By B.G. Kelley

Christmas calls up fidelity, faith, reflection. As do old friends. The foundation of these friendships has never been financial gain, as many friendships are in these times. No. Neighborhood, cultural, and religious currents run through these friendships.

Just as our our endings are stitched to our beginnings, so I remain sewn to my old friends.

Witt, my first friend at 5 years old, is still here. We lived on the same row house block in East Falls. We shared every day as kids, seemingly always vibrating to the same frequencies - indeed, we went to the same elementary school, high school, and college.

One snowy, freezing Christmas as a 12-year-old, I got a new sled under the tree. The next day, Witt and I were piggy-backed on that sled, me on top of him, and barreling down a very icy, steep neighborhood hill. One of the adults, a cop, had turned on the fireplug and the water ran down the curb side of the hill, making the roadway even slicker. We hit that ice, lost control of the sled, and slammed into a pole. Both of us launched like a missile, me still on his back, and landed on the ice, traveling another half-block on Witt's stomach. Those skid burns on his belly hurt, so much that he still says I owe him. I picked up the bill when we recently went to lunch.

Ebby found a new football under the tree one Christmas. Long, tall, and lean, he could throw a football a mile. I was pretty fleet-footed, and so for an hour or more one day after Christmas, Ebby flung that football up and down the block in rainbow spirals, and I ran far and wide to catch them. He always reminds me that he was the quarterback and I was just a receiver. He picked up the bill when we recently had lunch together.

Smitty and I shared a love of basketball. One Christmas there was a new b-ball under my tree. It had snowed the day before, but still I suggested we grab a couple of shovels, plow through the snow to the playground a mile away, clear the snow off the basketball court, and shoot 'em up with my new ball. We did. Smitty and I became teammates on a good Roman Catholic High team (as well as the second base-shortstop combination on a city championship East Falls sandlot baseball team). He often e-mails me after reading one of my essays, particularly the ones about basketball.

We were '50s Philly kids growing up in that safe and innocent time before Vietnam and drugs, growing up with neighborhood ties that stirred friendships to come compellingly alive.

Today Witt lives in Bethlehem, Ebby in Chester County, and Smitty in New Jersey. Me? I live but 10 minutes from where we all grew up.

Moving on is not moving out. As old friends we share the tears, fears, and good years. There are no blank pages about each other - we all sprouted from the same roots, like flowers from the same healthy soil.

When we get together we are brushed with the bold stories we wrote together as kids, as friends. Indeed, we are even still writing stories as adults, as friends. Time touches us to share what is left of each other.

More poignantly, we are not, as lyricist Paul Simon wrote, old friends sitting on a park bench like bookends. Witt just completed his 200th mile swimming this year. Ebby owns and runs the largest sheet-metal company in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Smitty plays a mean game of golf. I am writing and teaching - the ballast that keeps vital air in our lives.

Yes, old friends. They're far more a gift than anything under the Christmas tree.

B.G. Kelley is a Philadelphia writer.