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Forum staff reports, Published December 23 2012

Christmas carols: Tidings of hope, joy

FARGO - Christmas is a communal season. The sights, sounds and smells are so familiar, individual traditions and recollections are shared by many.

Evidence of its universality is found in the catalog of songs that celebrate it.

The lyrics of Christmas carols reach across time and place, maintaining their relevance and poignancy. These songs are so evocative that a carol’s title alone quickly calls to mind a melody, a memory, a meaning.

Today, we call upon these carols as a framework to share a quartet of stories. They are tales of hope and wonder, tradition and whimsy. Their themes are different, but each captures the spirit of the season.

Read. Sing. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Sadie and Dan Meyers’ living room wall is decorated with the phrase, “Every day holds a possibility of a miracle.”

But the Fargo couple don’t really need the decorative reminder. They hold a personal reminder of that sentiment in their arms every day.

Their son, Casey, was born three months early on Sept. 30 at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. They didn’t expect to be able to bring him home in time for Christmas, but he was doing so well that he was sent home on Dec. 1, a month ahead of schedule.

“He’s definitely our little miracle baby,” Sadie said.

Sadie has congenital heart disease and said it was getting harder to breathe. She had high blood pressure, and she was always tired.

Sadie also had a life-threatening disorder called preeclampsia during pregnancy, characterized by a rapid rise in blood pressure that can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother and/or baby, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.

Sadie checked her blood pressure Sept. 14 and discovered it was too high, so she and Dan went to Mayo, where Sadie’s doctors were, two days later.

“We were told to stay and not to leave town because it would probably get worse,” Sadie said.

She needed an emergency C-section two weeks later.

Casey was born weighing 1 pound, 14 ounces and was 12.5 inches long. He takes a calorie fortifier and multivitamin to help him grow and as of Dec. 13, had gained 3 pounds and grown 4 inches.

“It was a relief when he was born,” Dan said.

“I just cried and couldn’t believe he was mine,” Sadie said.

Prior to Casey’s birth, Sadie and Dan went through three miscarriages in one year.

“We tried so hard that we almost gave up hope,” Sadie said, adding that doctors couldn’t tell her why she kept miscarrying.

Sadie had open heart surgery in 2010 and said doctors told her she could have children, but she had to do it before age 30. She’s 28 and has been told not to try again.

Sadie was adopted and adoption is an option they’ve considered, but she said it was her dream to experience pregnancy and give birth to a child.

“We believed it would happen someday, so we just kept trying,” she said.

The Meyers found out in April that Sadie was pregnant with Casey.

“Of course we were scared,” Sadie said. “Every time I had a pain or started bleeding, we were always running to the hospital.”

In addition to the complications related to her heart condition, Sadie’s placenta was in bad shape, she said.

Doctors didn’t realize Casey was surviving on only 25 percent of the placenta, Dan said.

Sadie said it turned out to be a good thing Casey was born early.

– Tracy Frank, The Forum

Silent Night

On Dec. 25, 1969, Alan Johnson of Glyndon, Minn., experienced a truly silent night.

He was in Vietnam, an infantry man. He’d volunteered for a two-year enlistment with the Army.

“We just walked,” Johnson recalled recently with a laugh. “We would be out anywhere from three to six days, and they would give us food, water, whatever we needed, every three days. Helicopters would come and drop the stuff off.”

Each member of the unit had to pull at least two one-hour guard duties at night. On that Christmas, his unit was in a soybean field at the edge of the jungle.

Johnson remembers being awoken for his shift, and looking out into the darkness. He thought of his family’s excitement over a delicious meal and wrapped gifts.

“In my mind I could see their faces and smiled to myself at how glad I was for them,” Johnson said.

However, this night was special for Johnson, too.

“There were no planes flying over dropping flash bombs, taking pictures of troop movement, there were no red, green or white tracers, there were no explosions of any kind and there was not a light to be seen anywhere. There was, however, the incredible night sky and I was in awe at how special it looked,” he said.

Christmastime ceasefires were a tradition of war, and a significant number of Catholics lived in South Vietnam, said Tracy Barrett, a North Dakota State University faculty member who specializes in Vietnam history.

