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A Christmas carol is a gift to the world

The Moorhead Senior High School Carolers perform. W. Scott Olsen / Special to The Forum

Here is a story my family likes to tell.

Once upon a Christmastime, in a house where we used to live, my wife was napping on a couch in a room with many windows near the front door. There was a fire in the fireplace, a Christmas movie on television, gentle snow falling on the homes of neighbors. Across the room, Christmas tree lights glowed through ornaments both new and old. Our energetic dog slept by her feet. It was, in many ways, a perfect holiday afternoon.

Then there was an unexpected knock on the door. The dog leapt into the air. My wife, looking up from under a couch blanket, saw what looked like a hundred people crowded near the door, all of them suddenly staring at her. The people — in truth there were only 10 or so — saw a couch come to life, an animal emerging from the folds. Everyone was wide-eyed and surprised.

She answered the door. The crowd, clearly a bit embarrassed and apologetic, hesitated for a moment then broke into song.

"We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas..."

Carolers, yes. Ten men and women standing outside on a cold December sidewalk, going house to house to offer song and cheer and good tidings and joy.

"Jingle Bells! Jingle Bells!"

My wife stood in the doorway and smiled. It was a wonderful moment, completely unexpected for everyone. The singing, she recalls, was enthusiastic and rich.

Of course, there is tradition to this moment. Singing for neighbors has a history much older than Christmas. But what we recognize now emerged in Victorian England, Charles Dickens' time, the cornerstone of our hoped-for images.

Orchestral Christmas music is deep, majestic, soul-changing and emotionally huge. Music for the birth of Christ. Handel's Messiah. Corelli's Christmas Concerto Grosso. Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie.

Christmas carols, on the other hand, are nostalgic. They give voice to something personal, something important and cherished, something we remember whether we lived it or not.

You see, at Christmas, the best presents are not for children. The best presents are not toys or clothes, not buzzing light sabers or shiny ice skates. The best presents are not even ugly sweaters or headphones or tins of homemade food. The best presents at Christmas are for people much older.

The best present of Christmas is memory. That is the genius of the Christmas carol. We remember the joy we felt as children, the anticipation, the explosion of happiness when we saw the cookies and eggnog we left by the fireplace had been eaten. We often forget the presents we have received, but we remember the deep joy of giving, the cooking, the gathering of family, the decorating for the season. We may never have ridden in a one-horse sleigh, but we hold closely the memory of what that must feel like.

A Christmas carol, sung on a quiet neighborhood sidewalk or in the lobby of a retirement home or near a fountain at the mall, is a gift to the world. Yes, the music is entertaining and fun. We know every word to every song. Every song brings us back to a place in our own history where Peace On Earth was a promise within reach.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Silent Night.

The best Christmas present is the memory of hope.