ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: AN OUTWARD EXPRESSION OF CHRISTMAS

By James M. Decker 

Last week, I wrote about the seemingly inevitable stress, exhaustion, and annoyance of the Christmas season. I encouraged each of us to focus on hope—the hope provided by the birth of Jesus Christ and the hope that we can find in our own lives. In his classic song “If We Make It Through December,” Merle Haggard has very few obvious reasons for hope, but he still has hope all the same. If he can find hope, in the context of that song, we too can find hope in our lives.

On my mind today is how we can actually express that hope that underlies Christmas. How can we end the cycle of holiday stress, exhaustion, and annoyance? It shouldn’t have to be inevitable. We shouldn’t have to fight it. We shouldn’t have to find reasons to take a step back and escape it. It’s easy to blame “society” for the commercialization of Christmas and encouraging obsession in pursuit of holiday perfection. But society is a “we,” not a “they.” Even if we are but a tiny fraction of society, we’re still part of the society that creates and exacerbates those feelings in each of us. We can’t and shouldn’t wait on “them” to improve society, we must look for ways that “we” can improve society.

We can and should start in our own homes and communities. This goes even beyond my encouragement last week to worry less about trying to provide the perfect Christmas for friends, family, or community. For many in our communities, perfection in Christmas isn’t even a consideration. For numerous reasons, folks are merely trying to survive Christmas.

Christmas is expensive. The cost of Christmas gifts, trees and ornaments, maybe even a few outside decorations and lights, is staggering. That’s before we get to the cost of a Christmas dinner for a family. For families living from paycheck to paycheck, it’s an impossible task that results in greater financial hardship — credit card debt or high-interest short-term loans — or simply doing without.

However, struggling for survival at Christmas crosses socioeconomic lines. It touches every demographic in our community. Many of our family, friends, and neighbors will face their first Christmas without a loved one, whether parent, spouse, sibling, child, or otherwise. Without that person, the holidays can go on, but they will never be the same. For others, it is not the first Christmas without a loved one, but the second, third, or tenth without them is still difficult. Some may have strained or distant relationships with family, so the concept of being “together” at Christmas simply doesn’t exist.

Others are already struggling with depression and other mental health issues. The pressures associated with the holidays — obligations for family, friends, work, church, and community — can be completely overwhelming. There’s a reason why mental health concerns become bigger during the holidays. Too many of our friends and family are not sure if they CAN make it through December. Do we even realize that?

Last year, I wrote about Stamford’s Christmas Day Dinner. This year, for the 31st year, we’ll serve fellowship and a full Christmas dinner to anyone and everyone who desires it. Some come out of need for a hot meal. Others come to avoid loneliness. Many simply desire the good community-wide fellowship. Last year, over 700 people were served with the simple mission that, no matter your lot in life, you shouldn’t have to be alone on Christmas Day.

With three weeks before Christmas, there are many opportunities for us to improve the Christmas season by changing our own piece of society. It doesn’t require a large event serving a meal to your community. It may be as simple as taking an evening to spend some time with an older neighbor. It might mean a quick trip to Walmart to purchase a toy for a local toy drive. It might be pressing a $10 bill into the hand of a clearly-struggling mother doing her shopping at the store one day.

Whatever the case may be, I hope and pray that each of us will look across our community, at familiar faces and strangers, and find a way to make Christmas something happy, not merely a struggle for survival.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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