(Reader Alert: This column recognizes the efforts to replace references to Christmas with a more inclusive use of the word “holidays.” In our household we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, so I get it. However, with deep respect for all celebrations at this time of the year, I’ll be using the word “Christmas” – as it is used in casual conversation to reference the entire all-faith pan-cultural holiday season – or I’ll never finish this piece in time for… okay, the holidays.)
I don’t know why I always feel compelled at this time of the year to somehow defend Christmas. I suppose if you ingest enough stylized Target commercials and encounter sour shoppers at check- out stands and then learn that there’s going to be a “holiday slasher movie” opening Christmas Day… you can start to feel like something is getting away from us.
But while I’m still working on most of the big questions in life – Why are we here? Where do we go next? Who actually controls gas prices? – I’ve been sold for some time on the notion that humans do try their best at this time of year to be “good for goodness sake.” You can argue that our efforts to be more giving are simply the perfunctory motions of ritual, like bringing a gift to a wedding. But you can’t deny that a lot of our holiday exertions provide a certain amount of lift to others. More good is better than less good, regardless of what specifically motivates us. One exception might be receiving a free turkey when you buy carpeting; I’m not sure it speaks well of the carpeting and it certainly doesn’t help the turkey.
Yet after any number of acts of generosity and giving, many of us still struggle to find an attachment to this time of year that somehow embraces humanity in general. I know that as a younger man anxious about the state of the world I was struck by the idea, at least, of a Christmas cease fire in war zones. It represented hope in the best way possible: The cessation of man’s hideous and tragic belief in warfare. Unfortunately, I’m not counting on one this year.
Family, gifts, food, parties… all that tracks. But what about that larger idea, often represented on Christmas cards as a star shining over a peaceful field of snow-dusted pine trees? In this time of racist outbursts and threats to remove people from the face of the earth and remote control bombs and suicide bombs and failed “strategies”… where is that star-lit forest, exactly?
Allow me to suggest that you might find your forest inside of a moment. Although you’ll have to keep a sharp lookout. It can come at any time, and it might last barely an instant. It won’t announce itself loudly, and it will almost certainly be small. But perhaps you will see and feel just enough to cop some of that lift I mentioned earlier.
Last week I got a Christmas card from my bank. Right there, you might dislike the way commerce bonds itself to holiday emotions. Then I noticed something small, but to me significant: Eight individual bank employees had signed the card in their own hand.
This means that at some point those eight people took the time to sit down and sign those cards. Maybe on the clock, maybe at somebody’s home, most likely at the behest of a manager. I know it’s not a sustained humanitarian response like Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. But it was a simple act that changed the exercise of sending out that card. An extra effort that added something human to an otherwise pedestrian December bank mail-out. A quick, small breeze. A little lift.
And then, someplace or another on the planet, someone resumes shooting at someone else. Mark Twain said, “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah didn’t miss the boat.” We can choose to be disappointed in humanity more often than not, because the evidence weighs so heavily that way. But if God is in the details, then surely something good about us is as well.