My husband and I were raised with different religious backgrounds, and once we married, each winter season brought with it the question of the best way to blend our traditions. The beliefs of a Jewish household do not easily overlap with those of someone from a Catholic background, and we knew that once children came along, we’d need a plan. We vowed not to let our kids grow up with holidays driven solely by the consumerism that swirls around us during the season, but were unsure where to begin. Neither of us is very religious, but our concern was whether we could imbue holiday spirit with religion.
When I was young, holiday time was my favorite time of the year. Everyone seemed to be happy; no matter where we went, how crowded the stores were or how cold it was getting, everyone smiled and was friendly. Even my mother, who seemed to have even more to do than usual, was humming all the time. That was what I wanted to share with my children — that magical feeling of happiness that seemed to touch everyone we’d meet. So my husband and I decided to try a little of everything. We set up a tree and a menorah, and went to celebratory masses and services at various houses of worship, which offered religion and a sense of togetherness. We volunteered in soup kitchens and helped with clothing drives, community events that made us feel a viable part of our neighborhood. Through it all, no one place stood out as a single spirit-evoking environment over any other. But taken together, we discovered that the “spirit” of the holidays for us was a sense of connection. Being a part of the rest of our world, and our ability to enhance and improve it, is what moves us and gives us joy. This is the magic that draws us all closer at this time of year, and what I want to instill in my children.
For many of us, the holiday season is a wonderful reminder of the things that are truly important to us. We are overcome with childhood memories, holidays past spent with family and friends, blazing fires and gatherings in the homes in which we grew up. This warm feeling naturally spills over to thoughts of people who have helped us and whom we have helped throughout the year and, in this season more than any other, we are driven to action to show others we care. Cards, notes, cookies and presents are spread through our families and communities. As families, we share, volunteer, sing, reach out. And when we do, it makes us feel good. So wouldn’t it be even better if our children saw us doing this not because it is the holiday season, but because we are human?
I recently read that 70 percent of those polled said they felt people are ruder than they were 20 or 30 years ago. When I started to think about why, my inclination led me to believe it is because of our hectic lives and the constant strain on our time. We are so pressured to commute, produce, perform and excel — how can we possibly have time to think of others? We’re just trying to survive our own lives’ demands. But that all seems forgotten during the holidays, when the spirit of giving of ourselves is pushed to the fore by society as a whole. We make each other a priority and let go of some of the daily stresses. As the song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” How unfortunate that we only make the effort once a year.
Every one of us is influential. The things we do and say every day resonate through people’s lives and, whether we realize it or not, experience has a lasting impression. The impressions we make may be positive, through a smile at a stranger, comforting a friend or encouraging a child, or negative, such as by snapping at a co-worker or being rude to another driver on the road. Teaching our kids to live conscientiously will plant the seed for that spirit of connecting to others and making a positive difference, not just during the holidays but every day.
One day when I went to pick up my 4-year-old at preschool, I entered the classroom at the same time as the mom of a new boy in class. When the boy saw his mother, he began to cry. Whether this was because he had missed her, or because the stress of being in a new environment suddenly let loose when he realized she’d returned, I don’t know. But I turned to get my son’s jacket and when I looked back, my son was giving the little boy a hug. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other and smiled. While we were both thinking, ‘how sweet,’ I was also brimming with pride at the choice my son had made. He felt an emotional connection to this little boy and, seeing him in pain, reached out to him.
Although we all occasionally feel powerless, that emotional connection that exists between us as human beings is always there. And while this season comes only once a year, our power to influence everyone we encounter is with us year round. By being aware of our moods, choices and actions, we have the power to make a kind and caring impact on the world, regardless of the time of year or the situation at hand. Teaching our kids that they have the power to positively effect the world helps them to understand that we are all part of something larger than our selves. We all feel it during the holiday season; why not do the best we can every day of the year?
The spirit of connection — that knowledge that we all impact each other, potentially in the very best of ways — is everywhere, especially now, and is something we all share. Remembering this as we go through our days will help keep the holiday spirit alive, long after the decorations have been put away.