There’s been a decided increase in traffic on the roads as Christmas gets closer, though nothing like what used to happen this time of year. We probably have online shopping to thank (or blame) for much of that, just as the previous ascension of big-box stores lessened crowds at the malls.

Still, there are enough extra trips to make the holiday rush a notable thing … and a risk to my blood pressure, not to mention the increased chance of my language landing me on Santa’s “naughty” list.

There are more people driving everywhere, but the frustration mounts the closer you get to a mall or power centre. In the vicinity, there are very few jolly drivers. Get into the parking lot, and all bets are off – the spirit of Christmas absolutely does not apply while finding a place to park.

Inside stores, it’s usually not much better. Hot, tired and broke (or on their way to one, two or all three), shoppers walk in circles looking for just the right gift before ultimately finding something – anything – so they can get out of that place. The smiles diminish as the countdown to Christmas grows shorter. Working in that environment must be akin to a new level on Dante’s list.

In short, I’m not overly fussy about the shopping component attached to the season.
Many people, of course, revel in the shopping, taking special joy in finding bargains in the process. My paternal grandmother was just such a person. She was a constant shopper, never more so than at the yuletide; the summer she died, cleanup efforts at her place revealed a closet packed with all kinds of goodies, many of them earmarked for a Christmas still months away.

While she enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, many of us aren’t so fond of the chore most linked to the commercialization of Christmas. Sure, we all like receiving gifts, but that’s not really what the celebration is all about.

For children, Christmas really boils down to what’s under the tree. The day could never come soon enough, and it was always still pitch dark out when you got up to see what Santa had left you.

Gradually, the holiday became more about enjoying the company of family and friends, many of whom you hadn’t seen all year. My fondest memories are certainly linked to those get-togethers, rather than the stuff I got. Those feelings are even more pronounced given that many of those people are no longer around to argue over who gets a drumstick or the recipe for the perfect eggnog.

Still, there are holiday traditions to uphold. They link Christmas past with Christmas present. Take Santa Claus, for instance. We’re all familiar with the famous editorial that tells us, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus …”

Penned in 1897 by New York Sun writer Francis P. Church in reply to eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s inquiry about the existence of Old Saint Nick.

If Church thought we lived in a skeptical age more than 120 years ago, what would he make of society today? It’s unlikely he would identify at all with where we have gone.
We continue, of course, to tell our children about Santa Claus. As they age, they, too, develop pangs of doubt. And, because kids seem to be growing up faster all the time, the onset of disbelief comes sooner and sooner – probably not aided by living in the Internet age.

That perhaps is the least of our worries, however. Maybe we should be asking if there really is a Christmas spirit.

Certainly, many of us hold Christmas in our hearts, if only because yuletide events are among our most cherished childhood memories. Increasingly, however, 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.

Of course, Christmas has become highly commercialized – some of the symbols we use today were in fact created by marketers (the image of Santa Claus developed by Coca-Cola, or Rudolph the Montgomery Ward Reindeer) – 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, was 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.

The goal, then, is to recapture some of that zest, that anticipation and wonder that came with the Christmases of youth. At the same time, there is the need for an adult appreciation of what a timeout from the “real world” can mean for the soul.
It’s easy to get caught up in the shopping, the dinner preparations, the running around, and a host of other complications, but if there was ever a time for simplifying things and seeing the world through less-jaded eyes, it is now.

While Christmas has us on our best behaviour – shades of the childhood drive to curry Santa’s favour – the effort is a sprint, while a year-round improvement is more like a marathon. Despite good intentions, few of us go the distance.

With the approaching offer of renewal that is the New Year, Christmas is, after all, the one time of the year where we can actually believe that peace on Earth and goodwill toward others might actually be viable options – just like the message in all those carols we hear.