--by Mike Murray
As it is for so many other people, Christmas time is especially poignant for me. In ways both secular and religious, this time of year looms over all others for people of varying faiths -- and for people of no faith at all.
For me, the holiday season stands out for reasons that are at once typical and personal. Expectations run so very high. Whether one wishes for presents that come from a store or for gifts that are more spiritual in nature -- or simply for a lessening of suffering -- hopes rise as the temperatures fall each December.
Disappointment is all but certain. No Santa Claus (no God, even) can satisfy such demand.
And, when our fulfillments fall inevitably short of our expectations, our spirits sag. As that genius of the human condition Charles Schultz once observed through his Charlie Brown character, "I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday to emphasize it?"
We've all felt that way at one time or another. When we emerge out the other side of each December with decidedly less cheer than we'd hoped for, we often feel low. It's not that we imagine that life is a picnic. It's just that we're conditioned to believe that all will be right (or, at least, a little righter) with the world as each calendar year draws to a close.
Most of us are routinely let down by a reality that falls short.
That's not to say that this season always disappoints. My childhood Christmas memories are crowded with wonderful images. Amid occasional youthful dissatisfactions (some silly hoped-for toy being absent from a holiday haul or something) are cherished recollections of family sing-alongs, spread-about fruit and nut bowls, and inspiringly beautiful church-choir presentations.
But some of the intervening years have been less kind. Many of the most painful episodes of my life took place during this time of year. Episodes of loss. Divorce. People close to me suffering and dying. Like Charlie Brown, it was at those times that I felt life was mocking me. At precisely the season when I should have been the happiest, I was miserable.
The best "Christmas" I ever experienced occurred one September, a little more than a decade ago. Maggie's arrival represented a better present than Santa ever delivered.
Maggie was a collie-shepherd-beagle mix. I won't prattle on about her many virtues, but I will simply state that she was without question the kindest, gentlest, most decent soul -- human or animal -- I have ever known. An angel.
I remember well the day after her arrival. As Pam slept in, Maggie and I cavorted. We ran around the house, we engaged in energetic sessions of play fighting, we snuggled. I had the powerful feeling that I had never been so happy on any Christmas morning. Ever.
Maggie's gift was more than the pleasure of her company. It was nothing short of the restoration of faith. Faith in life's abiding worth. Faith that -- no matter how difficult it can be at times (a point driven home by her premature death a few short years later) -- life is overwhelmingly worth living. And faith that life is but a prelude.
In ways too personal to reveal, Maggie healed me. She helped me see and appreciate more fully the many blessings that have always been present in my life. Even during the darkest moments. Maggie came to me in September. But she was the most precious Christmas gift I ever received.
I take nothing away from my beloved wife, Pam. She means so very much to me. I can't imagine life without her. But it took a dog, delivered at an improbable time of the year, to help me more clearly understand this magical season.
I hope that everyone's life eventually includes a Maggie. Someone who enriches and illuminates. A dear friend -- a child, a parent, an animal companion, a neighbor -- a special friend who exceeds your grandest expectation.
My wish is that everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, eventually experiences his or her own "Christmas in September."
Copyright © 2004 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.