Christmas spirit

Whether decrying the commercialization of the holiday or bemoaning an imagined “war on Christmas,” it has become something of a tradition to complain that Christmas is not what it used to be ... except evidence suggests just the opposite, that the Christmas spirit is thriving.

Case in point: An unidentified man went into Durango’s Walmart last week and paid off everything the store had in layaway accounts. Eighty people’s tabs were covered, to the tune of $16,700. One employee of the store had a balance of $998 – perhaps Christmas for an entire family.

Presumably whoever did that is a person of some resources and can afford it. But that money could just as easily gone for some self-indulgent luxury, some ostentatious trinket or simply been kept in the bank. Instead, that guy thought of others and how he could help.

Of course, not all of us have the money to be a Layaway Santa. But, an inspiring number of people in the community find some way to help, nonetheless.

Project Merry Christmas is one such way. The organization offers a number of ways to help, including blanket drives, food donations and monetary contributions. Its most visible aspects, however, are the angels and bells representing children and senior citizens or disabled individuals, respectively. Shoppers pick an angel or bell off the tree in the mall, buy the item shown on the tag – typically a needed item of clothing – and return the gift to Project Merry Christmas. And with that, somebody in need has something to open Christmas morning.

The deadline for picking up an angel or bell was Sunday. Presents will be delivered Saturday. This year, Project Merry Christmas had angels or bells for more than 520 families; none are left over, meaning all the families will get much-needed gifts.

Even more folks donate their time. In parts of the country, the Salvation Army has to pay people to help out. Not here. The La Plata County Salvation Army is an entirely volunteer effort with an estimated 600 people giving their time, often ringing bells in the cold.

But that pays off. This year, the local effort raised about $111,000, most of which came as change collected by bell ringers. About 60 percent of that went for rent payments to help people stay in their homes. Much of the rest goes to food, diapers, infant formula or for gas.

There are no frills there, just the bare necessities, without which families cannot get along. But $25 for gas can make all the difference in the world if that means someone can make it to a job interview or a child can get to a clinic.

And nobody makes anyone put money in those kettles. No one demands anyone take a shift ringing a bell – just as no one forces anyone to take an angel or a bell off the tree at the mall.

Griping about the “war on Christmas” has become a seasonal event on cable news shows. But, it has a long history. Henry Ford bellyached about it a century ago. And in the 1950s, the John Birch Society saw the “attack on Christmas” as a United Nations plot. And by now, it has become what Politico.com calls an “annual pageant.”

But, that “war” centers on symbols and expressions – as if a card or sign wishing “Happy Holidays” is somehow meant to offend God. A more accurate gauge of Americans’ feelings about Christmas is not the cards they choose or the ads they post, but how they actually behave.

And by that standard, the Christmas spirit is alive and well.

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