families stand in the driveways of the same upscale homes, beckoning you to buy a luxury car to celebrate the night when, Christians believe, heaven touched Earth.

But this Christmas is not the same. It is a pandemic Christmas where death is already setting new records. Nearly 2,900 lives were lost in a single day last week, roughly equivalent to a 9/11 every 24 hours. The CDC says COVID-19 may have claimed nearly 330,000 of us by Dec. 26. Health care workers are physically and emotionally spent; the system is cracking under the strain.

And so this is Christmas.

But what is Christmas when you can’t — or at least, shouldn’t — travel? To go over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house this year is to risk exposing her to a deadly virus. Yet any year that denies you the ability to go home, to gather in a place of memory with those you love, is a year that steals something irreplaceable. That’s why carols written during World War II brim with such palpable yearning.

“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams...”

“Next year, all our troubles will be out of sight...”

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know...”

How those words must have felt to some man sweltering in the jungles of Guadalcanal. Small wonder the Christmas that came at war’s end — 75 years ago — was “the greatest celebration in American history” in the words of Matthew Litt, author of, “Christmas 1945.” It’s a book one is hard-pressed to read without smiling, tales of soldiers, sailors and Marines rushing on crowded roads and rails to get home for Christmas and people doing for one another with cheerful, thankful hearts.

Americans seemed moved by something deeper than manufactured joy and consumer avarice that year. When sailors stepped off their train for a Christmas Day layover in Glenwood Springs, Colo., the 1,200 residents met them with turkey dinners and gift-wrapped presents from beneath their own trees. A British mother wrote the only American whose name and address she knew — New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia — pleading for something impossible to find in war-ravaged Europe: a doll for her daughter. It was booked on a Pan Am flight and reached London on Dec. 23.

This year there is, again, a need for something deeper. Something like they found in North Little Rock, Ark., last month after a Black family erected a Black Santa Claus in their yard only to receive an anonymous note demanding removal of the “negro” elf. Iddy Kennedy said it made her wonder “if this was the right environment to raise our daughter.”

Then her neighbors learned of the harassment. There are now black Santas up and down the street. People also sent money, over $1,000, which the family has redirected to the Arkansas branch of Ronald McDonald House Charities. Speaking to The Washington Post, Executive Director Janell Mason called it “humanity doing good things.” And so it is.

And so, this is Christmas.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com