My dad was born in a farmhouse. He had very little growing up. At least that’s how he always told the story. His family was pretty hard up.

His most valuable possession was a transistor radio he’d bought at a department store when he was a boy. He’d listen to the radio shows in the 50s. “Abbot and Costello” reruns. “The Jack Benny Show.” He’d listen to ball games. He’d root for Mickey Mantle. Roger Maris. The “Say Hey Kid.”

Otherwise, he didn’t have squat.

Which would explain why my father headed up the Christmas tree committee every year at the fundamentalist Baptist church (motto: “Buying life insurance is a form of gambling”).

My father would gather up donations from anyone and anywhere. He would shamelessly ask for money. He would even resort to sending paralyzingly cute Little Leaguers door to door, selling cookies.

The money earned would be used to buy balsam firs. He bought truckloads of trees.

At which point people in the church would submit addresses of families who needed help

for Christmas. Whereupon my father and his army of his friends would deliver trees in early December.

Every year, I would go with Daddy on these deliveries. Each year, we would load dozens of balsams into the bed of his F-100. My father would have a clipboard of addresses. And we would drive into the hinterlands, wearing Santa hats.

One night, I remember riding into a little trailer park, way out in the sticks. I remember how dark it was in the country. I remember my father parking the truck in front of a single wide trailer.

We walked up to the mildewed porch. Daddy carried a tree over his shoulder. We rapped on the thin aluminum door. When the door opened, a young woman was staring back at us. A baby on her hip.

Daddy insisted that we sing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”…

Christmas Eve. Southeastern Kansas, 2009. The middle of nowhere.

Kansas is one of those places that gets a bad rap. People speak of Kansas like it’s Death Valley, or the hindparts of Mars.

People say stuff like, “Yeah, I drove through Kansas once, I was bored spitless for six hours.”

But that’s only because they aren’t seeing the Sunflower State the right way. The Thirty-Fourth State can bewitch you if you open yourself to its quiet beauty.

First you have the sunsets. Kansan sunsets are neon red and gold, vivid enough to put Claude Monet to shame. The sundowns are an ecological phenomenon, caused by red dust in the atmosphere which has traveled all the way from the Sahara to suspend itself above Bourbon and Neosho County.

Also, you have sublime flatness. Millions of Americans visit the Gulf of Mexico each year to stare at prairie-flat blueness. Kansans have a gulf of their own.

Currently, the state has 15.8 million acres of virgin prairie. You can stand at certain places in this

state and, literally, be hundreds of miles from the nearest Super Target.

In the wintertime, however, Kansas has earth-stopping blizzards. This is the geographical center of the nation. They get all the weather you didn’t want.

Tornadoes. Fatal summers. Snowstorms harsh enough to make Scandinavia look like a weekend in Honolulu.

It was during one such snowstorm, on Christmas Eve, that Marie was at home. She was a young mother, with two children. They lived in a 40-foot single wide, perched on 200 acres of family land.

The blizzard of aught-nine was apocryphal. Many evangelicals believed this was the literal end of the world and were sincerely repenting of their evil ways, committing themselves to prayer, fasting, and self flagellation. Meanwhile, the German Catholics decided to take up vodka as hobby.

To say the storm was “bad” is like saying invasive dental surgery is “kinda fun.” In some…

‘Twas a Christmas tree lot in Alabama. It was the kind of operation that does business in the parking area of a major shopping complex.

My wife is a professional horse-trader when it comes to buying trees. She loves to haggle. Dicker. Negotiate. Bargain. Quabble. Lock horns. Butt heads.

Whatever you call it, my wife loves to barter. If for no other reason than because she likes the taste of blood on a cold autumn eve.

It was dark. The lot was about to close. My wife and I pulled up. We were greeted by two Boy Scouts in uniforms. Second class. Army green pants.

The boys were sort of crumpled looking, with shirt tails untucked and tousled hair. They were maybe 15. Pimples. Dental braces. The whole shebang.

“How can we help you?” they said in perfect unison. Their voices hadn’t dropped yet.

