The Christmas Spirit

“Perhaps the most characteristic element of Christmas, and the most valued thing about it, is what we call ‘the Christmas spirit,’ its joy, its reassessment of life as good, the warmth of human relations that it engenders, often renewing human contacts, modifying class distinctions and old enmities in joyous fellowship of old and young, and in the giving of gifts and services. This persistent spirit is difficult to explain as a seasonal thing, but no one questions its genuineness.”
– Author unknown

I remember a Christmas, over 40 years ago now, when my belief in the Christmas spirit was seriously tested. I was working at my first job out of college, as a grounds manager for Rodale Press in Pennsylvania. Employees had been given the afternoon of the 24th off. It was a crisp day, I had just gotten paid and as I walked to my car, I saw that snow had begun to fall lightly. I was looking forward to getting home to our house out in the country and driving to Connecticut with my then-husband that night to see my family. Then I discovered that my car wouldn’t start.

I called my husband, Joe, at work and he and I spent the afternoon in the Rodale parking lot taking turns under the vehicle, replacing the starter motor. It still wasn’t working right (we later learned that the part was defective), but we finally got it going, and Joe agreed to follow me home in his company car. But Joe had a temper and something set him off. He roared away, leaving me to fend for myself. I got a few miles down the road, but the car wasn’t running well and I pulled into a K-Mart parking lot, where the motor died and wouldn’t restart.

Fortunately, there was a motel across the street. There was also a phone booth, but I couldn’t call Joe because we had no telephone at the house. I called garages and towing services. No one would tow a car on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, much less service it. The police couldn’t offer any help. The owner of the motel, after hearing my story, invited me into his small living room, where I saw stockings hung on the mantel. He offered me a glass of sherry and an extra blanket, as the night was growing frigid, with a blustering wind.

I admit I spent the evening feeling pretty sorry for myself, watching bits of the Christmas specials that were on every channel. The next morning, I made a decision. I would hitchhike to my friend and co-worker Jan’s house. She and her husband were spending Christmas at home with her mother. I was reluctant to intrude on (as I perceived it) their Christmas celebration, but I didn’t know what else to do. Still wearing my old, grubby gardening clothes, I put out my thumb as the first car approached. Was it my imagination, or was that a dirty look I got as the car sped by? The scene repeated itself over and over. I began to imagine where these people were going, in their Christmas finery  most of them to visit relatives, I assumed. Judging by the stares I was getting, I also began imagining what they thought of me  “what kind of low-life loser would be out there on Christmas Day in this freezing weather? She must have no friends or family, or she’d be with them.” Or, at least: “We don’t have time to pick anyone up –we’ll be late for our family gathering.”

The wind was still blowing fiercely, making the wind chill factor below zero, and I stood out there for at least an hour, getting colder by the minute –– when at last, a car pulled to a stop beyond me. Nearly overwhelmed with gratitude, I got into the front seat of the blissfully warm car, sitting between the man who was driving and his wife on the other side. (The backseat was full of presents.) I thanked them profusely and briefly related my situation to them. They understood completely, saying that just that morning their own car had broken down and they were borrowing this one from someone. They took me most of the way to Jan’s house.

Jan, her husband and mother were shocked to see me, but welcomed me warmly into their home. Later that afternoon, Joe appeared at the door, looking exhausted and stricken. He had spent the night looking for me and was filled with remorse over his behavior  and I forgave him.

In my younger days, when I recalled this story, I would focus on the unfairness of it all and the people who didn’t or couldn’t help when I needed it. Christmas, I thought bitterly, was really a time when families focused inward, on their own pleasure. I had privately concluded that the Christmas spirit was nothing more than a myth. But later on, with the deeper wisdom that time sometimes brings, I realized I had closed myself to the gifts I had been given. These days, when I remember that Christmas, I see instead images of the motel owner, of the couple who gave me a lift, of my co-worker and her family: people, who in giving of themselves, embodied the true meaning of the Christmas spirit. And whether they know it or not, I will always be grateful to those individuals – not only for their generosity and kindness, but for saving me from becoming a Christmas cynic. May you find the Christmas spirit to be alive and well in your own lives this holiday season.