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Christmas brings out our better natures

“Once again we find ourselves enmeshed in the holiday season, that very special time of year when we join with our loved ones in sharing centuries-old traditions such as trying to find a parking space at the mall.  We traditionally do this in my family by driving around the parking lot until we see a shopper emerge from the mall, then we follow her, in very much the same spirit as the Three Wise Men, who 2,000 years ago followed a star, week after week, until it led them to a parking space.”

Dave Barry’s comedic take on Christmas certainly hits home with many of us from whom the hustle, bustle and crowds serve to put a damper on the festivities. Beyond trips to the mall, the stresses related to the season do seem to sap the energy out of all the excitement and goodwill that are the hallmarks of Christmas.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, as can be seen in Julia Peterkin’s 1934 novel A Plantation Christmas.

“I hear that in many places something has happened to Christmas; that it is changing from a time of merriment and carefree gaiety to a holiday which is filled with tedium; that many people dread the day and the obligation to give Christmas presents is a nightmare to weary, bored souls; that the children of enlightened parents no longer believe in Santa Claus; that all in all, the effort to be happy and have pleasure makes many honest hearts grow dark with despair instead of beaming with good will and cheerfulness.”

Those and similar sentiments notwithstanding,  many of us hold the yuletide season in our hearts, if only because yuletide events are among our most cherished childhood memories, despite the impressions those old notions of Christmas have either come under attack or gone by the wayside.

For Christians, there is the significance of celebrating Christ’s birth – and all that it entails – in observing the holiday. But even among that group, Christmas has become a more secular event: the holiday we celebrate today, with its grab-bag of “traditions,” is the product of many inputs beyond the birth of a baby boy some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.

In the midst of all the stresses, author Donald E. Westlake has some advice: “As we struggle with shopping lists and invitations, compounded by December’s bad weather, it is good to be reminded that there are people in our lives who are worth this aggravation, and people to whom we are worth the same.”

Of course, Christmas has become highly commercialized – some of the symbols we use today were in fact created by marketers – almost to the point of overkill. But there has always been something – a feeling in the air perhaps – that made the season lift the spirits beyond anything the so-called greeting-card holidays could ever do for us. That feeling of warmth and goodwill, no matter your take on Christmas, is tangible; in some ways, it appears on the wane today as business, stress, and political correctness intrude on the holiday – much as they do on our lives as we progress from childhood into our adult lives.

That is undoubtedly a shame. Maintaining our childlike enthusiasm would make Christmas, and many other things, far more enjoyable.

“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself,” offers up Charles Dickens, who knew a thing or two about Christmas spirit.

Ideally, we would really give into our younger selves: most of us knew better, if less. The holiday does tend to bring out more of our humanity, as if it were a reset button of sorts. Our compassion for others, our empathy and feelings of shared fortunes are taken out of the attic along with the decorations and leftover wrapping paper. Christmas is one step back towards our humanity, the rest of the year two steps away from it. Simple math shows how far we’ve strayed … and what we might become.

Again, Dickens observes how Christmas brings out our better natures, in contrast to other times of the year.

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

The poet Ogden Nash had a more practical take on the season: “People can’t concentrate properly on blowing other people to pieces if their minds are poisoned by thoughts suitable to the twenty-fifth of December.”

Christmas, then, brings out our better natures. Or at least our ideal selves, seldom emerging at other times of the year. Perhaps that’s what promoted author David Grayson to offer up this thought: “I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day.  We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year.  As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year.  And thus I drift along into the holidays – let them overtake me unexpectedly – waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself: ‘Why, this is Christmas Day!’”

Of all the holidays on the calendar, none compares to Christmas. It’s certainly no mere greeting card holiday; it comes with its own magic. Rather than fretting about what it’s become – a subjective take, at best – maybe we should just enjoy the season, observing it as we see fit and holding on to our own traditions.

And, if you’re still in need of a last-minute gift or two here on Eve of Christmas, you could do worse than to follow the advice of novelist and journalist Oren Arnold: “Christmas gift suggestions:  To your enemy, forgiveness.  To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.”

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