However, Barrett pointed out, no ceasefire would be without unease after the January 1968 Tet Offensive, a military campaign that violated a ceasefire for the Vietnamese New Year.

Johnson, who wasn’t there for the Tet offensive, said he wasn’t expecting the silent night. On Thanksgiving, helicopters dropped in a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, but Christmas wasn’t as celebrated due to its religious nature.

“The next day, we just put all our stuff together and put our backpacks on and started walking again, single file,” Johnson said.

But Christmas was celebrated, even in the jungle. One soldier’s parents sent a 4-foot-tall decorated tree, Johnson said. And that Christmas, Johnson also received a gift from home.

He’d asked his mother to send a loaf of bread. When she asked him how she could send it all the way to Vietnam, he told her to dip it in wax.

Johnson was “out in the boonies” the day he got the present.

“I peeled the wax off. The bread was like it had been made the day before,” he said.

– Sherri Richards, The Forum

O Tannenbaum

FARGO – Though he was born and raised in Germany, Dirk Ockhardt has grown accustomed to the Red River Valley.

Now the Fargo branch manager at Jack Chivers Realty, and a resident of Fargo since 2009, Ockhardt was a foreign exchange student in Barnesville, Minn., in 1995 and 1996.

While he’s used to Midwestern customs, he holds on to certain German traditions, especially at Christmas.

“What I really miss is real candles,” he said. “You’re extremely scared of fire here. Maybe because of the wood houses. We have stone houses (in Germany).”

Ockhardt is referring to illuminating a tree with lit candles, something frowned on by American fire departments.

He also keeps an advent wreath on a table, lighting one candle each week of the Christmas season.

Decorating the tree is a particular tradition for Ockhardt, who said Germans were the first to decorate a Christmas tree. The History Channel affirms that Germans were the first to spruce up their firs, dating back to the 16th century.

Ockhardt said the tree isn’t decorated until Christmas Eve and in his house, kids didn’t get to see it until after returning from an early Christmas Eve mass. The children would wait until a bell was rung, then they could come down and see the tree and the presents left by the Christ child.

He’s keeping these traditions for his own young son.

“I never had fake candles in my Christmas tree. Never,” Ockhardt said. “I have a real tree and I have real candles light up and I did it here in a wood house last year and everyone freaked out.”

– John Lamb, The Forum

Here Comes Santa Claus

NEW YORK – With a beard that’s long and white and a big red cherry nose, Patrick Kilby was a beacon of Christmas cheer to the young girl who was wheeled up to him.

The girl was being pushed around by her family in a type of chair, and Kilby noticed she didn’t have the capability to move herself.

Yet she looked up to him – to Santa – with “a very bright face, just bright eyes,” he recalled.

Kilby, of New York Mills, Minn., is working as a professional Santa at Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular in New York City (the Big Man himself can’t be everywhere at once, you know).

In that job, Kilby said his presence brings joy and cheer for children of all ages around the Christmas season. Even when children might not have much else to be happy about, meeting Santa brings a smile to their faces, such as the girl Kilby met a few weeks ago who couldn’t move herself.

Despite the girl’s handicap, Kilby said, she was extremely excited to be able to spend a moment, however brief, with Santa Claus.

“The girl was absolutely delightful,” he said. “She didn’t ask for anything. She was just very pleased to see me. She was smiling.”

But after the girl left, her mother turned to Kilby and spoke with him for a few moments.

Her daughter, she told him, had a terminal illness.

“She asked me for a Christmas miracle,” Kilby said.

As hard as that may be to hear – and Kilby said he often encounters similar stories of sadness when meeting children around Christmas – he thinks that particular encounter represents what Santa has become lately.

“What’s unusual is, Santa started out as the guy who made toys with elves, but he’s morphed into more of a miracle provider, to some extent,” Kilby said. “A lot of people who are feeling stress over the holidays, they’re looking for someone to grant them that miracle.

“That’s Christmas,” he added. “That’s hope.”

– Sam Benshoof, The Forum

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