Today Americans travel to be with family and/or friends to celebrate the most traditional of American holidays. Most people will roast a turkey, enjoy potatoes, veggies, dinner rolls, pies, and various family delights. Even the most secular of families will talk about giving thanks for what they have. Many 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 Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visit from the spirits of past, present and future to George Bailey’s journey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Kids get it when they watch 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, values trump self-interest.
Yet today, even on Thanksgiving many “big box” stores are opening, usually at around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. Those not opening today will do so early tomorrow, sometimes at midnight or 2:00 AM, so that shoppers can get the best bargains of the year, so called Black Friday. Stories of violence often accompany Black Friday — 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 then feel deprived if they don’t get most of what they wanted. Stress will grow as people churn out Christmas cards as an obligation, juggle party schedules, deal with shows and activities planned for the kids, and try to get that shopping done. The music, lights and smells of the season will offer momentary distractions, but far too often the Christmas spirit gets defined by materialism and stress.
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.” “Dad, 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 will, but many will quickly pivot “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…”
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. Starting Thanksgiving evening 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 true 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.
One does not have to be Christian to 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. After all, early Christians choose late December in order to mesh the holiday with already existing pagan traditions. The holiday spirit belongs to all of us, not just Christians.
The holiday spirit is a sense that life has a meaning beyond our mundane material existence. If one cannot bring oneself to believe in something specific, 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 rejects the story behind the holiday. That spirit can be tapped to defy the stress, material excess and greed that too often subverts this time of the year. That spirit is here, inside each of us, and 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 2013 renewed rather than spent, focused on values rather than stuff, and thankful for our family, friends, and the lives we’ve chosen to lead.