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Be it ‘merry’ or ‘happy,’ don’t forget to celebrate beliefs

The big discussion among national retailers this year is whether to greet their customers with ‘Merry Christmas’ or the broader seasonal message of ‘Happy Holidays.’
More and more, we become aware that words and titles have real consequences in a close-contact global society. On a recent television show, shoppers were asked how they felt about the two greetings. Some people said they missed the warm message of their personal heritage, Merry Christmas, when they were addressed in recent years with the more politically correct statement, ‘Happy Holidays.’
Others said they felt left out when their religious heritage of Hanukkah was not acknowledged as a gift-giving occasion. Some said they did not appreciate dominant religious groups imposing their customs on everyone else, as though they knew what was right for others.
How can we all, in a diverse respectful community, be true to our own beliefs and still recognize the legitimacy of other views?
Last year I remember watching a television show that recounted the history of the celebration of Christmas. I was surprised to learn that the nature of the celebration over the centuries had gone back and forth in its emphasis on the combination of the sacred and the secular. As a child, we tend to think family traditions are etched in stone and essential to the actual observing of the occasion. I remember when my mother suggested we put up two small trees on either side of the fireplace instead of one big one in front of the window. I cried that it ‘just wouldn’t be like Christmas if we did that.’ As an adult, it seems just plain silly to have had such a childish notion. However, I worry that it is not uncommon to confuse the man-made outer trimmings of a religious ceremony with the original personal spiritual commitment.
I think holiday parties and Santa Claus are wonderful ways of expressing some of my deepest personal beliefs, but they are only my inadequate human way of acting out spiritual miracles that I can’t explain. Let’s explore this practice of gift giving as an example. Now ever so basic to my set of beliefs is a loving supreme being I call God. I don’t think I can give up this core belief and still make sense out of life. I am convinced that God interacts with and in this world. Why am I so convinced of this? Because I have personally experienced His presence in my life. When did this happen is a legitimate question. So, here is a tiny list: scary times when bravery came to me without cause, worrisome times when a sense of peace surrounded me, times when my senses were increased and the beauty of the everyday world became apparent, and times of peace amidst inner turmoil. I don’t understand how this all works, and it is to me the gift of a miracle.
How do I translate that into my actions and practices? I assume if this is to be a good life, I am to, in my way, copy this type of life, i.e., to be a loving gift-giver to others. Our practice of gift giving at this season comes from that sacred notion and transfers into our secular lives as bestowing presents on others.
As a practical matter, commerce is a vital part of a healthy community. Retail merchants often live or die as businesses in the holiday buying season. Our communities feel the fall-out from these commercial activities all year long. A dollar spent in a local store gets passed on about seven times in a local area. If I purchase a box of candy from a local merchant, and they make a profit, they can then pay their utility bills. The local utility has the cash flow it needs to hire employees to do repairs. With an adequate infrastructure, more businesses move to town and hire more of your family and friends. There will be a real need for good medical services, and these newcomers will require office spaces and homes. When this happens, I guess the carpenters will need paint and nails from our hardware stores. And the chain goes on and on. Now the opposite can also happen. Dollars taken miles away stay miles away, and it all filters back to a lack of resources in our hometown.
How we acquire our gifts and how we give them does make a difference as an expression of our spiritual nature and in our practical lives, and I find it hard to separate the two.
Often there are unintended consequences of our actions. It happens both in the miracles-aspect and in our everyday coming and going of life. I often get a chuckle out of remembering the year we Brownie Scout leaders taught our girls to do kindly chores for their parents as Christmas gifts. One of the skills we had them practice was how to wash windows. After the holidays, several mother sarcastically thanked me for encouraging their kids to spray a lot of Windex all over their windows right before holiday company arrived. We can all visualize the cloudy mess they probably left behind.
It is the inner spiritual caring of the giver that matters and that isn’t always understood by everyone. We do the best that we can, and it leaves no room for judging how others go about offering their gifts. Whatever you call this season, we pray you will find yourself able to act out and express what you feel are your key spiritual commitments. If we have this freedom, it will be a ‘Happy’ or ‘Merry’ whatever you call the celebration.