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Where Did the Meaning of Christmas Go?

An annual Thanksgiving tradition in my family is to gather together to watch the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life. This year I thought to myself that Bedford Falls, the movie’s setting, could have been modeled on any one of a number of places in western Massachusetts. The small-town loyalties, dreams, and struggles exhibited by the unforgettable characters who lived in Bedford Falls during the great depression probably mirror the experiences of many citizens in Franklin County enduring today’s Great Recession. In hard times people have to count on the kindness of neighbors and the generosity of others. Giving rather than receiving was the message that Clarence the angel brought to the Savings & Loans owner George Bailey, contemplating suicide, who had managed to keep the village together.

But in the 65 years since this movie’s creation, Americans have become obsessed with acquiring things. The message to “shop till you drop” starts during Thanksgiving weekend, if not before. Ironically, this year my family watched It’s a Wonderful Life on the eve of “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, supposedly the most important shopping day of the year. Our local news channels and stations, e-mails, and phones were besieged with frantic and exaggerated offers of huge opportunities if only we would rise at 5 a.m. and stand in line, positioned to pull out our credit cards and spend. Somehow the whole transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Hannukah seems to have cheapened in the process.

The siren calls of “sales” and “bargains” affect us all in these hard economic times. At one point I found myself panicking. Maybe these offers really were just too good to pass up. So I waited in line at the Apple Store in the mall instead of spending an afternoon baking sugar cookies with my grandmother.

Later, munching on one of those cookies by the fire, I thought again about what constitutes a wonderful life, or even a wonderful holiday season. Who can forget Clarence, who finally gets his angel wings by helping everyone in the community realize that the true gift of Christmas is found in relationships and in putting others’ needs first?  My mind raced back to those other classic holiday tales of my childhood: Little Cindy Loo-Hoo shows the Grinch that friendship is richer than presents; Rudolph saves the day despite being “different”—indeed, it is his being different that proves to be the saving grace. These may be corny, old-fashioned stories, but they endure across generations because they illustrate the enormous capacity—and fragility—of the human spirit.

So what are the gifts and traditions that really matter for us at Deerfield? For me, it is a former coach who emails and calls me from across the country with words of friendship or advice for a difficult situation. It is the friend with hours of homework left who still visits me at the Health Center. It is the friendly conversation I have with the woman who takes such good care cleaning our dorm. It is the sit-down meal when a student or teacher I barely know recognizes that I have had a bad day and tries to make me laugh. These may be little moments of kindness and connection, but to me, they are big; I suspect it is the same for all of us.

What about the world just outside our fortunate gates? Franklin County is the poorest county in Massachusetts. All around us are families struggling and children who will never have the opportunities that we have. We look forward to this time between Thanksgiving and Christmas because of the Semi-Formal dance, a break from exams or midterms, and the fun plans we are making for our holiday break with friends and family. We have all worked hard and may deserve this, but in the meantime, many others are wondering how to put food on the table or pay for winter boots. The Deerfield community has always reached out—just think about all those smiling faces waiting for the Little Brothers and Little Sisters to visit each week—but maybe this year we can find additional ways to earn our own angel wings.

Black Friday? It is now behind us. Ahead lie weeks of holiday merriment and the chances to act on our better impulses.

Donate to a Food Bank in Greenfield or write a personal note of thanks to someone in our Deerfield community. Small acts of kindness and generosity add up when everyone contributes.

So here’s to giving more than getting this holiday season. As for me, I am swearing off the mall when I get home. I have already set a date to bake with my grandmother.

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