by Joanie Butman
Christmas used to be my favorite time of year. I have fond memories of my father dressing up as Santa and leading an entourage of neighborhood kids caroling door-to-door giving out candy canes. Moreover, he kept up the tradition of playing Santa long after his own children were grown. In fact, my father embodied the essence of Santa Claus for us, and for countless numbers of children in New York and New Jersey throughout his life - particularly to those less fortunate than us. His love of giving to others was evident not only at Christmas time but all year long. A close friend of his once commented, “Lou’s been Santa for a lot of people even when he doesn’t have his costume on.” My father relished being Santa for the pure love and enjoyment of sharing the joy of the season with others. It is in giving that we receive, and the gifts he received from the children and adults he shared the magic of Christmas with over all those years were beyond measure. More importantly, his love of Christmas was contagious as love is meant to be.
With all that said, you must be wondering what caused this change of heart toward my previous yuletide glee. To begin with, I resent the stores pushing the season to start earlier and earlier each year in an effort to increase sales, thereby diminishing the Thanksgiving holiday in the process. This year the retail industry finally succeeded in corrupting the one holiday that wasn’t about purchasing by starting Black Friday on Thursday. Shame on them. Thanksgiving no longer holds the position of honor I believe it deserves, but is merely the kickoff to the “holiday” season.
The commercialism of Christmas seems to grow in direct proportion to the political incorrectness of mentioning the true meaning of Christmas. Even Santa in Miracle on 34th Street lamented, “That’s what I’ve been fighting against for years, the way they commercialize Christmas.” Then his devotee, Alfred, chimes in with a heavy New York accent, “Yeah, there’s a lot of badisms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck!”
Just in case it has been lost in translation, Christmas is first and foremost a Christian holiday. There is only one reason for the celebration of Christmas: to acknowledge and honor the day the human race was given the gift of a savior by a loving, merciful God. When acknowledging such an incredible act of love, it is impossible to feel anything but goodwill towards others. That is the true spirit of Christmas.
I’m not a curmudgeon. I enjoy most things about the season: the lights, the gaiety, but most of all an overwhelming feeling of goodwill toward each other (except at the mall!). It’s the gifts that I find so distracting because they become the focus. Furthermore, the problem with gifts is that too often we love the gift more than the giver. Consequently, Thanksgiving has usurped Christmas as my favorite holiday because there are no presents. The purpose of the holiday is very clear – to take a moment to be thankful for all the blessings we enjoy and the gifts we are given every day. I always thought awe and gratitude were the emotions most suitable for Christmas – not anticipation or excitement over gifts we may or may not receive, but an awe-inspired appreciation for the gift given to us so long ago from a caring, compassionate Father to His undeserving children. Here there is no question that you can’t love the gift without loving the giver.
There is always an end to the gifts, giving way to an anticlimactic realization that after all the weeks of harried shopping and preparation, the actual gift exchange is over in minutes, and the pleasure from them fleeting. I love to watch the different approaches people have to opening gifts because in many ways it is representative of how they approach life. Some do it slowly, savoring each one before moving onto the next, trying to make the pleasure last longer, neatly folding the wrapping paper for use next year. Then there are the rippers who attack their pile with wild abandon, tearing and throwing wrapping paper until every box has been opened and tossed aside. You can tell a lot about a person by watching them put up Christmas lights, pick out a Christmas tree and open their presents.
Oren Arnold has a wonderful Christmas quote regarding his idea about gift giving that I’ll share with you.
“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.”
Those are the kind of gifts we need to choose to exchange every day – but especially at Christmas to honor the birth of Christ who exemplifies the loving spirit we celebrate on that day. Eventually, even Dr. Seuss’s Grinch figured out that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more.” Amen to that!
The sole/soul reason for the celebration of Christmas is to acknowledge the greatest gift ever given – the gift of a savior from a devoted Father to His wayward children. That is the gift I choose to celebrate on Christmas. It is one that will never disappoint us nor will we ever have to earn it; but to appreciate it we do have to unwrap it and accept it with an open, loving heart. What’s even better is that it comes at a cost affordable to all. And there is no end to the gift, it is eternal. It can renew us every day of our lives and beyond if we so choose.
Best of all, the gift we received on that first Christmas was intended to be regifted again and again and again. It was God’s plan for His Son, and one we are expected to share with others. Gifts of love, mercy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness and encouragement are but a few of the affordable gifts we can choose to generously bestow all year long. My prayer is that we be so filled with His gifts that we can’t help but choose to regift them to others – much like St. Nicholas.
“The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while he was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to ‘sell what you own and give the money to the poor,’ Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need and his love for children,”* which eventually gave birth to the legend of Santa Claus – a jolly old man with a huge heart bestowing gifts on “deserving” children - the ones on his 'nice' list. The naughty ones didn't fare as well. Just as my father's friend noted about my dad, we too can choose to do the same for others even without a red suit or a list because I've always been taught mercy is giving people what they need not what they deserve.
When you choose to truly grasp the extent of God’s love that Christmas embodies, how could you not be bursting with joy and harmony? Frankly, I’m surprised people aren’t dancing in the streets singing Joy to the World everyday instead of just at Christmas. Even Scrooge ultimately made a wise choice when he said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
This season, if you want to truly experience peace on earth and goodwill towards men, you may want to consider choosing to climb into the lap of the one who is waiting to fill not only your stockings but your entire being with His presence and shower you with His presents regardless of whether you’ve been naughty or nice.