So, what exactly is the “Christmas spirit?”
The term has been around much longer than I have, and speaks to a state-of-mind more than anything that can be definied quantitatively. In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart described how he separated art from obscene pornography as, “I know it when I see it.” He was basically saying that there is indeed a line between the free expression afforded artists, and what can be described as outright pornography, but it’s one that can’t simply be idenitified by black-and-white parameters.
To me, that is how I would define the “Christmas spirit.” I’ve never been quite sure what it encapsulates, but I feel like I know it when I see it.
Does it go hand-in-hand with the teachings from Acts of the Apostles that reads, “... it is more blessed to give than to receive?” To me, this phrase suggests that it is more Godly to give of ourselves to others than it is to expect and receive from those around us. It is a clearer path to spiritual righteousness by focusing one’s efforts on the wants and needs of our neighbors and family members, rather than obsessing over ourselves, and our own selfish desires.
Of course, in a season that is so micro-focused on the sharing of actual physical gifts, the expression, “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” could speak directly to material altruism. For example, we gain more as individuals by giving a loved one a present that lifts his or her soul than by sitting back and waiting to open what others have bestowed upon us.
A parent gets an example of this first-hand when sipping from a cup of coffee while watching a child rip apart wrapping paper with squeals of delight. The joy of the season can be summed up right there, as the delight generated by the right gifts awards both the receiver and the giver.
That “giving” spirit does not have to be restricted to our children or loved ones, either. We can enjoy the inner satisfaction of giving through charitable donations, or paying for a random stranger’s coffee or buying a Christmas tree that benefits a local organization. It can simply make us feel good to use the resources we might have at our disposal to help someone else.
So, is that the “Christmas spirit?” Is it about lifting others by giving of ourselves? Is it about tapping into our most selfless possibilities and focusing on how to make other people’s lives better, if even for a brief moment in time?
Or is it simply a state of mind?
I’m often reminded of a moment many years ago when I lived in Philadelphia and it was a particularly cold December. I had a pretty bad cold, got out of the subway and was lost in my own thoughts as I embarked on the five-block walk to my apartment, wondering how I was going to afford to buy all the Christmas presents I had still not purchased, and generally feeling sorry for myself as I sniffled and coughed my way down the street.
A voice caught my attention and I looked over to see a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk, covered in some old blankets and staring at me.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “I just don’t have any extra money right now.”
“Merry Christmas, brother,” he said, with a smile on his face. “God loves you.”
“Oh,” I stammered. “Merry Christmas to you.”
I finished my walk home with thoughts of the guy in my head. Was it his schtick to just wish people “Merry Christmas” in hopes of getting more cash, or was he really just feeling the Christmas spirt, and his current situation couldn’t do anything to deter that? Was he reveling in the idea that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” and found inner happiness by trying to make other people’s lives a little better by wishing them a Merry Christmas?
Or was he just some nut?
Whatever the case, it made me realize that I was suffering from a self-imposed “pity party.” The people I cared about wouldn’t care what I got them for Christmas any more than I really cared about what they got me. It made me re-evaluate things, and the next day I spent my lunch hour combing through books in a Center City store.
I got my father a biography on Mickey Mantle, because that was his childhood hero. I tried to do the same for the rest of the people on my list — finding something that I knew would mean something to them personally, as opposed to “breaking the bank” on something flashy or trendy.
And people seemed to appreciate the gesture — or they were at least polite enough to feign joy when they took their turns opening their books from me. It started a tradition that continues for me today, as I still love combing through Bethany Beach Books every December, trying to find just the right book for the right person.
Each book I find elevates my joy inside, and I get excited searching and hunting until I find the next one. Maybe it is a better feeling to give than receive. Or maybe the “Christmas spirit” is just about finding that joy, no matter how you get there.