When I was a child, Christmas was the best time of the year. And what made it so exciting was that everyone seemed to join in the fun. There was a Santa in every store, songs like "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" played on the radio, and people generally acknowledged that the day had special meaning because of the Christ Child -- thus the reason for the Christmas season.
But times have changed. We have grown more cynical and weary -- the hallmarks of our materialistic culture. In fact, the season for giving has turned into the season for getting. Even before the Thanksgiving turkey is gobbled up, shopping malls are decorated and playing Christmas music to get people in a buying mood.
Not only does greed now dominate the season, but a pervasive political correctness is doing away with the true celebration of Christmas. This is no more so than in the public schools, where musical programs omit all Christmas carols. Others replace "Merry Christmas" greetings with the more saccharine "Happy Holidays." Still others eliminate angels and Santa Claus as being too religious. And some schools even outlaw the colors red and green, saying they're Christmas colors.
The Christmas phobia has even invaded higher education. For example, this year, Florida Gulf Coast University has banned all holiday decorations on campus and canceled a popular greeting card design contest, replacing it with an ugly sweater competition. The reason: school officials don't want to offend anyone who might be disturbed by the mention of "Christmas."
In many cities, the Christmas tree is now referred to in more Orwellian terms as a "community tree." And Christmas parties at work are now winter parties where people whisper "Merry Christmas," as if they're dealing with pornography.
Add to this silliness a new campaign by the American Humanist Association. Ripping off lyrics from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," the group is running ads that proclaim, "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake."
But Christmas is not, nor was it ever, intended just for religious people. Even the Bible is clear on this point. As the angels proclaimed at Christ's birth, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all men."
Indeed, the birth of the Christ Child signaled that peace could be restored to a troubled world. People could overcome their petty disputes and divisive egos and work together for a better world for everyone, especially the poor and downtrodden. In fact, when Jesus became a man, he made clear that God favored the meek, the poor, the persecuted and the peacemakers over the rich and warmongers. What a message -- one that our fractured world so desperately needs.
Sadly, the true Christmas story as represented by the baby Jesus has little to do with how we have come to celebrate the holiday. Isn't there something more important than receiving? Isn't the true meaning of Christmas about giving and helping the needy? Isn't that what we should be teaching our children?
It seems that a religious holiday would be a good opportunity to celebrate something wholesome and good. Rather than thinking about the height of the selling season, why can't it be a season of reflection and joy? Why can't it be a time to step back and meditate on the original reasons behind the holiday? Why can't it be a day to share our blessings with those who are in need?
Fortunately, we live in a country where families can still celebrate their religious holidays with freedom. We can still attend religious services, set up manger scenes and sing traditional Christmas carols. We can still read the Christmas story to our children and tell them the real reason for the season. Should you care to reclaim for yourself and your family some semblance of what Christmas really means, here are a few suggestions:
Take time to read the Christmas story found in Luke 2:1-20. Make "peace on earth, goodwill to all men" your motto for the New Year.
These are difficult times for many. Thus, sacrifice some portion of what you would spend on family and friends to help a needy family. What a great opportunity to teach our children about the spiritual reality of life. Let that be your gift in the true spirit of Christmas.
Count your blessings. And when you're done counting them, say a prayer for the less fortunate: the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the destitute and the sick. Resolve to do your part to make a difference in the world -- even if it's just in your apartment building or neighborhood.
Teach your children to give of themselves and their time unselfishly. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Adopt a family for Christmas. Invite someone who might otherwise spend the holiday alone to share in your Christmas festivities.
By diverting the focus, in our homes at least, from the "give me" attitude to a sharing spirit, maybe we can recapture the awe and gratitude that Christmas carols say is the greatest gift ever given to humanity.