My wife bought me a smart phone for Christmas. I’d been wanting one for some time, although I’m still not sure why. I suppose I just want to be linked to the rest of humanity, kind of like I felt back in the early days of rock and roll, when, even though I was too square to like it, I forced myself to listen to it just because I wanted to be part of the experience.
There is something about Christmas that works the same way for me. I’m not a believer in the religious significance of the holiday. The Biblical story of the birth of a child who would be the path to righteousness for those who accepted his teachings is more myth than history to me.
But I love the spirit of Christmas, and I always have.
In the years before our sons went off to college and then to their budding careers as young adults, my wife and I would sit with them, often on Christmas Eve, and watch two of my favorite movies of all time. In truth, as they got older (into their mid-teens), the boys more humored me than looked forward to these evenings, but the ritual of watching the movies was a way to connect, and we did.
As you might have guessed, the two films are the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring the incomparable Jimmy Stewart as the troubled man who, with the help of a friendly angel, discovers how special his life has been, and the 1951 British version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” or, as it was titled in its original release, “Scrooge,” starring Alastair Sim as the miser who, after a night of ghostly visits, discovers his heart.
Together these two movies express beautifully the spiritual vitality which the holiday season seems to rekindle in each of us every year. Yes, they say, every life, every individual human being, can make a difference and be a source of good will to our fellow earthly inhabitants. And, in living such a life, they conclude, we can all know joy in the love that we create and thereby receive in return.
Rob Bell presents the same thesis in his recent best seller, “Love Wins.” Bell, an apostate to the more sanctimonious “true-believers,” suggests that Hell is nothing more than the life of one who rejects the love that is available to all of us.
The book wears thin on the relationship of that emotion to God, but it rings true in asserting that the extent to which we embrace the power of love identifies, more than anything else, the existence we experience while we’re alive.
And that truth, it seems to me, is what makes Christmas such a joyful holiday.
Now don’t get me wrong; I am fully aware of the other side of the holiday season, that being the almost unbearable stress that it creates in many of us, what with the greeting cards that have to be mailed, the presents that have to be hunted down, the meals that have to be planned and prepared, the decorations that must go up, the lights that must be strung on the roof (often at no small risk to life and limb) and the countless other “burdens” that compound the difficulties that are constantly with us as we struggle to make our way in an often seemingly cruel and inhospitable world.
But those travails pale when compared with the wonderful spirit which pervades our interactions at this time of the year. What is it that causes all of us to be just a little friendlier, a little more in touch with our better instincts? For Christians, I suppose the answer is likely to revolve around a reverence for the occasion of the birth of Jesus, “the light of the world,” as he is described in the Gospel of John.
But this feeling of goodness is not limited to the many followers of Christ. In fact, it seems so infectious as to know no religious bounds. And so I think the sense of joyfulness which we all feel during the holidays must be as much a testament to some kind of spiritual link that binds us together.
In presenting this admittedly abstract thesis, I’m not confessing to a belief in Gnostic mysticism or even to some kind of pantheistic theology. I readily admit that I have very little understanding of ecclesiastical matters, notwithstanding my fascination with them.
But I cannot deny what I feel, and what I perceive others feel as well, and I am left with the unavoidable conclusion that, despite our inherent selfish nature, there is, in this strange species of ours, a will, a need, a burning desire to care for each other. We are, in this sense, kindred spirits, seeking a union with our fellows by which we can somehow feel more complete.
We are all unique, each of us special in our own way, and in our individuality we can make our way in the world. But few of us long to be alone, and if we do, we are, I would submit, cheating ourselves of the bond of human relationships and of social intercourse.
For we are joined by the ability all of us have to feel, to feel the pain of the loss of a parent or a child and to feel the joy of the birth of a child or the marriage of a young couple.
In his marvelous personal reflection on the meaning of his Armenian ethnicity, Michael Arlen, in “Passage to Ararat,” identified the genesis of this quest for union with our human comrades by stating that “we were all kin to begin with.”
Maybe that fact is what we become more in touch with at this time of the year, and it may well emanate from a power greater than we can know. No matter the source, it happens every year. And it feels good, doesn’t it?
Peace, love, and the joys of the season to all.