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Time to really hear the words.

Byline: Bob Welch / The Register-Guard

THEY'RE STILL on the table, the Christmas cards that were bought before Thanksgiving and were to have been long gone by now.

They're not. And they won't be in the mail by Christmas. And I'm strangely OK with that, which is not easy for a traditionalist like me to say.

In a year unlike any I've known, the season is teaching me a lesson.

So like the caroler who sings all the same words every year but never stops to consider their meanings, I'm trying to listen more closely.

I like tradition. I like decorating with the same old tree ornaments and eating the same old kinds of food; to do so is to keep alive the memories of the past, the still points in our ever-changing worlds.

But the lesson I'm learning this year is that if traditions can inspire us, they can also stifle us.

And that's why I'm breaking tradition with the Christmas cards.

Maybe it was Sept. 11. Maybe it was a year immersed in a World War II book project. Maybe it was having two sons leave home. All I know is that I've come to accept that if I don't send the cards, the sun won't forget to rise and the lights at Coburg and Harlow won't malfunction and Joey won't fumble. Life will go on, perhaps even better than before.

Sometimes we allow traditions - like the sending of cards - to obscure the deeper meaning behind them.

I've forgotten, amid life's lengthening to-do list, the purpose behind Christmas cards. I've been sending them out in recent years because - as Tevye says in "Fiddler on the Roof" - it's tradition! Because people expect me to. And because once sent, I can cross that task off my list. That's a terrible reason to send someone a card or letter, I've decided - so you can say you did it. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe a letter should mean something.

That's one of the lessons from Sept. 11, I think: that life is fragile. Life is finite. Life is short. And we dare not waste it on the stuff of going-through-the-motions.

Another lesson, this from understanding the atrocities of World War II on a deeper level: My generation has it good. People gave their lives for our freedom. And we dare not waste the gift

they, in essence, bought for us on stuff that doesn't matter.

And, finally, a lesson from letting go - and learning my oldest and his wife are sending out electronic Christmas cards, an idea that, at first, grated against my traditional soul like fingers on a chalkboard: Change happens. We're all different. You say "potato," I say "fries, please."

NONE OF WHICH is to suggest I'm anti-Christmas card. I'm not. I like getting them and I like giving them. But the best one I've received this year was from a friend who was so refreshingly real that I felt he honestly wanted to say something to me, not impress me. I liked it because the guy broke tradition, which has come to mandate that Christmas cards be somewhat impersonal.

"The older I become," he wrote, "the more I am stuck with the reality of mortality, my limited energy and the totality of my weaknesses as a human being," he began. (Beats two pages on exotic vacations and the kids' 4-point GPAs.) And yet it was an upbeat letter filled with faith, hope and love. He didn't brag about what he and his family had accomplished, he simply said: This is who we are.

There is a time for tradition and a time for change, a time for watching football and a time for doing what my normally mild-mannered brother-in-law dared to suggest at Thanksgiving: that we turn off the Cowboys game, gather around and tell each other one thing we've learned in the last year.

It was a major break in tradition and, at first, we all looked around like prisoners who'd been set free, as if to say: Can we do this? We can and we did.

Therein may lie the best lesson of all: that all traditions once began as something new, untested and, perhaps, a tad scary.

Laurel Fisher knows the feeling. She's the Eugene woman - featured in last Sunday's paper - who, upon turning a certain esteemed age, vowed to write 75 letters to people who'd made a difference in her life. One a week. Real, bona fide, from-the-heart letters.

She inspired me. So I've decided to try something new with my Christmas cards. Instead of running my usual two-minute offense and just "getting them out," I'm going to write one card, with a personalized letter, to a different person each week in 2002. (Imagine someone getting a personalized Christmas letter in, say, July, when they might actually have time to read it.)

I will do so with the assumption that wishes of peace and good will are transferrable to time at large, not just the holiday season. And with the hope that, for 52 weeks, I'll be gently reminded, amid life's song, to stop and listen to the words.

Bob Welch can be reached by phone at 338-2354 or by e-mail at
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Dec 23, 2001
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