Winter arrived right on cue, just as many scheduled outdoor ceremonies began. Walking the crowded sidewalks of Swiss Village, we didn't mind the cold, as we stopped by warming fires or went into little shops for a cup of hot chocolate. The myriad colored lights and other decorations created a perfect "Alpine" setting, and more and more people arrived to mingle in the parking lot and occasionally stop and chat with good friends. Santa arrived in a firetruck, and hundreds of families urged their children forward to attempt an upfront place in line to talk with him. Norman Rockwell smiled somewhere, and authors of Christmas songs and tales nodded, "Yes."
A couple of nights later, a small crowd gathered under a tall tree on Highway 260, listened to patriotic speeches and sang the national anthem, as the great tree was lighted and tribute paid to our men and women in military service. When "The Pledge of Allegiance" was recited, it seemed that "Under God" was a bit louder than the rest. The air was bitter cold, but a wind, which had swirled all day, suddenly calmed, honoring the shivering crowd and the cause that brought them together. Ol' Abe Lincoln would have loved it.
Within a few more days, an "Electric Light Parade" was held on old Main Street.
In spite of the cold, wet weather, as darkness fell, cars, wagons, trucks came rumbling down the street accompanied by horns, shouts and carolers. Any and every thing with wheels was covered in lighted decorations of every possible design. Hearty folks marched, skipped and strolled down what was once the center of Old Payson.
Small town Christmas. Special small town Christmas, I think, here in the mountains high above the big city. Here, warmth has a meaning far beyond temperature. The clear air provides a perfect atmosphere for radiance and illumination. Sounds are clearer, smells are sharper, handshakes firmer, hugs more freely given, and smiles more genuine.
As "The Cable Guy" might say, "I don't care who you are, that's good stuff."
And this is a major point, I believe. I don't care who you are, the sights and sounds and overall ambiance of small town Christmas, at least in Payson, Arizona, cannot fail to touch the good places in whatever heart comes upon them.
It is, of course, a high holy day for Christians. It has, however come to be a major occasion for much of mankind simply for the release of goodwill, positive values and a wonderful celebration of beauty and excitement during the darkest and coldest period of the year. Every form of religion has its special days, and rightly so. The magnificence of Christmas has, however, grown beyond small sacred observations once carefully nurtured through difficult times -- closely held and defended. Its appeal is far too broad to be confined. Its universality was, and is, inevitable.
Christians should not be too hard on themselves or others for the vast secular displays of lights, ornaments, decorations, or the abundance of gift giving. The spirit of the season calls for it. It's "An outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." This is a phrase that goes back to St. Augustine to describe a sacrament, but I think a case could be made for as a description of the Christmas celebration. I'm quite certain that a devout person can make the distinction. Folks who claim no religious affiliation at all still feel a stirring within which calls for expression.
In any event, the festivities during these few weeks are ample proof of the ultimate goodness that is contained within most of mankind. Gifts, large and small, are the order of the day, and good will is the lubricant. Happiness and gaiety are chosen over dour existence. It is a cold and sad heart, indeed, which can utter, "Bah Humbug!"
Soon enough, we will retreat into our own personal reality. We will fight the battles and do the work that each of our lives demand. There will be no lack of generosity or caring, no dampening of personal celebrations, no less anticipation of a better world to come, but for the most part, the gatherings will be small.
Christmas is the one great occasion that seems to invite everyone to the table in some way or another. It is a wonderful communal affair, more enjoyed because of the great mingling of divergent folks in a universal and inclusive happy event.
If anyone doubts that Christmas is alive and well, let them come to Payson, Arizona.