Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

No Longer a Single Day: A Different Kind of Christmas Story

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It’s Christmas time again.

That statement infers the experience of Christmas in previous years, of course, and the characteristic of the holiday being observed once per year on December 25. As we grow older, Christmas Day evokes memories of Christmas past; not the ghost from the Charles Dickens story, but the sensory experiences that our brains associate with the calendar date December 25 and the various places we spent that time, across time.

It’s a natural process that helps us make sense of the passage of time – or, in this case, the passage of Christmases – and it’s primarily built upon changes we have noticed. Across time, the people with whom we interact are different, the toys the kids got this year are so much different than the ones you got at that age, the foods we have for Christmas dinner are different, and so forth.

I present this explanation to set up another explanation: How Christmas stopped being a day in late December for me and instead became a daily celebration more amazing than I could have imagined as a child, or even just a few years ago. To do this, I’ll start with a Christmas memory of my own.

In 1972, in a housing subdivision on the east end of Sweetwater, Tennessee, Christmas Day arrived for a family of five living in a wood-frame house, situated about midway on a hillside populated with a circle of homes that marked the end of the subdivision. A modestly decorated Christmas tree stood in one corner of the living room with a high pile of wrapped gift boxes underneath, and three young boys, each sitting cross-legged on the floor, waiting patiently to be handed one of those boxes in turn.

One of those kids was a 7-year-old rape victim, beginning what would become four decades of mind-torturing silence about the attack. For me, Christmas Day that year was less about Jesus or a turkey dinner or opening Christmas presents as it was about finding psychological refuge in all of those things so that I didn’t have to feel alone, vulnerable, and loathsome for just one day.

The day did not disappoint in that regard; it was a fabulous Christmas, all told, with me and my brothers feeling on top of the world with our new toys. We each got several things we had asked Santa Claus to bring, but the one gift I absolutely loved was a battery-operated robot that walked and featured a “video” screen (actually see-through plastic that encased a mechanical wheel of preset space-related images) in its chest. Given that my mom and dad were hosiery mill workers at the time, that robot must have set them back a few hours of pay.

But I didn’t get to play with that robot for very long. Just weeks later, the robot and everything else were gone in an instant. The flames spread so rapidly that had we been home at the time, instead of just up the street visiting one of our neighbors, I would not be sitting here writing this essay today.

When you’ve lost everything – your sense of safety, self-worth, peace, trust of others, innocence, toys, books, records, clothes, and everything else you possessed – before your eighth birthday, you are standing on a dangerous, dark roadway that relatively few ever survive for long.

For many years, I didn’t think I would survive it, either. There were days I didn’t want to survive to the next, and I doubt anyone around me at any point in time realized it.

And that brings me to this Christmas Day, in 2015. It’s my first Christmas Day as a resident of Missouri, as a college instructor, as a media researcher in a doctoral program, and as a lot of other statuses I could have never imagined 43 years ago.

It is this daily wonder and amazement at all that I find myself within now, and what I had to somehow survive to get here, that brought another sort of realization, one that refutes the notion that Christmas comes once per year on December 25.

Instead, Christmas has, for me, become a daily experience of experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. At the top of that list is waking up every day knowing I am the father of one Ryan Britt in Arlington, Texas. Like his father, he has proven to possess resilience against the worst life can bring.

Being where I am now, I can hardly wait to see where he goes. That is going to be a thousand times more exciting than unwrapping that toy robot in 1972.

So, how to describe or maybe give a name to this Christmas gift that is opened each and every day? A number of words or phrases could be considered, among them, “personal redemption,” “wisdom from determination,” or maybe even “attained peace.”

But I’ve drawn upon my collegiate literature studies background to come up with what I think is the most fitting name: The Perpetual Gift of Being There, an intentional reference to the Jerzy Kosinski novel “Being There” and the film of the same name that starred Peter Sellers’ in his last role. In essence, it’s all about finding yourself doing the most extraordinary things in the most unlikely of circumstances, and somehow making it all make sense to everyone else.

That’s what I hope to do in the years to come with regard to how we use media content to shape our perceptions of time, space, and memory.

Speaking of time perceptions, the Missouri School of Journalism was founded in 1908, a full 63 years before Tyler State College, the predecessor to the University of Texas at Tyler, even existed.

Four years ago, I was marking my first Christmas after having taken a leap of faith in returning to college for one last shot at finishing a bachelor’s degree. That was at UT Tyler, and at that point in time, I wasn’t even thinking about entering a graduate school program anywhere.

But that was when The Perpetual Gift of Being There started appearing in my life.  Less than 17 months later, on May 10, 2013, I was degree-less no more and, although an exhaustive records search has not been conducted, there were faculty members in the Department of Literature and Languages who thought I may be the first UT Tyler graduate from that department to be accepted into the graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where I spent the next two years earning a master’s degree.

I can say with more certainty that I am probably the first English or journalism student at UT Tyler to teach and perform research work at the Missouri School of Journalism. There may soon be a day when you can do an online search for “Terry Britt and media theory,” “Terry Britt and neuroscience,” or “Terry Britt and memory studies,” and get several pages of results.

There once was a day when I thought the only thing with which my name would be associated would be something like “funeral services at 2 p.m.” and strong doubt that anyone aside from my parents and my younger brothers would bother to show up.

So, this Christmas Day, by all means please celebrate as you wish, attend a service, ring your church bells and, if you are fortunate enough to have the following, savor your Christmas dinner, open your gifts, and hug and kiss the people you love.

But if there is anything I could wish for you for Christmas, it would be to wake up as I will and realize that the extraordinary and the priceless are not restricted to experiences and memories that are but once a year. Believe me, it’s an awesome gift.

Blessings to each of you,

Terry L. Britt

PhD Student/Graduate Instructor

Missouri School of Journalism

University of Missouri




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