Lessons in catching the real Christmas spirit.

     An article in a local newspaper caught my eye. A columnist had written an article entitled, “A lesson in catching the Christmas spirit.” Like many of us, he was engaged in a pilgrimage of the heart, searching for that elusive destination, the true Christmas spirit. He invited his readers to join him on his journey.

He began in what he felt would be the epicenter of Christmas spirit, a Christmas tree lot. “Christmas-tree lots, by their very nature, are hotbeds of Christmas spirit,” he wrote. “Nobody goes there if they don't have it. So I went to one in Tustin hoping that some would rub off.” But, alas, the only people he found there were several mortgage bankers trying to find a tree for their office.

So he visited Santa in the mall, with the idea that “if he can't get you in the spirit, nobody can.” On the way there, he ran into a family dressed festively, and figured they must have the Christmas spirit. The mother related her personal Christmas spirit preparation. “Let's see, yesterday we put up the tree, put the lights on the house and played all of our Christmas CDs and albums a million times. I'd say we have the Christmas spirit.” Sound familiar?

While they went off to buy Christmas earrings that light up, Bill took off to find Santa. Maybe Santa had a clue to what the true spirit of Christmas was. But he hesitated when he saw all the children in line. Watching the kids eagerly waiting for their chance to meet Santa, he thought, “This is what Christmas is about.” But still, something didn't feel right. On a lark he asked a mall concierge, “Where might I find the Christmas spirit?”

“It's in your heart,” she said, barely glancing up. “It feels warm and glowy, like a mother's love for her child. You can't buy it at any store here, and you can't get it from anybody else. It's in there,” she said, pointing to his chest. “It's in your heart.”

And this is the popular answer to the question: "What is the Christmas spirit?" Conventional wisdom agrees that it is inside of us somehow, in some way. We just have to find it, or rediscover it. It is warm and glowy, a feeling that finally hits us when...when...ah, there’s the rub, isn’t it? What ushers the feeling in and what keeps it out?

At this time of year, we seek to outshine and outdazzle our neighbor with the Christmas spirit. More lights, more ornaments, a bigger tree, electric flashing lights and moving figurines. The more decorations the greater our Christmas spirit, or so it appears. But despite our greatest decorating efforts, we know deep inside, that there should be more—or less. Oddly, we can feel guilty because we think we have overdone Christmas in a crass commercial way. Yet, we can feel just as guilty the next year if we feel we have underdone Christmas in the same crass commercial way.

I decided that if I hoped to rediscover the real Christmas spirit, I would need to re-read the real Christmas story. But this time I would pay attention to the reactions of those who had just heard of the Christ child's birth. It stands to reason that those most closely associated with the first Christmas would in some primitive way, display the Christmas spirit.

When I opened to the gospel of Luke, chapter two, I noticed that the first record of a reaction was from the shepherds, whom we are told “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen...” (Luke 2:20 NIV) History reminds us that shepherds in the first century weren't the pastoral, gentle eyed, soft-spoken fellows our Hallmark friends have portrayed them as. Their reputation had degenerated over many years. In the first century, shepherds weren’t even allowed to testify in a court of law because their truthfulness was suspect.

Picture a room full of men drinking beer, making lots of disgusting male noises, and watching a football game. They are cheering on their favorite teams with great gusto and excitement. There's lots of yelling and words being tossed around that aren't heard in polite society. That comes closest to describing first century shepherds.

The celebrating these shepherds were doing wasn't artistic praise spoken by highly cultured men, nor quiet reflective praise given by articulate men in expensive clothes. There wasn't an anchorman among them. When it says they were glorifying and praising God it is describing something like the last second of a playoff game in overtime, when the home team wins and the whooping and hollering begins. It was the only kind of glorifying they likely knew.

But further on we find Simeon (Luke 2:25, 28), a much different character. He was a quieter holy man who walked with God. What is his reaction? “Simeon took Him (the Christ child) in his arms, and praised God...” (Luke 2:28 NIV). Here is a much more dignified response, but certainly with a great depth of excitement and feeling. Did he feel any less joy and excitement at the fulfillment of the promise that he would see the coming Messiah before his death? He actually held His Lord in his hands. Did tears flow; did he gaze long upon the Christ child in his hands?

But then what of Joseph and Mary, who by this time in history had a pretty good idea they had one special child on their hands. “The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” (Luke 2:33 NIV) When you consider the miraculous way in which the baby had been born and the angelic visitations they had already received, it would probably take a lot to amaze them. Yet, the more they heard, the more amazed they became. Did Mary and Joseph look at each other and shake their heads in excited bewilderment? Not just their own lives, but the world itself was being changed, and they were closest to the One who would do the changing.

The rough around the edges Shepherds are whooping and hollering in the middle of the night, the holy Simeon reverently blesses God, and Jesus' own parents are just amazed at what is happening. In retrospect, it seems that everyone's reaction was a little different, each according to their personalities, temperaments, and lifestyles.

How can we ever have the Christmas spirit, I wondered, when it seems everyone responded differently? The more I thought about it the more I realized that we could never hope to recapture that first Christmas spirit experienced by the eyewitnesses anymore than we could hope to recapture the excitement of our wedding day, or the birth of our children. It was a one time event. If my wife and I revisited our vows each year, it would be a special time, but it would never be quite as special as the first time. There would never again be a first time. Everything after the first experience would be simply an anniversary.

It seems that some people are attracted to Christmas the same way they're attracted to parties, laughter, and large popular events. Everyone seems to be having fun and the spirit is contagious. Plus, they sense there is a deeper holy meaning to this season, which for many temporarily satisfies a spiritual longing. It's a familiar relief from the grind of everyday living.

They share the emotions of excitement and anticipation, and they are such wholesome emotions that they find themselves irresistibly drawn towards them. And that is why so many people are attracted to the celebration of Christmas, even when they don't really know what it's all about. They feel so good about themselves and what they're experiencing that they don't care what it all means. Like finding relief from the scorching sun, you don't care what causes the shade, you're just glad it's there.

The event that fills our heart with such joy and gladness that we celebrate it once a year with more attention than any other event is the entrance of Jesus into our world. And that is what brings us back again and again to the question that the entire world is still asking. What is the real Christmas spirit anyway? I believe I finally know.

When everything is said and done, and everyone's differences are accounted for, I believe the real Christmas spirit is a deep seated, lingering joy in knowing that the story is true!

And this means that some will come very near to the celebration, and yet never truly understand it. They'll experience warm nostalgic feelings, but never make the connection between their celebration and the real Christmas story. They will be like the people at weddings who celebrate with more energy, laugh louder, and drink more than anyone else, and yet they've never met the bride and groom.

They have no real interest in the marriage, or the people who got married. Their real interest is in the celebration. Take away the party and you remove their celebration. They simply enjoy celebrating, and it doesn't much matter what they celebrate. And there is where I believe the difference lies between those who possess the real Christmas spirit and those who don't. For those with real Christmas spirit, if you removed their trees, and their lights, and their poinsettias, and their decorations, and their presents, and their food, and their music.... the story would still be true, and their joy would still be there!  (Excerpts from In Search of the Real Christmas Spirit, Discovery House Publishers, by Dan Schaeffer).

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