“We’re looking for a Christmas tree,” said my wife.

“You’ve come to the right place, ma’am,” squeaked one Scout. “We carry many high quality trees.”

“Very high quality,” added his friend, who was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. In

his back pocket was a rolled up anime comic book.

They led us through throngs of balsam firs, all huddled together. Overhead were strings of hanging lights. Mariah Carey was singing about how she doesn’t want a lot for Christmas.

“How about this one?” said one kid.

“This is a high quality tree,” the other Scout pointed out. “You wouldn’t go wrong with a tree like this.”

“Very high quality.”

“Well,” said my wife. “It looks sorta puny, we have nine-foot ceilings. Do you have something taller?”

“How tall?” the boy asked.

“Something that’s at least taller than a traffic cone.”

“Right this way, ma’am. We have just the one.”

The Scouts led us through a selection of select firs. I noticed that their shoelaces were untied, and one of the Scouts had a hole in his trousers so…

SELMA, Ala.—I am covering the arrival of December today, in one of my favorite towns. 

The whole downtown is done up for Christmas. Pinery everywhere. Lights. Jingle bells. Little reindeer, tinkling in the snow.

Nobody does Christmas like small-town Alabama. The main drag is a Norman Rockwell. Saint Paul’s Episcopal church is a Monet. December looks good in Selma.

“The problem with Selma,” says one local woman, “is that the news always uses us as a scapegoat. They make us evil. If people would just visit this town, if they’d just meet us, they’d realize that we’re okay. We are not the Selma you see on TV.”

I see a few things while I am here.

When I am walking into a gas station, for example, an elderly woman trots ahead to hold the door open. I am 40 years younger than this woman, and yet she holds the door for me.

I thank her.

She says, “Okay, baby,” and she rubs my shoulder.

She has skin the color of mahogany. Blazing white hair. She wears

scrubs. And she is just getting warmed up with her goodwill.

Because when the old woman walks inside the gas station, she is immediately confronted with an elderly man standing at the counter. He is gaunt, missing his teeth, dressed in faded rags. The man is hitting up customers for money.

“Ahwan baahasuh frussa,” he mutters.

I can smell liquor on his breath. He has a hard time standing upright without toppling over.

The old lady knows exactly what he’s saying. She translates: “He’s trying to buy some gas-station chicken, but he is a dollar short. He says he’s hungry, but he just needs four quarters.”

Before I can reach into my wallet, the old woman has already taken care of the man’s bill. She digs into her purse, and pays the cashier a lot more than one dollar. She places a wad…

It was one of those big Catholic churches. The chapel was enormous. The spire was tall enough to interfere with air traffic. Nobody builds them like the Catholics.

I was meeting Father Ralph for an important appointment. He was waiting for me in the front pew.

I entered the sanctuary, took a knee and crossed myself. I was not raised Catholic. I was raised by tee-totalling Baptists, we were about as much fun as a routine colonoscopy.

Still, I wanted to show my respect.

“Hi, Sean,” said Father Ralph.

Father Ralph agreed to meet me today because he’s a nice guy, and he was willing to answer my questions. My questions today are about Santa. As in Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

It all started a few days ago, when I wrote a column about Santa. I received a lot of email from children who asked me if Santa was actually real.

One letter from a 10-year-old read, “I don’t believe in Santa.”

And another: “Santa Claus can’t be legit, can he?”

I even received a letter from a Freewill

Baptist mother who said I was “an agent of the devil” for promoting belief in Santa Claus. She spelled “Clause” with an E.

Baptists.

But the most touching letter came from a girl named Kayla (age 9), who said she really wants to believe in Santa. Kayla has cystic fibrosis. She’s been struggling with her digestion and her breathing since her infancy. She is Catholic.

“I really want to believe in Santa,” said Kayla. “But I don’t know if one man can deliver all those presents and be everywhere in the world in one night.”

So I called Father Ralph.

The good Father weighed in: “You should tell Kayla that she’s focusing on the wrong things. Saint Nicholas is not about presents, or sleighs, or reindeer. It’s much deeper than that.”

