Giving the Spirit of Grace During the Holiday Season

DURING trips to England, I visit Newington Green, the place of my upbringing. The Unitarian Chapel, built 1708, still stands, as do the large gabled houses, built around 1650. The Acorn Seed and Leaf Company is still engaged in the business of artificial flower-making, and much of the green has not changed in the past 100 years.

I feel particularly fortunate that this small village embraced by the larger mass of London can still remain as I remembered it as a small boy. But times and locales change, as do people, and often we don't really perceive the shift until someone reminds us, through gesture or comment, of the mores and fashions of another period.

During one such visit back to my childhood locale, I visited one of my mother's neighbors. I asked her what she felt had changed the most, and she told me that more than anything - more than the constant presence of traffic, more than the consistent noise of TV and radio, more than the visual assault of advertising and buildings - she felt that it was how people behaved.

''When I was a girl,'' she said, ''people were kind to each other. Even those that had no manners pretended that they did. My mother always told me to be kinder than necessary, to go the little extra length and give that little extra measure to ensure that harmony and accord were always given a chance to guide us through the anxious moments.''

At first, I thought that this might just be the wistful reminiscences of an old woman, who preferred to dwell on memories than face modern times. But when she recalled how her family behaved each New Year's Day, I realized just how much things had changed.

''It was a custom to make New Year's calls,'' she said. ''My father and mother would take us as a family to call upon friends and neighbors in the locality.

''As children, we really didn't care for it. But when I grew into adulthood, I realized what an equanimity and healing there was in such an observance.''

I listened as this senior citizen recalled how guests on their entrance into the hallway were expected to remove overcoats, hats, and gloves, so that they could enter the drawing room free to receive and offer salutations. Sometimes gentlemen could retain a glove on the right hand, and cards, if given, would be sent up to the reception room while the visitors were preparing to be ushered into the presence of the ladies.

She told me how the reception rooms would always be warm and beautiful for the festive season, and how there were many forms of refreshments, even though eating was not the chief means of celebrating the holiday season.

There were no growls of automobiles nor the grinding of trolleys, but the clip-clop of horses as they drew their carriages up to the front door.

''We always walked,'' said my mother's neighbor. ''Often, people still sang carols well into the New Year. We weren't so in a hurry to see the Christmas season disappear as we are today.''

I AM sure that many today feel that such niceties are not only outmoded and obsolete, but that such behavior could serve no useful purpose in today's hurly-burly world with its emphasis on instant gratification and its need for precipitous results in everything from cooking to communication.

I have learned valuable lessons from these trips back to the ''village in aspic'' as my sister calls it.

I have learned to pull back from the precipice of confrontation. It takes place in letting the tight-faced driver go first in the traffic jam, of depersonalizing the blooper or deception by the person behind the counter, of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt in unproven circumstances, and finding affection in the place of disobedience by my children.

There is much to be treasured in ways that grace the human condition and the human spirit.

Each time we lose these practices under the weight of modern living and its demands on us, it becomes one more layer to peel away to find our true self that not only cares for our individuality, but respects and cares for the individuality of others.

I am reminded of Francis Thompson's verse from ''Grace of the Way'':

The angels keep their ancient places;

Turn but a stone, and start a wing!

'Tis ye, 'tis your estranged faces,

That miss the many-splendored thing.

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