On Thursday Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays. Most people will roast a turkey, have potatoes, veggies, pies, and various family delights. The stores are closed, and even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have. Most families will take out the Christmas decorations, ready to celebrate “the holiday season,” where the Christmas values of peace, love, and goodwill overcome greed and selfishness.
One need not be Christian to appreciate the Christmas spirit, expressed in everything from Ebenezer Scrooge’s visit of the spirits of past, present and future to, George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life and even the Grinch’s heart expanding as he hears the Whos celebrate joyfully even after he stole their Christmas loot. The Christmas spirit reflects a belief there is something more important than material possessions and the daily grind. Love, connection to others, and a sense of the spiritual combine to point to a more joyful and meaningful mode of living. The eternal trumps the temporal, ethical values trump self-interest.
Yet the day after Thanksgiving the stores open early — in major cities sometimes at Midnight, but even in moderate size towns often 4:00 AM or so — so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday. There are usually stories of violence — shoppers being trampled as they rush to get bargains, people fighting over the last of a specially priced item.
Then for the next month malls will be full, kids will be adding to Christmas wish lists, and likely feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted. Stress will grow as people try to churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle Christmas party schedules, deal with the shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done. The music, lights and smells of the season will distract from the stress, and provide moments of relaxation, but for too many people the next month will be devoted to chores associated with the holiday.
Peace on earth, good will to men. “Yeah, yeah, but I have to shop, get this package to the post office, and damn, we got a Christmas card from them? Sigh. I think I have one more I can send out.” Kids will be talking about, counting, and focusing on their presents. “Why does he have five more presents than me, it’s not fair!” It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yeah, for the retailers! For the small shops in the mall!
A savior is born in Bethlehem. Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans and others might smile and nod, but don’t get meaning from that. Christians might, but many will simply nod, “hey, that’s the true meaning of Christmas, but I have to go get supplies for our party…why’d we invite so many people…”
Yet one does not have to be Christian do celebrate and appreciate the joy inherent in the Christmas spirit: Love for others, good deeds, giving without needing to receive, forgiveness, family, friends, and connections. The Christmas spirit appeals to the part of ourselves that rises above self-interest, and sees meaning in core human values rather than the daily routine or material possessions. What irony! The Holiday most focused on our better selves has become the most stressful and materialistic time of the year. Instead of learning the value of sacrifice and sharing, children shout “me, me, me” and fantasize about the stuff they’ll get. The first day of this season, the day after Thanksgiving, we embrace raw consumerism in the extreme — “you are what you own, and today you can get great deals!”
What if people decided to reject that and grab the Christmas spirit instead? For Christians the answer is right there — the teachings and traditions provide a guide of how to steer clear of crass consumerism and materialism. For those of other faiths similar core principles apply — religions around the world grasp the core values underlying ethical human existence (even if extremists sometimes subvert that message). And for the rest of us, the spirit applies too — peace, love, good will, and a faith that there is something more to existence than just electro-magnetic “weak” field energy, quarks, leptons, bosons, and gravity. If not a God, that “something more” can be love, can be spirit, can be values. If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something, then imagine — imagine the best each of us can be, and the best for humanity. The boundary between faith and imagination is blurry, and perhaps non-existent.
The Christmas spirit is truth, even if one can doubt the story it is built around or the religion that gave us this holiday. That spirit can be tapped to defy the stresses, material excesses and greed that too often subverts this time of the year. And it’s here. Inside of us, in the songs, movies, and ideals expressed this time of year. Grab the Christmas spirit! Share it. Make this a season of joy rather than greed. Let love and human connections trump selfishness and consumerism. A family snowball fight always beats a day roaming the malls. And maybe, just maybe, we can enter 2011 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the life we’ve chosen to lead.
Yeah, we still have to shop, send out cards, and endure children demanding “add this to my Christmas list.” At our weakest moments stress will be ready to pounce. I nonetheless believe that a focus on the true spirit of Christmas can make this a season of joy rather than anxiety. Happy Holidays!