When I was 48 or so, I dropped the grumpiness about Christmas season. It was December and I was falling into annual complaint mode – you know: critical about how soon the commercial decorations went up, how bombarding the ads are, how syrupy the music, how seasonal the charity – when a bus acquaintance asked me if I observe Christmas.

His name was Rex, he was bookish and a bookseller, a reader and a walker, gentle. He leaned toward me, round-eyed, and asked the question politely: “Do you observe Christmas?”

I blurted laughter as I answered. “Oh yes. Literally.”

What I meant and soon explained was that my family didn’t celebrate it, because we were Jewish and not doing Christmas is one of the Jewish American approaches to the holiday, but I’d had a lifetime of invitations to homes where Christmas is celebrated, so I had “observed” it much more than those who observe it. I’d learned the customs of a dozen families, while each of those families really only knew its own.

In case it’s not clear, none of this is about religion; I’m talking about America’s biggest holiday from the perspective of a citizen outsider.

Anyway, that minute with Rex started me thinking. I pondered all the different family customs I’d seen about when to decorate, when to open, what to eat, whether to do it all in an orgy of simultaneous activity or take turns. I ventured into the old critical territory about the commercialism and the false sentiment, I began the slide toward grumpiness, and I felt the gracious moment when the question flipped and let in some light.

I tried to imagine a year without any Christmas. The vision that arose was dreary and monotonous. Because the truth is, the lights and glitz are nice when the nights are long and the weather’s cold. The greenery freshens the inside of an enclosed home. I’m not sure about all the gifts and sweets, and this vision may not work in the southern hemisphere or near the equator, but for all its pressure and busyness, by the time Christmas is over and the trees have been recycled and the presents have been exchanged or used, the sun is definitely on its way back.

Ever since that thought problem, I’ve appreciated Christmas.

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