Finding the Spirit of Christmas
as published in Toronto Star, December 22,2002
by Austin Repath 

For many years I was fed up with the whole thing: Christmas carols, 
Christmas tree, turkey, and especially the saccharine Merry Christmas greetings from almost total strangers.  Recently I found myself wondering when it had all started, this aversion I had to Christmas. Was it when I stopped believing in virgin births, or when I became disgusted with the commercialism of the whole thing?  I suspected many people felt the same way, and yet for reasons I couldn’t really fathom, some people seemed to truly delight in Christmas. 
        I figured I needed a survival mechanism just to get through what I saw as the fake good cheer and the collective pretense of being happy.  Although in truth, what I probably really wanted was something magical and truly in the spirit of Christmas to happen to me.  
        At the time all I could do was give myself some rational context for the Christian tradition in which I had been raised.  It helped to learn that there was a pre-Christian tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice, December 21.  As far back as Neolithic times various tribes, held ceremonies invoking deities to bring back the light.  Druid priests lit fires on hilltops and peered into the sky, looking for mysterious signs that would tell of the return of the sun.  The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a time of overindulging in feasting and carousing almost as extreme as stories one hears about current office parties. 
        This helped put the Christmas celebrations in some historical perspective.  As a result I became a little less judgmental.  But it didn’t do much for my inner emotional state which was too low to simply be SAD - seasonal affective depression. 
        Like everyone else, I too needed a little distraction, even a little hope, to temper winter’s bleak reality.  I watched that old black and white movie, It’s A Wonderful Life.  There were tears in my eyes as James Stewart's character discovered how important he had been to those around him.  And I too hoped that my life would one day be of some worth.  
        I watched The Christmas Carol just to see Alastair Sim as Scrooge be transformed by night’s end into a new man, giddy with the possibilities of sharing his wealth with others.  I even tried to convince myself that one day I might wake up similarly transformed.  I desperately needed to keep alive the hope that in some small way such a miracle might happened to an old cynic like me. 
        Last year, desperate to escape the trappings of Christmas, my wife and I fled to Mexico.  Ensconced in a little villa in Merida on Christmas Eve, we decided to bring together the guests for a holiday party.  It was a disaster that degenerated into a complaint session of all that was wrong with the world. 
        Hurt and angry, Marilyn and I went for a walk in the city square.  Hearing singing coming from the cathedral facing the square, we wandered inside.  It was filled to capacity with devout Mexicans who had come to celebrate the birth of their Redeemer.  Like stepping through a veil into another dimension, we found ourselves in a world of faith, ancient music and candlelight , and something more that defied description. 
        What happened to us is not easy to explain.  Was it the music, the candlelight, the genuine faith?  Or was it the way the old man in the pew in front of us had turned around, looked deep into our eyes and, as if he knew something we didn’t, whispered, ”Feliz Navidad.”  
        Whatever it was, we were touched in ways we least expected.  As we walked out into the warm night after the midnight service, we looked at each other and each knew that both of us were filled with an openheartedness that defied rational explanation.  Where, but a brief time before, there had been hurt and anger, now there was joy and love in abundance.  We knew that in some way the spirit of Christmas had found us.  It was a tiny miracle. 
        This Christmas, I plan to walk down our street where the houses are decked out with icicle lights.  I will let myself be touched by this brave attempt to tinsel over the longing that hides in the far recesses of most human hearts.  
        Mindful of what happened last year, I’ll look into the eyes of those I meet and see them, transparent in their own longings to be loved and to live in peace, to be happy and filled with joy.  And I will simply smile knowingly and greet them with a warm “Merry Christmas.” 

Austin Repath