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This year I’m thinking about what makes the Christmas season such a special time. The seemingly obvious phrase, “Christmas comes but once a year”, does capture the uniqueness of this holiday.

unique christmas

I believe that more family members reliably come together at Christmas than at any other time, except at weddings and funerals. Schools of all kinds make this possible by closing for uniquely long vacations. Organizations and institutions shut down or offer more holiday time for staff. Both my children and their families, including my two one-year old grandchildren, are here together with us for the only time this year. That alone makes Christmas a uniquely joyous time.

Of course, there are many elements of Christmas that are deliberately unique. I’m looking at our spruce tree, covered with colored lights and ornaments collected over decades, even generations. This year a family friend with a chain saw and tree-felling experience and I cut our own tree in a county tree farm, for which I paid a $2 fee. The tree is not symmetrical like the trees that can be bought outside grocery or home improvement stores, but it is the best tree we have ever put up. The many small lights in our living room provide a unique atmosphere, something like the flickering candles of Hanukkah, but more playful.

Under the tree are presents, more presents for more people than at any other time of the year. We have struggled against the commercialization of this celebration, which is certainly encouraged by commercial interests, but is enacted by us in our desire to be generous and appear generous. But there is no doubt that giving and getting presents is immense fun. Among family who know each other well, gifts can be meaningful, useful, desired and perfectly appropriate.

Our family has Christmas traditions, as I assume each family does, some common, some unique. We watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street”. Reading “The Night Before Christmas” and “The Polar Express” began when our children were little, but continued when they were past 30, and now will gradually again take on new meaning with the youngest generation.

The idea that this season should encourage generosity, charity, joyfulness and kindness adds a public moral element to private celebrations that goes beyond Christian traditions.

Certain foods appear only at Christmas time, although this changed over the years. Liz’s family had long served creamed chipped beef on white toast on Christmas morning, which always reminded me of my father’s reminiscences about S.O.S., an abbreviation that Army veterans will recognize. Never a fan of white bread, one year I was sent out to buy a couple of loaves on Christmas Eve. I bought an extra one, so that I could demonstrate that a whole loaf could be crushed into a ball small enough to fit into my pocket. That was the last year we did that. This year we are planning bagels for Christmas brunch, which might demonstrate the religious syncretism that often occurs in mixed marriages.

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The way Christmas is celebrated can depend on the venue. When our children were small, Christmas took place at my in-laws’ two-story home with the families of Liz’s two sisters. On Christmas morning, six kids gathered behind a gate at the top of the stairs until my father-in-law was ready. Their collective anticipation of being released to dash downstairs is a fond memory. After that house was sold, we celebrated at my in-laws’ apartment on a beach in Venice, Florida. This year we are in a cabin in northern Wisconsin, where wood fires provide heat and a focal point.

The idea that this season should encourage generosity, charity, joyfulness and kindness adds a public moral element to private celebrations that goes beyond Christian traditions. This idea has long animated cultural creations, from the negative apparitions that frightened Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge to the more modern kindness of Kris Kringle, which convinced Mr. Macy and Mr. Gimbel to recommend each other’s wares in “Miracle on 34th Street”.

The stress of shopping for gifts, preparing for relatives, and traveling can interfere with getting into the spirit of the season. A focus on presents within the family can obscure the plight of families, so many families, who cannot afford the extra spending that Christmas seems to demand.

We cannot solve our society’s social problems in one holiday season, nor should we try. If the Christmas spirit is an admirable motivation, if Kris Kringle is a character to emulate, if life is to be wonderful for everyone, we have to learn from the holiday experience about how to behave throughout the year.

Whether one says “Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings” matters less than the exchange of positive emotion that should accompany our encounters with family, friends and strangers, this season and all seasons. We could solve many seemingly intractable problems with simple good cheer.

steve hochstadt

Merry Christmas!

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives