'Tis the season -- to be jolly?

Monday, December 23, 2002

KENNETT, Mo. -- Yes, dear reader, 'tis the season to be jolly, and since we have already given mention to the Yuletide's of years past, let us pursue for a moment the holiday season of A.D. 2002.

The realists among us will say that December has become a singular one in which Americans and their affluent friends and allies appreciate and give allegiance to the kindnesses and prosperity visited upon them by a rewarding Savior.

The skeptics among us will say the world which optimists find so rich and rewarding is merely an illusion, that our world would have been the same whether or not we attended a Christmas Eve worship service or listened to rehearsed choirs pay tribute to a babe in swaddling clothes.

Still others will observe that the month includes not only observation of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth but a period in which the celebrants anticipate with realistic dread, recalling only too well the feeling of worry, dread and drudgery as the mad scramble of gifting, feasting and partying consume greater and greater portions of a religious season.

Those who pride themselves on rational thinking will note that the Noel also produces record cases of depression, family arguments that threaten its very existence, increased suicides and last, and probably least, depleted bank accounts. They have a point, for it is increasingly rare to observe a smiling face in a crowded store during the first 24 days of December. The glimmer of a happy face may occasionally appear toward the end of the period, but there seems to be near-total agreement that this apparition is due to the approaching nearness of the season's end. For the most part, last-minute shoppers tend to resemble the victim who has just been rescued from a heavy object accidentally placed on his chest. "Ah, at least I can breathe" is the appropriate expression for such debilitating horrors.

This holiday season has a penchant for transforming the personalities and demeanors of millions and millions of us. The traditionally happy American is one who lives at peace with his family and neighbors, one who gives more than passing interest to the cares of the world and those in his own neighborhood. It changes kind and beautiful individuals into snarling hound dogs who threaten to bite off a leg or an arm.

These deplorable moments in our lives are only partly inherited, with some of us transformed mentally when we tear off the month of November from our calendar and recall past Christmases as we stare at the word December. Many have confessed that they viewed each day until the 25th with some scintilla of optimism, while looking at the days numbering 26 to 31 as a kind of wunderbar moment that will restore our cynical dispositions and bone-weary bodies.

Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of the season is provided by a department store Santa Claus who, in an unguarded moment, hurriedly slips a tiny flask to his lips and empties it contents, a sight I couldn't help seeing a few years ago in a St. Louis shopping center. The exercise was done so quickly and expertly that it was obvious our visitor from the North Pole was getting looped in between his joyful ho-ho-hos and his transparently dishonest promises that he would soon be visiting the city's homes located several miles east of Ladue and Clayton.

I have seen no social-worker studies on when America changed from a nation filled with charitable concern to a gimme season, but I suspect at least a portion of the transformation came gradually as our gross national product ascended faster than a twinkle in Santa's eye. The rationale has generally gone something like this: We enjoy living in a society in which affluence is a reality and poverty is disappearing, and so to pay tribute to this blessing, let us bless ourselves and give thanks that we can dream realistically of making a hundred thou a year. And, in case anyone misses the blessings I enjoy, I will splurge enthusiastically on gifts during this convenient season of gifting. What better way to get an invitation to join a private club or be asked to lead next year's community chest drive?

The blame rests elsewhere as well. While reading a statewide metro daily newspaper, I counted eight stories that related to the state of the economy, the response of this season's shoppers to the fervent pleading of department stores and the economic evaluations of experts who only last year were touting Enron and WorldCom stock. The biggest stories thus far in this jolly holiday season have centered on how many electronic gizmos must be sold before Dec. 25 if such and such corporation can remain in business or meet the multimillion-dollar payroll of its executives.

Important stuff, all right, but how does it compare with thoughtful responses to the incumbent needs of our society? The trouble is we never ask that question, assuming that we know the correct answer in our own hearts but dare not let the feeling hang around too long or it will make life even more miserable.

There is no political party, no national foundation, no grassroots organization that has the ability and power to transform our once-most-cherished season back to its original intent. Neither the Congress not the Supreme Court can restore the sanctity we seek -- and need.

The change must come from us common folk who, in the next year and the year after that simply declare, "I shall worship no god other than the true God, and I shall do it in the manner prescribed: to give thanks and loving care to my Maker and all that he has made."

May God bless you and yours this holy season.

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News & Editorial Service.

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