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The theology of Christmas nestles snugly in the cradle of the Christian faith. But the spirit that has grown up around this holiday bounds beyond religious doctrine and bursts through humanity's fences. Every December, it spills out into the streets of our lives.

And a good thing, too. At its best, the Christmas spirit stretches out to touch every heart in American communities with a sense of dignity and blessing.

The story of the birth of a child in a stable on the grounds of an overbooked inn is almost 2,000 years old.

But through the years, the celebrations of that story have changed, adding light and color and gifts and music -- the human touch.

The Christmas holiday season has gathered in a harvest of custom, mixing the religious with the secular. The early pagan emphasis on light at winter solstice feasts shines out from today's electrical displays, mingling with the candlelight of churches.

The music resounds, from sacred European carols to "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer."

Different cultures contribute their ways of celebrating. The Christmas tree was introduced in America by German immigrants; the brightly packaged gifts reflect English merrymaking.

The piling of custom on custom continues. Some of the accumulating traditions are materialistic and crass. But some are reverent and holy. And many involve simple secular kindness and generosity. Together, they define the wider Christmas holiday spirit that's as human as it is celestial.

Cynics easily, too easily, scoff at the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Especially on Christmas, such "realism" itself invites a deeper, more realistic skepticism.

Who is more blessed, the child who receives the doll she has longed for or the grandparents who provided it and cherish her sheer enjoyment in discovering it?

Who is more blessed, the volunteer who helps feed the homeless in a downtown soup kitchen or the man who is fed?

Who benefits more, the non-Christian who fills in on the job today or the Christian who takes today off?

And isn't a lively spirit of Christmas at work within the woman who walks into a church office or Salvation Army center and hands over a sealed envelope with $300 in crisp new bills, all the while declining to give her name or accept any signed receipt for a tax deduction she could use when she mails her 1040 to the IRS next April?

This wonderfully reckless Christmas spirit spreads its secular wings hither and yon at times like these. It even dares to hope for a little repetition after the tree's colored lights are packed away.

Not everyone may hear the magnificent church choirs or the simple retold story of faith vaulting from a manger in Bethlehem. But at this holiday time, everyone who gives the Christmas spirit half a chance is likely to feel the hope it engenders.

Christmas is a magnificent celebration of religious faith, of course. But it goes beyond that, too, with a confident spirit that enriches the secular as well as the religious.

The message of the holiday spirit -- good will to all -- suggests a gift that anyone can give and anyone can receive. Cynics aside, it's another of those exchanges where those who offer the gift are likely to benefit as much as those who get it.

Merry Christmas!

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