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The ‘real’ meaning of Christmas

Posted: Friday, Dec 23rd, 2011

I grew up in western Washington State on what was known affectionately as a “stump ranch.” This is a small acreage on logged-off glacial till that, with a lot of work and fertilizer input, would grudgingly produce a vegetable garden, but was prime land for the production of Douglas fir and a wide variety of other evergreen trees.

So, as we approached Christmas, there occurred the afternoon outing when my brothers and I would follow my dad up the slope toward the back of our property to select and cut our Christmas tree. My mother usually brought up the rear of the procession to make sure that the youngest of us didn’t wander off or fall and injure himself.

This became a solid family tradition to which we looked forward each year. It was a great blessing that we could cut our tree from our own property each year, and it was one of those activities that helped strengthen our close family bond, one that exists to this day.

For me, finding meaning for Christmas begins with family. Being fortunate to grow up in one that was more functional than dysfunctional, and one that spread lots of love around, Christmas became a time of intensifying and focusing our love for one another. Of course, we did this as most families do, with the exchanging of gifts, large family feasts, visits by various relatives, and, when we were small, listening to the Christmas stories being read to us by my mother. Understand, dear reader, that for us, television didn’t exist!

One of those stories, as one might suspect, came from a picture book publication of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas.”

I remember when I first heard that story read, I was confused. All this talk of a fat, jolly man in a red suit coming down a chimney didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I was particularly concerned as our house, though it had a chimney, didn’t have a fireplace. Would Santa end up in our trash burner in the kitchen? I asked my mother, “Who is Santa Claus?” She gave me what I feel was a most profound, but simple answer. She said, “Santa Claus is the spirit of giving.”

One might ask, from whence does this “spirit of giving” come? Giving does not emanate from human self-interest, since as humans we are first more concerned with getting than giving in order to survive. At best, we might agree to produce and trade, to develop exchange systems, but the notion of selflessly giving without expectation of return, does not naturally occur to us.

Only something outside ourselves can lead us to consider offering something of ourselves in sacrifice. The good news is that the opportunity to encounter and know that which, or more correctly, who comes to bring the means of transforming our lives from ones focused on getting to ones that rejoice in giving begins with a family celebration. The family to which I refer is the Holy Family, and the celebration is known as Christmas.

This “spirit of giving” that my mother associated with Santa Claus is, of course, in its fullest expression the Spirit of God, or simply God. We encounter God as God becomes present to us in human form in the baby Jesus. Here we see a vulnerable, but powerfully present, manifestation of the ultimate Spirit — a Spirit that creates us, redeems us and sustains us.

Even as an apparently helpless infant, Jesus draws us to him with awe and wonder as he did shepherds and wise men so many years ago. In his presence we begin to perceive new opportunity and possibility for our lives. We have the choice to embrace him and his Spirit and become people who give and share of themselves, and find the ultimate joy in that way of life.

As we gather with family and friends during this holiday season, let us seek to acknowledge and celebrate this Spirit of Giving. May we continue to live in this Spirit throughout the New Year and beyond, and that we will be known by our giving, generosity and love.

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