What is it about Christmas that changes people?
December 15, 2006
I was given life in Wyoming, where at Christmastime my dad would don a Santa Claus mask and secretly go outside and bang on the windows of our aged two-story ranch house – the oldest in town – and bellow “ho, ho, ho – ho, ho, ho.”
My six fellow children were both delighted and scared. When compared to other children, Santa didn’t bring much. We were poor and knew it.
Despite the poverty, I noticed something different about people at Christmas. My family changed, my friends changed, teachers were more friendly, people in the old town were happier, more outgoing, more giving and more caring.
Even more important, though, I saw my parents, other adults and children put aside differences, even hostilities. They seemed to invest more in upbeat and heartening human interaction during the Christmas season. Unfortunately, we often found it to be only temporary. Eventually, we returned to our former selves and the style of our former relationships.
When it comes to our values, beliefs and character, we don’t appear to change much, except during Christmas. Then, our character seems to change for the good.
While the word “character” has many definitions, I’m referring to the virtuous part that defines a person’s propensity to do the right thing, no matter the consequences. Character sets people aside from others. Sometimes, though, we confuse character and personality.
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I credit Stephen Covey, the author of “Principle Centered Leadership” and many other books, with exposing the huge difference between character and personality. We spend a lot of time trying to change our personality or that of others. Yet it is our character flaws, not our personality, that gets us in trouble.
Covey showed that no matter how acrimonious a personality appears to be, it shouldn’t matter a wit when compared to character. After all, it’s character that determines the success of our contribution, the most altruistic of which is often seen at Christmas.
If character has such a great influence on our successes and failures, why do we not practice good character the rest of the year? Why does an entire community change character for the good almost overnight – temporarily. Is it our theistic religion? Probably not, because most religions teach us to do these things all year around, not just at Christmas. Could it be the effect of commercialization? Probably not because we are pressured and taught to buy, buy, buy constantly.
What, then, is it about Christmas that temporarily improves character? While I have some ideas, I have not found the answer to this phenomenon, but I believe it’s there and should be found so it can be replicated the rest of the year.
And now that it’s Christmastime and I observe these dramatic Christmas character changes, I wonder about certain critical opinions I have written concerning those who have authority and power to affect our lives for the good or bad, and who I believed have behaved rather poorly or have made decisions about which I disagree.
At this time, and others, I am prompted to hope that my criticism is confined within the bounds of critical thinking and overt behavior, not character or even personality. Possibly it was the training during this Christmas character change that taught this poor boy from Wyoming to, I trust, withhold my tongue about character during the rest of the year.
On the other hand, I have also been severely criticized for the values and beliefs I express publicly. After having written some of them, I reflect and find that I have been wrong. Other opinions I still believe to be correct, but nonetheless receive great disdain from those who disagree. Yet that’s OK. I am grateful to have the rare opportunity to express these values in hopes that I can make a favorable difference even with the criticism.
Still, we have to keep asking the question, “Why does character change at Christmas? What is this thing we call ‘Christmas sprit?'” Why is it that we share our largess, our spirit, our charisma and ourselves at Christmas when we may not during the rest of the year?
I have recently wondered if the answer to that question could be the solution to the human dilemma. Perhaps it is as simple as using the spirit of Christmas as a great training ground for good behavior and character all year long. It makes me look back and think – is this part of what made it possible for a poor boy to survive the travails of a dusty Western cow town in Wyoming?
• Dan Mooney is a frequent contributor to the Appeal Opinion page