A Christmas Card

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(HOST) Commentator Olin Robison is wishing all of us a holiday filled with generosity of spirit.

(ROBISON) This is the season when we turn to symbols, rituals and ceremonies. There are, of course, symbols and ceremonies at other times of the year – the flag and the Fourth of July, for instance. But the Thanksgiving-Eid-Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanzaa-New Year stretch is far richer in symbols than any other time.

Of these special days that embrace a season, it is widely accepted that Thanksgiving is the most distinctively American of observances. It is a day which quite pointedly celebrates the blessings of being American.

New Year’s Day is the most universal, neither nationalistic or religious.

Eid, which comes at the end of Ramadan, holds special significance for America’s growing Muslim community.

Hanukkah, the festival of lights, holds rich meaning for part of the population.

Kwanzaa, between Christmas and the New Year, celebrates the African roots of many Americans.

But it is Christmas that, in one way or another, envelopes the large majority of Americans. For many, it is a deeply religious time; for others, it is a religious holiday long since turned secular; and for almost everyone it is the holiday most profoundly intermingled with the commercial world.

If it is possible – just for a moment – to ignore the commercial parts, or at least to escape them for a time, part of what is to be discovered is this: Most of the oldest and most meaningful symbols and rituals of Christmas transcend place and time. They are, in fact, meant to focus our attention on things transcendent, things that are timeless and often so complex that only symbols will do. The non-commercial symbols can and do speak to issues of the mind and spirit; to emotions; to matters of attitude, disposition and intent. They are the symbols of hope, of generosity of spirit and the possibility of redemption.

It is, in fact, the most complex of holidays. Take the matter – the very important matter – of gifts, which, in their many ways, symbolize the season. However complicated the giving and receiving of gifts may become, what the gifts are meant to symbolize is the celebration of God’s gifts to us all, not the least of which is the gift of grace whereby we are able to become the instruments of God’s goodness. Remember that a part of the Christmas story is the coming of the Magi – the wise men from the East – bearing gifts for the Christ child.

All of this can, at least in the best of circumstances, include gratitude to others for doing their jobs and thereby making life both better and easier for the rest of us. I am personally grateful for all those who labor for our common good and safety; for those who provide the public services we all take for granted; for those who put in the extra hours; for those who deliver the dramatic range of goods and services for which we pay, but which require so many going the extra mile. Would that there were better symbols available to express that gratitutde.

And I am grateful for the lights – everywhere the lights – some subtle and artistic, some garish and bright some in good taste, some not.

And I am grateful for the music – no, not the shopping mall stuff – but the glorious music of the season, which, in composition and performance, is, for me and so many others, the most wonderful symbol of all.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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