When Christmas Time is not Quite Here

Please forgive the delay on this post.

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle_Denair Dispatch.

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The Christmas decorations came out early this year in the store. We have become accustomed to seeing Christmas centered merchandise after Halloween, but now it seems non-commercial entities are following businesses leads by decorating town squares (as in the case of one small town we visited in Ohio, hanging Christmas wreaths while children trick-or-treated).

There are two elements at work here. One is the business side. Christmas is very good for business.

A feeling of nostalgia makes people part with money more easily, according to academics studying patterns of consumer behavior. The sooner businesses can capitalize on those feelings, the more money they will make. Each year the “holiday season” (described here as when stores sell Christmas related items) creeps back a little. When there is not enough of a backlash to affect the bottom line, they creep back a little more. Charles Shultz astutely noted the trend in, “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” (1974) by showing stores in holiday décor counting down the days to Christmas while Sally shops for a pair of Easter shoes.

Why does it work and why are so many not only not resisting but embracing the trend by listening to 102.3’s never-ending renditions of “Santa Baby?” This is the second element at play.

These are dark times. For many, Christmas seems to hold out a ray of hope and “goodwill towards men” that we are ache for. Christmas lights dot a dark neighborhood in a way that overshadows the luminary power of a street lamp. They are pretty. There is a lot of beauty in the traditional Christmas decorations: tinsel reminding us of sparkling metals, twinkling lights like stars, shiny ornaments, homes filled with knick-knacks taking us back to “simpler times.”

Here in the Central Valley, we have no snow, so it feels the season of hygge cannot begin without some Christmas cheer. As the song goes “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute.”

Perhaps those not selling things do not mind going with the flow because the flow feels so good. What can be done to keep things in their proper place? I recommend a couple things.

First, allow the Christmas season to stand as its own event distinct from the winter season. I scoffed at street décor during November in Minnesota. My artistic friend promptly responding, “they’re winter decorations.” Why not? Minnesota has long hard winters, a few sparkling lights go along way in keeping it tolerable. So hang the lights but leave the Nativity scenes for after Thanksgiving. Welcome “Jingle Bells” and “Let it Snow” but save the “Drummer Boy” for nearer to Christmas.

The Catholic Church celebrates Advent as a time of preparation prior to Christmas with a “light in the darkness” kind of décor focused on hope and expectation. The 12 Days of Christmas are a Christmas-full force celebration that begins on Christmas and lasts until January 6 (it takes the Wise Men some time to arrive). We do not have to lock Baby Jesus and snow in a box and say, “that’s just for Christmas.” We can be a little more fluid in our approach.

My second encouragement is to practice gratitude. I suspect Thanksgiving passed through the catalog section with only a few pages because new dishes just cannot bring in the revenue like Christmas decorations and gifts. The act of gratitude counteracts what stores are trying to accomplish, to get you to desire more.

In “White Christmas,” Bing Crosby gently croons to the leading lady, “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings, instead of sheep, and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”

The VIA Character Institute, dedicated to bringing the science of character strengths to the world, defines gratitude as an awareness of the good things that happen to us, never taking them for granted.”

Gratitude is transcendent, providing a broad sense of connection to something higher in meaning and purpose than ourselves. When life is hard, transcendence can see us through.

Gratitude might be event-specific “I am grateful for this thing” or generalized, a state resulting from awareness and appreciation of what those things valuable and meaningful to me.

There are two stages of gratitude: (1) acknowledging the goodness in your life and (2) recognizing the source of this goodness is outside yourself.

The VIA Character Institute recommends writing down three good things that you are grateful for each day and set aside at least ten minutes every day to savor a pleasant experience (mindfulness increases appreciation which leads to gratitude).

By distinguishing between winter and Christmas seasons, allowing décor for each, and practicing gratitude, I can make the most of this season and allow my culture to be formed by my beliefs and values, and not by corporate America.

Decoration Day

Memorial Day…Decoration Day. This day goes back to the period following the Civil War when the women of those who died in battle championed a national day to honor the dead of war.

Decoration day. A day to visit the graveside of the soldier lost, decorate with flowers and eventually flags. Family members traveled far and wide to the graveside of their sons and fathers. They gathered, picnicked, and spent the day in celebration of courage and bravery.

So this ritual entered the canon of America’s civic religion of patriotism. Later called Memorial Day, it morphed into a day of togetherness, relaxation, picnics in the modern sense called barbecue, and a break from work to celebrate something bigger than ourselves, whether we realize it or not.

I survey the scene of flags across the cemetery decorating the graves of those who have died. As a child, we often came here. The women came. My father stayed at home since it was not his father who had died and was buried in this place. My grandfather’s grave was next to one of those great trees and cement benches. I sat while my mother and grandmother fussed over his grave. They brought a bucket with water and flowers, clippers, and pruning sheers. What did I know? I may have been 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I sat and daydreamed about what the World War I veteran was like next door to my grandfather as my mother and grandmother clipped and cleaned and placed the flowers in the vase, filling it with water, and dumping the rest in some reverent place like the cement beneath our car.

My grandfather did not die in battle. His was a less abrupt death. He was a veteran, who fought in World War II on the Pacific, so Memorial Day is not for him. Memorial Day is Decoration Day, the day to in some tangible way, honor the sacrifice of those who died in battle.

The stores would have us decorate our bodies with patriotic clothes, decorate our homes with bunting and paper lanterns in red, white, and blue, change our outdoor couch pillows to flag themed fabrics, and decorate our food to be festive.

For those who feel intensely the meaning of today, for those who fought and watched their comrades die, or heard later of their demise but lived to tell others, for those whose family members did not return, for those very nearly did not return themselves…thank you for sacrifice. We must remember those who have died and those left behind. For them and for you, we are grateful.

Let us remember that while carefree BBQ’s may seem disrespectful, that this tradition comes from the tradition in the history of Decoration Day: togetherness, picnics and decorating with the flag. We must balance the modern traditions with the heart of the day, not the commercial push. This is the spirituality of our country after all: to honor sacrifice, bravery and the spirit that does not quit but gives all one can until one can give no more.

Wherever you live, likely, a cemetery is not far away. Visit, take it in, say a prayer or give a thought of gratitude related to what you see there. Or nod in the general direction. Know what you gathered for, even if there is no one in your family who died in battle. Whichever war, whatever stance on the war, we can recognize the goodness of those on the ground and what they gave. I hope it can inspire us to give a little more ourselves.