Years ago, I was a shopping center marketing manager responsible for, among other things, Christmas promotional activities. This entailed hiring Santa Claus - not an easy task, if you consider who might be available and willing to work 40-plus hours a week for just five or six weeks a year in a really hot suit, being jolly as a constant stream of children crawl on and off your lap - as well as musicians, costumed characters, puppeteers and others intended to draw shoppers in droves.
I remember returning to my desk after lunch one autumn day in the thick of the Christmas planning season, with phone messages to return from the Dickens Carolers, Juha the accordionist and Candy (of Candy and MoMo) the Clown.
I went to college for this.
Four years of that, followed by eight years in a different role advertising all of those activities, drained my Christmas spirit dry. My kids were still young at the time, and while I did my best to make the season special for them, their sense of holiday spirit probably suffered as well. When it came to Christmas traditions, their mom pretty much gave all she had at the office.
To this day, I can't hear Jingle Bell Rock or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, which as non-religious holiday tunes were acceptable in a public space, without breaking out in hives. We haven't had a Christmas tree since the kids moved out; a landfill worth of ornaments and decorations are in boxes in the basement, most likely growing mold.
But now, with a couple of decades of distance from my shopping center days, I can at least enjoy lighting a candle and singing Silent Night at Christmas Eve church services. I still make a point of tuning in when It's A Wonderful Life comes on the TV.
And the older I get, the more I appreciate one of the most cherished seasonal traditions: being in touch with people whose paths have crossed mine over the years.
I love receiving their Christmas cards, photos and letters - especially the letters, accomplishments of child prodigies, exotic travelogues, medical summaries and all. Whatever they write, they're sharing what they've deemed important over the past year - at least what they're willing to divulge - and that gives me a glimpse into where they are and how they're doing. That's at least as interesting as the typical Facebook status update.
Sometimes Christmas brings me face-to-face with people I seldom see, like the lunch I enjoyed yesterday with former colleagues from those shopping center days. Sometimes, the Christmas connection reminds us to schedule time together after the season, like the promise of burgers and a beer in January with a couple of other holiday correspondents.
And sometimes, the connection is little more than a signature on a card -- but even that's enough to inspire fond recollections. The fact that they still have my address and the knowledge that we still share space on the planet grows more comforting with each passing year, as I know, sadly, this won't always be so.
For me, these are the blessings of the season.
And, hey, the cookies aren't bad, either.