The spirit of the season: What is it, and how do we make it last?

By Nancy Payne

What would happen if, as a reformed Scrooge promises, we kept Christmas in our hearts all the year?

Maybe you’re hearing it already. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. But what do we really mean when we say things like “getting into the Christmas spirit” or “the true spirit of the season”? What exactly is this thing that we all profess to desire not just now, but all year long?

Although it’s not precisely religious, it is something that transcends the ordinary, says Rev. Linda Park, lead minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay. “I think it’s a longing for a sense of generosity, a sense of family, a sense of community.”

When people use the phrase, what they’re identifying is “a spirit of giving, a spirit of feeling at one, of reaching out beyond themselves,” often mingled with nostalgia, suggests Rev. Craig Donnelly, minister at Cambridge Street United Church.

For observant Christians, Christmas is far less important than sombre Good Friday and joyful Easter Sunday. But it’s also gentler and less complicated, which may be why the wider culture embraces the warm, if indistinct, glow of “the Christmas spirit” so enthusiastically.

Indeed, both ministers see their churches packed for special Christmas events, attendance not matched the rest of the year. It will be standing room only at Cambridge Street for the Living Christmas on Christmas Eve, featuring live animals and a real baby. At St. Andrew’s, the choral Living Christmas Tree, now in its 37th year, routinely sells out. (This year’s performances are Nov. 24-26 and Nov. 30-Dec.2.)

Slowing down and participating in Advent could help offset the pressures the season can bring, Park suggests. Most Christian churches mark the month before Christmas by devoting one Sunday to each of peace, joy, hope and love. Advent is a time of waiting, though, and in our culture, she says, “We want everything immediately.”

Clergy like Park and Donnelly also see the painful side of the season, knowing how many in their congregations are grappling with the death of a loved one, broken relationships, loneliness, mental health concerns or family estrangement. “Not everybody looks forward to Christmas,” Donnelly says, adding that if we really mean what we say about the Christmas spirit, we should watch for and be sensitive to those hurting people in our midst.

The glow of the Christmas spirit quickly starts to fade, though. “There’s this weariness that comes in January,” Park says. Just days after trilling about love and compassion, we’re back to business as usual. So, what would happen if, as a reformed Scrooge promises, we kept Christmas in our hearts, and tried to keep it all the year?

Those may be the most important questions of all when it comes to the intangible spirit of the season, Park says. “How do we show hope to others? How do we bring peace and joy? How do we bring light into those dark places?”

January might not seem so bleak and cold if we continued to help those in need and nurture our relationships, suggests Donnelly. “We’d be living the spirit of love and compassion, and getting caught up in a story that takes us beyond ourselves.”

Finding Meaning on the small screen

These beloved television specials and movies truly capture the spirit of Christmas: generosity, love, hope and compassion.

A Christmas Carol: Whether it’s the book or one of the movies you cherish, the Dickens story gets it right, says Rev. Craig Donnelly of Cambridge Street United Church. “Scrooge is transformed—he discovers a whole new way of being.”

It’s A Wonderful Life: Generosity, compassion, selflessness, integrity, love of family and community—it’s all right there in this 1946 classic.

The Sound of Music: Although not strictly a Christmas movie, it’s a favourite in many households this time of year, including Rev. Linda Park’s. “There’s the sense of good as victorious over evil, and there’s hope in the end.”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Not the pandering live-action versions of recent years, but the half-hour 1966 TV special. The mean Grinch’s heart grows three sizes as he realizes that maybe Christmas “doesn’t come from a store.” The Whos even include the repentant robber at their feast.

Miracle on 34th Street: Like many people, Donnelly prefers the original from 1947, especially the climactic courtroom scene with its outpouring of support for Santa, justifying a young girl’s belief and sense of wonder.

A Charlie Brown Christmas: This 1965 TV special seems timelier than ever, with its search for meaning beyond materialism. When friends work together, they make a bedraggled tree a thing of true beauty.


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