Once upon a time, 3 poor kids found faith in the Twelve Days of Christmas

By Douglas MacKinnon
Special to the Reporter

And now we come to the close of the Twelve Days of Christmas almost no one cares about today, the period leading up to “The Epiphany,” which begins on Dec. 26 and culminates on Jan. 6.  It is a time of celebration that a dwindling number of people associate with the “three kings” named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar who followed the star of Bethlehem across the night sky to meet the Baby Jesus and honor Him with gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold.

My Dorchester-born older brother Jay, who loved Christmas and talked about it all the time – up to this past July right before God called him back to Heaven after a long illness – often told me these days were his favorite days of Christmas because “they were reserved for those who believed in the true meaning of Christmas.”

As hard as it may be for some to comprehend, it was that “true meaning of Christmas” that sustained Jay, my younger sister Janice, and me during the darkest and most trying days of a childhood of massive dysfunction, abject poverty, and homelessness.

While Christmas is, at least unofficially, declared over at midnight on December 25 by advertisers, Hollywood, and even a growing number of Christians, the three of us counted on the twelve days following Christmas Day as a much needed mental escape to comfort our battered young minds.

By the time I was 17 years of age, we had moved 34 times in and around Dorchester and the Boston area, each move following an eviction, some of them quite violent, from a home that usually had no heat, no water, and no phone. 

After each eviction, the three of us would find ourselves living in the back of a car, a cockroach-infested motel, a park, or, if we were really lucky, at my grandparents’ home on Hamilton Street for a few nights of warmth and an actual bed.

When our parents -  deeply dysfunctional and self-destructive alcoholics – sobered up enough to drag us to the next horrible place that would masquerade as a “home” for a few months before the next eviction, it was back to the dirty mattress on the floor that the three of us would share.
Because of that never-ending dysfunction, as children we never had a Christmas in the traditional sense of trees, presents, home, or happiness. But we did have each other, and even though we didn’t have a normal Christmas like other kids, we sure did talk about it all the time.

One of the stories we, especially Jay, most loved was the Epiphany with the three wise men coming to visit with the Baby Jesus.  Not only did its message have meaning for us, but it also provided us with another spiritual gift in a childhood devoid of material presents.

Even as adults, that feeling never left us.  No matter how bad things were, Christmastime and the Epiphany were always deeply meaningful because they were about something much larger than ourselves.  They represented the potential for goodness in humanity.

This has been my first Christmas season without Jay physically in my life; it has been a winding, tough, and emotional journey, for sure. One of the happy memories I have been leaning on constantly of late is about the one decent Christmas we did have.  Fittingly, it took place in Dorchester. It was special because we not only set our record for living in one home the longest – nine months – but also because the three of us got two presents each from the Woolworth’s on Bowdoin Street.

For Jay, Janice, and me, Dorchester was always home and a neighborhood that filled us with pride.  There was a plan was to bring Jay back to Dorchester one last time this coming April, but time ran out.

For years, he encouraged me to write a Christmas story that would speak to the things that inspired, even “saved” us as children. Two years ago, thanks in large part to that non-stop encouragement, I started to write a story that would incorporate the elements maybe “the virtues”? of faith, family, charity, empathy, and hope.

As I began the book, Jay was already dealing with some serious health issues.  Because of that, and because of the bond we shared over Christmas, I decided that an older brother’s love and guidance had to be a central theme of the story. That story became “The North Pole Project – In Search of the True Meaning of Christmas.”  It is a book for which I do not take a dime; any proceeds go to charity.

Jay loved Christmas and believed deeply in the lessons of the three wise men and their long journey to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  The ultimate lesson for him was this: If we help even one person in need – be that a relative, a colleague, a neighbor, a stranger, or especially a child – that is the best Christmas present that we ourselves could ever receive.

That Dorchester kid helped more people than I can count, and for that reason, these twelve increasingly forgotten days are more meaningful to me now than ever. 

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the novel “The North Pole Project – In Search of the True Meaning of Christmas.”