The other day I overheard a conversation in the grocery store while waiting in line to check out. A woman was saying that Christmas is for children, and her listener clucked her tongue and said that she certainly had to agree. I have heard this sad assessment of the holiday season before, but I am always taken aback.
Certainly, the religious significance of the Christmas season does not fade as one ages. If anything, it may deepen as you become stronger in your faith. I am sure there are many heartfelt sermons delivered on that very topic each December.
But the holiday season is one that is shared by people of many different faiths and even of no particular faith. It’s a time of shared celebration that crosses the boundaries of religion. When we consider the spirit of Christmas, it surely is not just kids ripping open their presents, or our lavishly decorated homes, or a perfect spiral ham dinner. To me, the spirit is a celebration of the goodness of humanity, and is made manifest by our desire to extend our hearts to those around us in our families and our towns.
I know how those two women in the grocery store felt, but Christmas must not be reduced merely to a time when adults buy toys for children or strive for perfection in our decorations and meals. If we allow ourselves to look at the season from that perspective — one of the drudgery of obligations, expense and commitments — we are fabricating in our minds a sadly pessimistic view, and missing the beautiful essence.
My sentimental view is that Christmas is a time for remembering old friends and reaching out to them with a present, or a card, or a phone call, or even an email message. It’s leaving an unexpected tip for someone who provides us a service. It’s taking a meal to an elderly couple somewhere. It’s the excitement of finding appropriate gifts for those we love. And, as well, being gracious in receiving gifts regardless of how ‘inappropriate’ they may be. It’s making cookies for friends with grandchildren. It’s letting someone go ahead of you in line. It’s tearing up when an earnest little seven-year-old granddaughter softly sings “Happy Birthday, Jesus” in a solo with the adult choir.
We often never know the significance of gestures or gifts of caring to those who receive them. Some years ago my husband and I undertook a major rejuvenation of our old farmhouse so that my mother could come live with us. The two of us lived in an RV next to the construction site for many months, and, as a result, got to know the workers quite well. One of those who spent many days on our house was a man from Carrollton, Chester Payton. Chester was unique in that he did plumbing, electrical work, as well as heating systems, and so he was on our job for a long period. He had a high and distinct voice, and I can still hear him telling me about his grandkids. Not only did he delight in them but he always seemed genuinely interested in our family. In May, our house was finally finished and so we moved back in, along with my mother.
I shall never forget some seven months later when I came home one night from shopping late and heard a familiar voice on the phone message machine. There on that recording was our combination electrician-plumber-furnace man.
“Hey, Rich and Janny, this is Chester Payton. I am just calling to wish you two and all your family a real Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
Did he leave us a Christmas greeting because he did that for all of his customers or because we’d spent so much time together that he considered us friends? Or both? It didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. I was deeply touched by his gesture and by the thought that he would think of us and care enough to make such a call. I even saved that phone message for several years until it was erased by accident.
I’m sure that Chester never had a clue about how much his simple greeting meant to my husband and me. Not long ago, Chester Payton passed away and when we heard, we thought immediately of his friendly unexpected holiday message.
Christmas is not just for the kids. The spirit of the season is for any age, and can be expressed as simply as an unexpected phone call from a friend.