As children, we see Christmas as a magical time. It’s exciting and our dreams are full of visions of Santa Claus, reindeer and lots of toys. That magical feeling probably has a lot to do with the way children think. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget has described “the pre-operational stage” of development, ranging from about age 2 to 7 years. This is when language develops, but we’re still unable to reason rationally. At this time magical thinking predominates. This is what makes those childhood Christmas memories so unique.

As we mature, however, Christmas gradually starts to lose some of its superficial luster. Magical thinking gives way to logic and around age 12, our reasoning becomes much more sophisticated. At that point, before they are able to acquire a deeper meaning for the holiday, many people feel disappointed in Christmas.

They may get a second crack at the Santa experience, when they try to recreate it for their children and maybe even later for their grandchildren. National Public Radio host Ira Glass once said that one fascinating thing about Christmas is that we all are presented with the same basic Christmas elements, but we all view them in our own unique way. As children, we are at first captivated by the showy elements like Santa, presents, cookies and candy. Time, however, teaches that these are only temporary phenomena that are perhaps present for less than one-third of our lives. What about the other two-thirds?

Dr. Seuss’ popular story of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is perhaps instructive. As everyone knows, the Grinch takes away literally all of the elements of Christmas from the residents of Whoville. Never-the-less, Christmas comes anyway. Christmas, we learn, is not about presents or decorations, or Christmas feasts, or even Santa himself. It’s not about any of those material things that Grinch took away. It’s about love, community, and our connection with something bigger than ourselves.

I can remember one of the first Christmases that my wife Diane and I spent away from home. We were on the road on Christmas Eve and stayed at a small motel. It was dark and snowy and didn’t seem much like Christmas, but we were together and we would see our son the next day. On Christmas morning we saw that the motel staff had left Candy Cane shaped containers full of cocoa and marshmallows on every door in the motel. Christmas had come anyway.

There was also another time we traveled to New York City to visit our youngest son for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we attended the midnight service at a large and impressive church just down the street from the hotel where we were staying. The service was meaningful and moving, but what we remember best is how the people spilled out of the church into the street after the service. There was a special spirit of happy comradery among everyone, as we walked down the street together, with small groups peeling off to go to their own hotels for the night. You could just feel the goodwill. Christmas had even come to New York City.

That experience reminded us of some of our holiday trips to see family when our children were little. All five of us were crammed into a little Dodge Colt. As we traveled north, we noticed that we kept seeing the same people on the road when we would stop for gas or food. It seemed like we all shared something special on our holiday trip. This experience seems to reveal the transformative power of holidays, turning a random group of strangers into a cohesive community of sorts.

At one point during the trip we stopped at a McDonald’s, where we saw some of our good-natured traveling buddies. We also saw a McDonald’s worker using a tool that looked like a gigantic chrome potato masher. He was using it to compact the trash in a trashcan. Our youngest son said that we could use one of those to help us all fit into the car. It was a great trip.

The beauty of Christmas decorations, moments of silence and peace, the Christmas meal, the raucous family get-together and the joyful Christmas Eve church service are some of the Christmas elements from which Diane experiences the deeper meaning of Christmas. Others might find it in listening to or performing Christmas music, volunteering, or reading Christmas stories, or even watching Christmas movies. It seems like it is different for everyone.

One Christmas, when our children were adolescents, our Florida church decided to hold a car wash to raise some funds to help out some families in the church who were struggling financially at the time. Usually these events raised only a few dollars. The weather was bad and expectations were low. You can predict the rest of the story. They raised a ton of money and then anonymously distributed it to the families in need. At the time it seemed quite meaningful to the kids, although I’m not sure how they all remember it now. For me it was and will always remain a bona fide Christmas miracle.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems and can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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