Learning the virtues of Christmas


It’s amazing how the experience of Christmas changes with age. I’m sure this is true whatever your religious holiday tradition is, but I can speak with authority only about Christmas.

When we’re little, it’s all magic: Santa, reindeer, a gift-laden sleigh soaring through the stars, bounding from rooftop to rooftop, the purifying snow, festive dinners, families visiting other families, people being nicer. Since at that age our whole lives are pretty new to us, strings of bright colored lights throughout the neighborhood, a tree inside the house, eggnog … everything is special.

We even learn a Christmas-specific vocabulary, like carol, Scrooge, manger, Advent, creche, Rudolph, wreath, Bethlehem … words you never hear but in December. We’re at the age then when we have in abundance the sine qua non of the season: faith. We believe, not just in Santa, the Christ child, the trumpeting angels and the Three Kings, we believe in goodness and in gentleness. We believe that being good earns rewards.

We’re taught, by nuns in my case, that believing in Christmas is as old as the hills, and that the Christmas message is peace on earth, joy to the world. “Do not be afraid,” the gospel writer Luke quotes the angel, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy.”

The author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Norman Vincent Peale, wrote that “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

I think we first learn faith, the power to believe, at Christmas.

Then, somewhere between one December and the next, inklings of doubt shade twinklings of light. We’re not sure there is a Santa Claus. We don’t understand how he, big as he is, could climb down the chimney, especially because there’s no fireplace in the apartment. How can his reindeer really fly? And as far as the child Jesus, how can God be a baby? We want to keep the faith, but our believing needs help.

Enter the theology of Advent. Roughly from the Latin, “ad” and “venire” mean “to come.” Advent represents the coming, for Christians, the arrival of the Savior we had been hoping for. I think we first learn hope at Christmas.

We need hope to fill in the gaps that grim reasonableness digs into our innocent faith. The whole Incarnation — God becoming Man — is essentially a personification of hope: Bethlehem’s hope of Jerusalem’s redemption.

Having learned faith and hope, we grow still older, old enough to know that Christmas isn’t about getting, but giving; that it always was about giving, and welcoming, and that to truly celebrate the season we must think of others, our parents and grandparents, our siblings, our friends.

Washington Irving, the New York writer, knew it. He said it was a “a season for kindling the fire for hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.” And so, I think that Christmas is when we first learn charity.

Along the journey from Christmas to Christmas, we learn other things. Sadness comes into our lives. Disappointment. Poor health of ourselves or loved ones. Pain. Loss. We learn that the Incarnation we believe in makes our world blessed, but not free of tears.

This will be my 70th Christmas. There’s more sadness in this one than others, more empty places around the table, more regrets, more sorrow. My brother Bill died last December, and grieving is said to be the worst in the second year, so this Christmas will be tough. Other loved ones are very ill, pains become harder to tolerate, doctors become more numerous, scans see more than they used to, and the list of prescriptions grows. I find I need the lessons learned on those first Christmases to strengthen my caroling voice.

I guess we return to the essentials as we grow old. Things mean less. We refocus on the virtues and lessons we learned in the beginning. We practice, again, the faith and hope and charity that sustained us. We seek out friends and relatives to let them know how much they mean to us.

Because even with faith, hope and charity, there’s one more Christmas lesson to learn. At some point in life, if we are truly blessed, we share Bob Hope’s view. “My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple,” he said. “Loving others.”

May you all have a Christmas filled with love.

John O’Connell is a former executive editor of the Heralds. Comments about this column? OConnell11001@yahoo.com.