The padre is right. If you want sleighs and Rudolph,…

Tomorrow is the birthday of a friend. He looks pretty good for his age. He’ll be turning 187. Which makes him almost as old as Willie Nelson.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. It was late November, and colder than a witch’s underwire. His mother was not expecting him. She wasn’t even close to being ready, so she tried to squeeze him back in. But it didn't work. So out he came.

During childlabor, Halley’s comet was passing overhead, visible from the sky. The comet was a natural phenomenon that frightened a lot of people, causing many to either pray in tongues or drink whiskey. Sam’s mother did both during childbirth.

No, not really. I’m only kidding. Although, she had reason to drink. Because Sam was a lot of trouble.

For one thing, he was sickly. Nobody thought he would make it past infancy. Three of his siblings died. Being born premature in 1830s was no cakewalk. His body was puny. His complexion made Elmer’s glue look colorful.

“When

I first saw him, I could see no promise in him,” his mother recalled.

Even so, he was whip smart. Lightning in a jar. He could memorize things. He and he could talk the paint off a wagon wheel. And lie. Hoo boy.

Sam could lie like it was his profession. The kid was such a good liar, he received annual Christmas cards from Satan.

He got into trouble, of course. The best humans always do. Nobody changes the world by being well-behaved. History doesn’t care if you were president of your chess club or class treasurer. History favors the kids who lived in detention.

Sam was that kid. He started smoking when he was still in elementary school. He could out-cuss a grown man before he was potty trained. He skipped school so often that his teachers sent flowers to his mother and asked when the…

My phone rings.

“Hello?” I say.

“Yes. Hello, ” says the child’s voice. “Is this Mister Sean?”

“Speaking. Although please don’t call me ‘Mister Sean,’ because it makes me feel like a PBS children’s host.”

“Oh. What am I supposed to call you?”

“Please, call me Your Honor. Who am I speaking to?”

“Hi, my name is Rachel.”

“Nice to meet you, Rachel, may I ask you a question?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m seven.”

“And how did you get this number?”

“Your wife gave my mom your number. She said I could call you. Is that okay?”

“Perfectly okay. What can I do for you?”

“Well. Um. My brother told me Santa Claus is fake.”

“He did what?”

“Uh-huh. And then I started crying. And my mom told me I should talk to you because you sometimes talk to kids. But nobody knew how to get ahold of you.”

“So how did you manage to reach me?”

“Well, my mom’s cousin said she knew your wife’s uncle, so my aunt called her friend in Century, and then she called a lady from Andalusia, and her cousin gave us your wife’s brother-in-law’s number, and anyway, now I’m talking to you. I

have a question to ask.”

“Okay. Shoot.”

“Do you think Santa is real?”

Long pause.

“Do I think Santa is real?”

“Yes.”

“Of course he’s real, Rachel. Why would you even ask?”

“Because I don’t know what to believe anymore. May I ask you another question, Mister Sean. How do you know he’s real?”

“Well, for one thing, Rachel, I’ve met him.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Yuh-huh.”

“You’ve met Santa? The REAL one? Because the one at the Dillards is fake.”

“First off, the one at Dillards is not fake. And the one at Super Target isn’t either.”

“They aren’t?”

“No, ma’am. These men are all Sentinels Of Santa. ‘SOS’ for short.”

“Huh?”

“That’s right. These are men imbued with…

“I was basically invisible,” he said. “People came into the group home, mostly couples looking to adopt, and they totally didn’t see me.

“I was like a puppy in the pound that you don’t notice.”

He had low vision. Although the U.S. government would’ve called him “legally blind.”

The kid was 9 years old. He could see, but not much. His peripheral vision was nearly non-existent. He had—to use an oversimplified cliché—tunnel vision.

“I could see a tiny bit,” he said. “The glaucoma left me with an itty-bitty circle in the center of my visual field.”

But nobody wanted to adopt a kid with glaucoma. It was too much work. He needed extra care. Extra attention. He could only read large print. He had special teachers at school. And someday, he would probably go totally blind.

