(Originally published Dec. 22, 2018)

WHAT is it that makes Christmas so special? A sense of the extraordinary is everywhere. You can feel it. You can see and touch it in the decorations and lighted trees, yet in many ways it’s intangible. It’s clearly unlike any other holiday but pinning down why is difficult.

Maybe not. Maybe it’s as easy as the story itself — the reason for the season, as they say. Maybe it’s just the giving.

The receiving is nice, too, but giving gifts to those who are special to us is visceral. And when the experience is wrapped up in the two traditions the season is built on, it’s easy to understand why Christmas resonates so easily and naturally in our hearts.

An entire religious faith, and with it a way of life, is built in part on the story of wise men bringing precious gifts to a very special child. The gifts can be seen to symbolize faith in the future that will be built by the children of the day.

We hope they will find a better way than we did, a way toward peace and hope, toward universal love and respect for all, for we are all in this together.

Santa Claus is the secular version of the giving of gifts. He too arrives on a singularly special day filled with gratitude for presents given and received, for the love of the lives that surround us, and with expectation and hope they will live well and prosper in the coming year.

Such personal experiences, built over centuries of generations, cannot help but reside deep in our psyches. Christianity is the world’s largest religion. Santa is nearly universal. If and when conflict intrudes on these traditions, pushback is hardly surprising.

It started some years back when the suggestion first arose that maybe saying Merry Christmas was disrespectful to those who aren’t Christian. Whoa! That did not go over well at all. It prompted spirited debate and more than a few nasty retorts along the lines, ‘if you don’t like it, you don’t have to live here.’

That is hardly the Christian response and especially as Canada’s population grows ever more diverse, it makes sense to consider your audience before you speak.

By the same token, reasonable people of all cultures will recognize a sincere greeting when they hear it. So say what you like. Merry Christmas if that is your persuasion. Happy Holidays if you care to be inclusive. It’s the thought that counts — the genuine hope that your December holiday is filled with love and joy.

As our society evolves, so can the way we live and think. Someone at the Washington design company GraphicSprings decided to take a survey on Santa. Is he still right for our age? Should we change him?

Purists may be repulsed by the notion that the man in red be anything other than what he is — the jolly old guy with gifts in the sleigh for everyone on Earth. It is an enduring story, a tradition that survives.

But some people don’t see it that way. The survey asked 400 people for suggestions on how to ‘rebrand’ Santa to make him more modern.

Even with such a leading question, over 70 per cent said they would prefer to see Santa remain as he is, a plump male. But almost 28 per cent said they would like to see Santa as female or gender-neutral.

As one person put it when this was posted on Facebook, “Good Lord (there He is again) can’t some people leave well enough alone?”

Indeed, isn’t there room in this world for a Santa who has stayed much the same since the fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver, Saint Nicholas?

And if a significant portion of the world’s population believes in God and his son Jesus, those who don’t — including those of other religions — needn’t spend so much time and energy disputing it. Just let it be, as a certain Liverpudlian sings.

Our sense of this Christmas season is to relax and love one another. It feels as natural as breathing. So let’s carry it forward into 2019. Thunder Bay’s adopted slogan is “respect.” What a good idea. What a great way to live.

Ian Pattison is retired as editorial page editor of The Chronicle-Journal, but still shares his thoughts on current affairs.

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