We need a time of goodwill, but not two months of it

We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry Christmas. We wish you a Merry... CLICK. For crying out loud, it's November. Malls are already tormenting me with Christmas carols, blaring from outdoor speakers no less, and merchants have been handing me beverages in Christmas-themed cups for weeks. If we don't take a stand, we'll soon be getting pumpkins carved to look like Santa. Which would be scary, but not in a good way.

Christmas is not an extended commercial, people. It's a particular special occasion. As legendary movie director Frank Capra expressed it, "At Christmas I see myself as I really am. And as I could be, if I weren't such a stinker. As the whole sick, weary, unhappy world sees itself as it might be, if it weren't such a stinker. Noel! Joy! Peace awaits. Killings, brutality, meanness is here. Cry world."

Don't mince words, Frank. What do you really think?

What he really thought, of course, is that it's a wonderful life. But it takes some effort to remind ourselves of it and behave as if we entirely believed it. That's why we set aside a special time to do it.

Such powerful emotions, like those of Remembrance Day, are too intense to sustain all year long or even for a month at a time. Any attempt at doing so would quickly fade into pretence.

Some people think they have no need of special occasions because they are so splendid they can radiate benevolent goodwill toward their fellows all year long. They generally become politicians, put on poppies in October while underfunding the military, then take away our plum pudding because it contains ingredients we don't really want to eat but are too stupid and weak to avoid on our own. And a Merry Christmas to you too.

Others feel that the entire rest of the human race fails so conspicuously to measure up to their own elevated standards that, having no trespasses to forgive, they scorn to entertain the thought of forgiving those of others.

They generally go about all year with a grimly unpersuasive air of frosty Nietzschean triumph.

Still others love the sharp, poignant smell of money floating on the air in the waning days of autumn. Forget Santa, just gimme the sack.

The rest of us Cratchits understand that we really should think more of our fellows and less of ourselves than we can manage on a routine basis, so that sincerely wishing them a Merry Christmas for a brief period in the year is enormously better than nothing.

Of course, Christmas must involve shopping because it involves giving gifts. And I grant that it has become complicated by a tidal wave of prosperity that has left today's children awash in wealth before which Louis XIV would have goggled in disbelief.

It is hard to touch their hearts with a simple gift now that most presents involve less sacrifice to the giver and less benefit to the recipient than they once did. But one thing has not changed: The only way most people can be better off exchanging gifts than keeping the money and spending it on themselves is if their kith and kin know them so well, have cared enough to know them so well, as to give them things they wanted without realizing it.

It's why money and gift certificates don't cut it. And it's why we don't need an extended shopping spree; when we know the person, we know the gift. So in the spirit of keeping Christmas in the right way, and at the right time, here's a handy list of ways to tell we're not there yet.

1) You have not yet put on your snow tires. (If you are prudent, the fact that you have put them on does not prove it is Christmas season. But the fact that you have not definitely proves that it isn't).

2) Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving. (Even with their late date for that festival, there is a gap between the leftovers from the first improbably vast turkey on the table and the first serving of the second.)

3) People are wearing poppies.

4) The kids are still excited about their Hallowe'en costumes.

5) Your spouse wants you to mow the lawn one last time.

6) Those aren't snowflakes falling, they're leaves. Or a gentle rain. Or golf balls.

7) It's not mid-December.

8) It's not December at all.

Good King Wenceslas looked out, and saw it was November. He said, "It is not Christmas yet." Is that hard to remember?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson