Toussaint column: Remembering Jim Calaway, our real-life Santa Claus
This morning in church, I sat across the aisle from an empty seat, a wheelchair draped with a white cloth and a red rose. That had been Jim Calaway’s seat.
The mid-valley’s greatest philanthropist, Jim played Santa to many nonprofits: CARE, Colorado Mountain College, Habitat for Humanity, the Calaway-Young Cancer Center, Thunder River Theatre Company, the Carbondale Branch Library and the Third Street Center, as well as to national causes like the American Civil Liberties Union. But most of Jim’s giving was personal, here in his community.
In my opinion, commercialism is the Grinch that has stolen Christmas. What we don’t need is more stuff — more plastic, more tinsel, more electronics. We already have a plastic patch the size of Texas churning in the ocean, tinsel in our fish, and poverty-stricken children in the Philippines mining mountains of toxic e-waste.
What we need is more folks like Jim Calaway.
Jim was happy to tell anyone who’d lend an ear how he came to be a philanthropist. After falling away from his Baptist roots, he joined a Unitarian congregation in Texas. His minister there, noting that wealth and conspicuous consumption were making Jim miserable, advised him to give away as much as he could. And Jim spent the rest of his life doing just that.
As the Reverend Shawna Foster reminded us this morning, Jim’s giving was very much in keeping with our religious tradition. Although nowadays Unitarians are unusually considered “fringe Christians” or humanists, it was they who revived Christmas in the 1800s.
Before that, the Puritans had outlawed Christmas. The holiday was rather like Mardi Gras, a saturnalia replete with drunkenness, fireworks, guns and licentiousness. (That dated back to Roman times. When the Caesars were trying to stamp out Christianity, they thought that holding an orgy in honor of Saturn would be a good way to undermine Christ’s birthday.) Thus, centuries later, the Puritans really did start a “war on Christmas.” In 1621, when some of Massachusetts’ newer residents tried to take Christmas day off, the governor ordered them back to work. Thirty years later, Massachusetts declared celebrating Christmas a criminal offense!
But by the early 1800s, Puritanism had waned. Samuel Coleridge, the poet who wrote “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” started the gift-giving tradition. In 1799, after seeing German parents giving their children gifts around a fir tree, Coleridge wrote about it in The Christian Register, the Unitarian magazine of the day.
In 1823, Clement Moore, an occasional Unitarian, published “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” transforming a historically-real Catholic bishop into the Santa Claus we love. In 1843, Charles Dickens, a British Unitarian, published The Christmas Carol, emphasizing the virtue of Christian charity on Christ’s birthday.
The point was to inspire joy, strengthen family and community ties and teach charity to children. Although I’m agnostic and humanist, those are Christian virtues that I endorse. They’re the reason I’m happy to say “Merry Christmas” to anyone who wants to hear the words.
Jim Calaway practiced those virtues. He was a real-life, year-round Santa Claus: Because of him, thousands of stray and unwanted dogs and cats found forever-homes. Because of him, more than 100 students were able to attend Colorado Mountain College. Because of him and his work with Habitat for Humanity, our Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist congregation has a parsonage in housing-challenged Carbondale. Thus, it’s also because of Jim that TRUU could give sanctuary (in a parsonage basement rather than a manger) to an immigrant mother and child in danger of deportation.
Each Sunday, when I came in to TRUU — often in a hurry, trying to set up the flowers, chalice and candles for service — Jim would be there. Because he’d lost most of his vision, he’d ask, “Who’s that?” When I would answer, he’d demand a greeting. Annoyed and pressed for time, I’d grumpily set aside what I was doing and give him the required kiss on the forehead.
Now I wish I hadn’t been in such a hurry. How was I to know that last Sunday’s smack would be the goodbye kiss? This morning, Jim’s wheelchair was parked across from my chair, as usual. But Jim was gone.
In time, my seat will be empty too. But I still have some time to consider my legacy, to consider how to do what Jim challenged us all to do, giving and living up to the better angels of our nature.
That’s a good challenge to meditate upon during Christmas season, and during New Year’s, in preparation for annual resolutions.
I trust I will be writing more to you about that in months to come.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent.