12/13/2013 12:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Spirit of Christmas

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

Sometimes I think that I'm actually two people. One of me is relentlessly pragmatic, reasonable, and logical. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except when it gets in the way of the enchantment of everyday life. The confounding counterpart is a me who is just as relentlessly sentimental, emotional, and hopeful. It's a quiet, mostly guarded me, but it's there.

Here's how I know: If read an email that cries out for help regarding a lost child, I immediately hop on to check it out. (They're always fake.) Then again, I read emails offering heartwarming stories of love, fellowship, and encouragement--the kind you get from friends and family. Deep down, I'm glad people think I'll enjoy the stories; they're mostly right about that. Yet even while I'm reading, I'm thinking (logically), Do I have time for this? I have back-to-back conference calls! I have to create two more PowerPoints! I have to finalize a P/L by 10 a.m.! God knows I'd rarely seek these stories out on my own.

That's why, when I encountered the following holiday story, I weighed logic against sentiment yet read it anyway. Without going into every detail, the story told of a young boy seeking the spirit of Christmas. In an effort to help, his grandmother gave him 10 dollars, drove him to a store, and encouraged him "to buy something for someone in need." After much thought, the boy chose a jacket for a classmate. (Stories like this always include someone sad, alone, and needy, or someone dead or dying, along with someone who steps in to help. Sorry, that's an editorial comment from my pragmatic side. In this case, the student in need never joined recess because he didn't own a jacket. He pretended to have a cough so he had an excuse to stay indoors.)

The young boy bought the jacket, and when the clerk asked if it was a gift, he explained the story of his classmate. She smiled as she put it a bag and wished him a Merry Christmas.

Your typical Christmas story, right? I don't have to tell you that as she helped the boy wrap the jacket, the grandmother removed the tag and placed it in her Bible. I don't have to tell you they hid the gift outside "Bobby's" house, knocked on the door, and watched him come out and discover the package. The rest is sentimental Christmas history.

Except it's not. The story ended with the boy--now a grown narrator--recalling that he still remembers the spirit he felt that day. As he put it, "Santa Claus was alive and well, and we were on this team." Fifty years later, he said, he still had his grandmother's Bible and the Christmas jacket's price tag she had tucked into it: $19.95.

The tears that filled my eyes when I read the ending of the story sprang directly from my sentimental side. I loved the quiet notion of the sales clerk, seemingly just a bit player in the story, embodying the spirit of the holiday.

So where does that leave my spirit this Christmas? My practical nature has me counting up the cookies I haven't baked, the cards I haven't written, and the gifts I haven't purchased, let alone wrapped. The logical part of me is planning how this absolutely will not happen again. I'm writing a list of things I won't forget to do earlier next year, so help me God.

And where does that leave the soft magic of Christmas? Buried under layers of planners and tasks and recipes. It reaches daylight from time to time: when my sons are all under my roof and they sing Christmas carols beautifully while I accompany them on the piano, not very beautifully. The magic happens while they decorate cutouts with care, but I see them 20 years younger, when their icing and sprinkles were a little more...creative. I smile when they carry the tree from the car to the house and find perfect spots for all the ornaments instead of hanging them just on the four front branches. It snuggles up when they agree to watch A Christmas Carol with me one more time.

Every single thing I want to give them can't be wrapped and placed under a tree. As young adults, I hope they'll embrace sentiment over logic, even when it feels ridiculous. I want them to give up--at least from time to time--on the measurable. Once in a while, I want them to relinquish what's practical and believe in what's possible.

I want them to pay the difference for the jacket.

That's faith. That's love. That's Christmas.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations': A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. Her blog, It"s Not Me, It's You, addresses topics that mystify her on a regular basis.


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