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This season is truly like no other
jeff christmas
Courier editor Jeff Benziger during a 1960s Christmas in Milpitas. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

(This column originally ran on Dec. 21, 2011).

There will always be a specialness to Christmas that can't be trumped. You won't feel this in any other holiday.

Christmas is, of course, a Christian holiday, a celebration of the Christ child, Jesus, who was born to a virgin to save mankind from its sinful self. Of course, non-Christians celebrate the holiday while not necessarily subscribing to the whole notion that Jesus was God in the flesh (Emmanuel translates as "God with us.") What's not to like about the nostalgic songs, the traditions, the trees, the movies, the food and the gifts?

I don't believe it's coincidence that the brightest of all holidays occurs at the shortest and darkest time of year - the winter solstice (Dec. 22). Historical record suggests that Jesus was born in spring or fall 4 BC, not necessarily Dec. 25. But at the very time when mankind needs hope in the most dismal time of year, along comes heartwarming Christmas.

Christmas has an appeal to most people but it certainly has its downside. More people get depressed at this time of year than any other. There's the pressure to buy and give, and to host others they may not like being around. There's also the let-down when that ideal gift doesn't come - or in this economy, no gifts at all. It can be hard seeing this magical holiday slip away to life as normal on Dec. 26, softened only maybe by the prospects of another holiday on Jan 1. Even New Year's Eve can get a person down as they reflect maybe on a sad year where difficult transitions occurred and perhaps fear changes that a new year may bring.

The holidays might be a time to magnify a sense of loss as we think about Christmas gatherings with family long gone. Just seeing the 1964 Claymation TV show of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" can form a lump in my throat as I recall how my sweet cousin Sandra Dodd would cry as Rudolph was being scorned by the other reindeer. Leukemia took her from us in 1975, forever locking Sandra in our minds as a young girl of 10.

It's also such a season of intense love that a man might find this a time of year to tell his young lady, "My only wish is for me to spend my life with you," or "I told Santa I want you for Christmas."

I confess being a sucker for Christmas music. Okay, I overdose on it. I turn off talk radio to listen to the songs I listened to at age five, flooded with memories of sitting on the floor of our Milpitas house opening gifts like Pop guns from Grandaddy or bump-and-go toy trains that smoked. In those days Christmas trees were gaudy with tinsel that could practically electrify you, giant multi-colored house bulbs and people actually thought fruitcakes were a great gift. (I do happily remember toys were made of metal in the 1960s, not plastic.) Christmas makes me want to hear Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas," or Nat King Cole sing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I can even stand to her Jimmy Duarte's "Frosty the Snowman," or tolerate Ethel Merman singing "We Need a Little Christmas" or Eartha Kitt's mildly naughty "Santa Baby." Gene Autry is alive and well when I hear "Here Comes Santa Claus." Shivers of a reverent nature go up my back when I hear "Ave Maria" or "O Holy Night."

Then there's the parade of must-see movies - "Christmas Story," "It's A Wonderful Life," "Miracle of 34th Street" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." As I watch any of the "Home Alone" movies I can see kids parked in front of the TV sucking their thumbs only to remove them to laugh. I recall buying my son, Bret, a "Talkboy" recorder modeled after the one Kevin McAlister uses in both movies.
Now I'm at the station of life where I can only hope the kids come home for the holiday. To see them reunite over food and games as I bring in another load of almond wood for the fireplace is definitely part of the fun. But for the first time in my life, I won't have one of my children (and his wife) home and that's a first I wasn't prepared to face.

There is immense power to the season. The stingy can take a generous tangent. The argumentative lay aside differences. The nasty can become mellow for a season. I prefer to think it's because of what the holiday represents: God reaching down, extending His hand of fellowship and offering a gift that can't be bought, delivered only in a supernatural package that only came once. This one day can prompts millions of believers and millions of unbelievers to lock up the store or office, and travel home as the whole goes on a collective party.

No story has given me more of an awe of the season than that of the legendary Christmas eve truce of 1914. Troops numbering 100,000 from Germany, France, England and Scotland were fighting the war in Europe (World War I) and felt compelled to quit fighting for one night and threw down their weapons when one side heard the tender strains of "Silent Night" coming from across enemy lines. The story is told that opposing forces made the frightful walk across the battlefield and exchanged food and souvenirs, sang carols and playing games. "We could see lighted matches, and where they couldn't talk the language, they were making themselves understood by signs. Here we were, laughing and chatting to men who only a few hours before we were trying to kill," later wrote Corporal John Fergusen of the Seaforth Highlanders. The fighting would resume the next day - in some cases the next week - and the killing continued. By the end of 1918 the war would have claimed 9 million. If only that one night where enemies ended fighting in a shared celebration of the Prince of Peace would have continued.

Of course the cease-fire, unsanctioned and unplanned, was denounced by commanders on both sides of the conflict. But what a wonderful and moving picture of the power of unification and hope represented in Christmas.

The temporary truce compels even the skeptic to consider what makes this festive holiday different from the others. Is this all man-made baloney or is there really some unique force behind it? Seeing how the holiday has remained with us all these thousands of years, there is far more than we acknowledge as a frenzy shopping season.

Without such hope, the world would seem incredibly darker, indeed dismally and eternally dark. That would be terrible.

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