On December 24, 1969, the Capital Times, the afternoon newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, hit the streets with the words “Merry Christmas” emblazoned above the masthead. Its front page, however, was not so merry. Headlines included “Children’s Doctor Shortage Becomes Acute in Madison,” “Arab Summit Breaks Apart in Disarray,” and “Plane, Missile Firms Get ‘Christmas Gifts.'” Its page-one feature story began with the following lede: “Bringing up a retarded child is a challenge to love, to care, and to sacrifice. At Central Colony, there are six children waiting for someone willing to meet that challenge.” The story was headlined, “‘Have You Found a Family For Me?,'” and included pictures of Brenda, Pauncho, Jeffrey, Tom, Jerry, and Wally, all under the age of 12, all of whom would be spending another Christmas at the state home for the developmentally disabled.
I was reading that paper in my office the other day, in the deepening dark of winter twilight, thinking about what a remarkably depressing picture it paints of the world at Christmas Eve 1969, a day of loneliness and want, failure and war. And at that precise moment, the laptop music stash shuffled up Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas”: “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys/Playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars/When we have learned what Christmas is for” and “Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land/With no hungry children and no empty hands.”
Stevie, you son of a bitch.
I had to stop reading, turn off the computer, and go do something else. I couldn’t take any more.
The next morning, I looked up the same day’s edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison’s other daily paper. Its front page bannered an article about the success of the paper’s annual Empty Stocking campaign to benefit the needy, and it included items about gifts being airlifted to POWs in North Vietnam and poor families in Mississippi, plus a photo of an Amish man driving a horse-drawn sleigh in Kalona, Iowa, which received six inches of snow the day before. Also on the front page was the King James version of the Christmas story.
Why was this front page so different from the one on the Capital Times the same day? The answer was under the headline “On This Day, All the News Is Good.” “In keeping with a long Christmas tradition, The Wisconsin State Journal today carries no stories of disaster, crime, or violence on this front page.”
On December 24, 1969, which front page was more truthful? Was it the Capital Times, with its stories of the challenges faced by individuals, the Madison community, and the world, challenges that pay no attention to the calendar? Or was it the State Journal, telling of children who get what they need, of kindness in the midst of hardship and war, and of the birth of Jesus?
I don’t know. Surely the State Journal describes the world as we would like it to be, fitting on Christmas, when we are closer to being the people we imagine ourselves to be than on any other day of the year: filled with love for our fellow creatures, warm and secure in our traditions, caring and generous toward the whole world. And it feels so good and so right that we start thinking that maybe we can learn to live in that light the other 364 days of the year.
Stevie feels it, too: “Someday all our dreams will come to be/Someday in a world where men are free.” But just as the Capital Times’ editors understood that our challenges don’t cease to challenge us just because it’s Christmas Eve, Stevie Wonder knows it too. And he knows that on December 26th, we’ll be back in a place that’s a long way from where we wish we were. Sure, it could happen: Someday all our dreams could come to be. Sure, the world could be made free from loneliness and want, failure and war. But not on a happy timetable: “Maybe not in time for you and me.”
“But someday at Christmastime.” Because as sure as Christmas comes again, we never stop dreaming of the things that could be.