When he was smaller, my son attended an elementary school with a curious picture near the carpool line. One Christmas, across the street from campus, a homeowner had drawn a large mural of the Nativity on an outside wall of the garage. Perhaps because it was too difficult to remove, the mural stayed up year-round.
At first, the sight of the creche beyond the holidays cheered me. In the dull, gray days of January, after everyone else had tucked away their wreaths, stowed their ornaments and dragged their denuded Christmas trees to the curb, I could collect my son from school each afternoon and spot the Holy Family still shivering in Bethlehem across from the big yellow buses — a continuing promise of peace on earth, good will toward men.
Mary, Joseph and the babe in the manger stayed into March, as the grass greened and I picked up my son for the Mardi Gras break. The most famous trio of the New Testament remained into May when the school fell silent for the summer. They were there to greet us as we returned to the carpool line in August, dropping off our children to swelter through the first weeks of another school year.
But somewhere in those stretch of days past December, the manger became for me not a comfort but an agitation. The persistent presence of the Christ child summoned me to a spirit of kindness and grace that seemed exhausting. It was hard enough to keep Christmas for a few weeks each winter — to smile more, to give more, to forgive more than was my habit. To be a citizen of Christmas every day seemed impossible. I didn’t like this daily reminder of my spiritual limitations. It was, like any call of conscience, a mirror in which I saw my imperfections clearly reflected.
My son grew older and moved to another school. I no longer saw the manger each day, and the thought of Christmas conveniently subsided. I could go back to keeping Christmas once a year, a small space in an annual calendar crowded with the many other things that fill a life — the deadlines of professional ambition, the hum of errands and appointments, the hundred daily urgencies that tug me into what is ephemeral, away from what is eternal.
But the sight of that manger in spring, summer and fall altered my perception of Christmas in a way I can’t completely ignore. The manger is there year-round whether we choose to see it or not. That’s why Christmas, properly observed, is a little bittersweet, I guess. It asks us to make a habit of human goodness, a journey fraught with stumbles.
The true miracle of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” isn’t Scrooge’s overnight conversion but the discipline of generosity he embraced the rest of his life. He heard the manger’s call beyond Christmas, something I’m still trying to do.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.