Repaying a Christmas Favor

Some non-Christians mark Christmas by taking the jobs of Christians for a day, so the observant can spend the holiday with family. This is a tradition in the Berkes family; the favor was paid back this Christmas, when Howard Berkes' mother and stepfather were hospitalized.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Christmas is not celebrated by everyone. Though the Christmas spirit crosses religious lines as NPR's Howard Berkes rediscovered.

HOWARD BERKES: This Christmas, my 80-something stepfather is in the hospital. My 80-something mother was released from that same catholic hospital Christmas Eve. They actually shared symptoms and even a room in the cardiopulmonary care unit. They do everything together, I told the nurses and doctors. Spending Christmas in the hospital is a tradition for my Jewish mom and stepdad. Until now, they went there as volunteers, relieving Christian workers so they could stay home on Christmas. My mother has done this as long as I can remember. And it makes me think of the Christmas spirit as an ecumenical thing. Jews can find meaning in a holiday not really relevant to them.

It wasn't always this way. I remember a music class in elementary school where we were expected to sing Christmas carols with gusto. But there's that one carol that ends with the phrase Christ the Lord. Even the Christian kids mumbled that one. Our grumpy music teacher was furious. If there's anyone here who doesn't believe Christ is the Lord, she sputtered, raise your hand. I raised my hand.

Just this past Thanksgiving, a dinner guest at a friend's house insisted we all sing what I can only characterize as Jesus songs. I'm not Christian, I protested, but she persisted arguing that she once sang in "Fiddler on the Roof."

This Christmas, I'm thinking about returned favors and hospitals. When my mom was wheeled into her hospital room Friday, she was greeted by a gauntlet of carolers. Everyone of them looked her straight in the eye and smiled as they sang. Mom was absolutely buoyant on the gurney. Saturday, a woman with a red yarmulke and a autoharp showed up. My mom and stepdad were hooked up to tubes and machines but they still sang Jewish hymns tears welling in their eyes.

My mom's at home today, but my stepdad is still in his hospital bed. He's getting care from a hospital staff, my mom can't stop praising for good humor and attentiveness. These are the people who kept my mom and stepdad together literally at a time when they needed each other most. That gives my mother comfort at home alone today. The hospital staff doesn't know it, but they're returning favors of many Christmases past.

SIEGEL: NPR's Howard Berkes is working for us today from his base in Salt Lake City.

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