The volunteers at the group home were nice to him. But they weren’t parents. Not even close.

Every evening, when group-home volunteers would leave for home to be with their real families, with their actual kids, he would be stuck there

at the home. Alone.

He would lie in his bunk with the other parent-less kids. In relative darkness. Crying. The reality would sink in. He was an orphan with a capital O.

An orphan, you see, grows up without confidence. You and I take confidence for granted. When you have a measure of confidence, life is okay. The world is one big opportunity. You have options.

But when you have no confidence, the earth is dangerous and unforgiving. Life is a manure sandwich. Eat it or starve.

“I didn’t like my life,” he said. “I wasn’t even 10 years old and I hated being alive.”

It was the Christmas season. A long time ago. A young woman came into the group home. She was young. Brunette. She was dressed in a fast-food uniform. She was on break and she smelled like cigarettes.

The…

I send a happy Thanksgiving to the young girl, Leah, who wrote to me this morning because her father died in the ICU last night from a heart attack.

“It’s not a very happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

Believe me, I know it’s not, sweetie. But, you see, that’s the misnomer of the common American phrase, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Happy Thanksgiving” doesn’t actually mean to have a happy day. Not at all. In fact, “happy Thanksgiving” is code for “I love you.” Plain and simple.

And believe me, sweetie, plenty of people are wishing you a “happy Thanksgiving.”

Likewise, I send well-wishes to the woman in south Georgia who found a box of puppies on the side of the road this morning, left for dead. And now all those puppies are wandering in her kitchen, pooping on her clean floor. Happy Thanksgiving, ma’am.

And to my friend Daniel, who was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This is not the holiday you had in mind, Daniel. Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving to Aaron, and his mother and father and sister and wife, and daughters.

I’m praying for y’all.

To Joel and Tammy, who filled my belly today with pineapple casserole, pecan pie, kindness, love, and most importantly, high-ABV homemade beer.

To Amy, for being family.

I want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to my friends, Brett and Donna, in Chunky, Mississippi, tonight. May your holiday be filled with all the wonderful things that practicing Southern Baptists enjoy. P.S: I’m sorry I mentioned beer.

I want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to my sister and her kids and husband. It’s not fair to have a family that nice looking.

To the guy who was on the side of the road today in Birmingham, asking for money. He holds a cardboard sign which reads “Homeless Vietnam vet. Anything helps.”

This man is FAR to young to have seen action in Vietnam. He looks like he’s maybe 50.…

Nov. 26, 1863, (FREDERICKSBURG)—Dearest Brother, I suppose you are having a good time this Thanksgiving, eating plum pudding and chicken pie and cider. I hope you are, at any rate, for I want you to enjoy yourself.

I should like to be with you, and I know you would like to have me, but alas this war never seems to end.

Still, although I cannot be with you to enjoy your luxuries, and your company, I have many things to be thankful for.

I am thankful that my life has been spared to me, as many of my friends are dead. I am thankful that I still enjoy good health.

I am thus hopeful that the Union will be successful. I can hear the cannons now, down by the Rapidan River, sounding their reports. I fear we have a bloody day ahead of us. I am afraid.

I should like a few gallons of that cider you told me about in your last letter. I would like some of those pickled pig’s

feet, too, if you have time to send them.

Happy Thanksgiving. Love, your brother.

Nov. 28, 1918, (PARIS)—Dearest Wife, I miss you more than you will know on this Thanksgiving Day. But I have good news. Our corps commander received a telegram today. He told us we are coming home.

The war is over, I am scared to believe it. Our commander read that our division would proceed to the embarkation point and begin sail for America soon. I’m coming home, darling. I’m coming to see you and our little one and I shall never let you go.

Thank God for his mercy unto us. This is a happy Thanksgiving indeed.

Nov 23, 1944 (HOLLAND)—Dearest Darling, here it is Thanksgiving and we are not together. These damned holidays are the painfullest part of our separation. I am sad. But I hope we’ll be together next Thanksgiving.

Our men…