Holiday Cheer: Goodwill Amid 'So Much to Do'

Somewhere between shopping sprees and sitting around the tree on Christmas, comes that familiar feeling

How you view the holiday season all depends on where you sit.

If it's in traffic, you may not be so joyous. If it's in a church pew or at a choir performance, you may be inspired to join in.

Generally speaking, most people look at the holiday with anticipation - and maybe a little stoicism. "I'd be in the spirit if everyone told me they don't need anything," jokes Bill Cleary, a metals broker who has 20 people on his list this year.

Indeed, Christmastime is a season of to-do lists and tradition, for family and reflection, and always a mix of the predictable and the unexpected.

So how do you know when you're in the Christmas mood, as warm and fuzzy as polar fleece?

"I know the minute I hear the first few notes of that Bruce Springsteen [holiday] song," says one artist.

"It hits me when the Grinch sees all the Whos down in Whoville singing, and his heart grows five times the size," says a retired salesman.

"When I see my daughter getting excited," says a young man, who just bought presents for his wife and his two-year-old.

Whether holiday cheer builds or suddenly arrives, it is something that people say they feel on different levels. "It's in the air, in the music you hear, the decorations you see.... Kids are getting excited," explains Deborah Watterson. She and her friend, Carol Cocco, are strolling through the Natick Mall in Natick, Mass., with their one-year-olds, Shane Patrick and Samie. Having new babies this year makes it extra-special, these mothers say. "You start to reflect on the birth and your own rebirth over the past year," says Mrs. Watterson.

Public thought has long struggled with how to treat celebrations that are sometimes seen at odds with each other. "The secular and the sacred are intertwined in very complex ways," says the Rev. Gail Miller, associate minister at Acton (Mass.) Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

During Advent, families are encouraged to talk about how the true sense of Christmas differs from its TV and mall-made image, Ms. Miller says.

That said, she doesn't encourage bashing the more commercial side of the holiday. Miller cites a Wall Street Journal article written last year by a Paulist father who made the point that a commercial holiday encouraging people to give to one another isn't a bad thing. "I appreciated that," Miller says.

But that point may sometimes be lost on those on the front lines of stocking shelves and ringing up purchases. Take Chris Polny. He works at a housewares store at the enormous Natick Mall, often clocking 13-hour days. "It gets so crazy," he says, adding that the ratio of naughty to nice shoppers is about 50-50. Holiday cheer for him? "Not until Christmas Eve.... My siblings have small children. That's when the spirit kicks in."

Some question whether such shrines of consumption - where parking spaces rank right up there with Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls - even try to help create a holiday mood through any means other than ringing registers.

Take the malls in Pensacola, Fla., for example, where carolers and choral groups got the boot after shoppers and retailers complained of "noise" and overcrowding. Other shoppers chided the bah-humbug attitude, but a mall official responded, "This isn't a concert hall. It's a mall."

People-watching, of course, can be fun. Vincent Leahy - who's "benched" until his wife, Mary, surfaces from the sea of shoppers says, "I like the kids the most. They're enthused about the holidays. For older people, it's almost like a job."

Making Christmas memorable for children is high on most people's list. Part of that has to do with adults' own nostalgia. "You remember everything you did when you were little, and you want to keep the traditions alive," says Barbara Disenso, strolling the mall with her young son, William. The element of surprise figures into the wonderment, she says.

The best kind of surprise gift from the mall, however, may not fit into a box. Just ask Mark Assad. The off-duty police officer was with his wife at the Chestnut Hill Mall, outside Boston. There, he spotted another avid shopper - who also happened to be wanted for murder. Mr. Assad called for backup - and collared his man.

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