It's another Christmas Day, a time for celebration, gratitude and reflection.
Another busy month of shopping, holiday duties and visits with friends and relatives has escorted us to today. Yet through it all, I'm bothered by something and I wonder if you are, too.
I couldn't find Christmas this year. I had gradually misplaced it in the maze of day-to-day stresses, not unlike gas oozing through the ozone layer, and retrieving it was a task unto itself.
The year has not been easy. My father died in January, and the first Christmas without him has required special doses of strength. If you've lost a loved one who lived a long and happy life, take comfort in the fact he or she enjoyed many beautiful Christmases and that, tragically, so many people die before their time.
As for me, I decided to conduct my own search for Christmas. I owed it to my dad, who supplied so many joyous holidays to those around me. I was determined to reconnect with the day and all its important lessons.
So I set out on a little journey that took me from Tenth Street Plaza to public parks to country fruit stands. Simply, I asked the question: What is Christmas to you?
A financial consultant from Turlock, clearly in a hurry with coffee cup in hand, barely stopped.
"Christmas is the birth of our savior Jesus Christ," he finally said. "There is an awful lot of commercialism and tough times financially, so maybe people are looking a little more inside and what's important. That's my hope."
No argument there. This is a downsized Christmas. Fewer homes are decorated by lights and there are countless empty buildings where stores formerly thrived. My visit to a shoe store was stopped cold by the sight of empty shelves and locked doors — another business destroyed by the recession.
Children, to whom we need to pass on so much this time of year, requested more practical gifts, such as socks, over pricey computer games. In that light, we're constantly pointing out the meaning of Christmas to our youth when the opposite is true — they're showing us. Perhaps this stems from kids hearing their parents fret about home foreclosures and bill-paying.
"This whole year has been back to the basics for a lot of people," explained a culinary student from Modesto who also serves as a volunteer for The Salvation Army.
"Christmas to me is making a difference in others' lives," he said. "In general, Christmas is coming back to what it should be. People are giving gifts from the heart. When people are in economic lows, they begin to question everything in their lives. They don't know who they are anymore."
Are we that blinded by bottom lines? Could be. I heard Christmas background music in a store the week after Halloween, which puts a cryptic spin
on living Christmas year-round.
A Modesto convenience store manager believed only 25 percent buy into the traditional Christmas message of holy day over holiday.
"Everyone else goes with the flow," he said.
Look, my mission was not to judge Christmas religion by religion. I sought a new hookup, a refocusing with the spirit of the day.
I got there after a chat with a driver of a concrete mixer truck, a thoughtful man who had just paid his water bill.
"I have an obligation and a responsibility to show favor to other people, even though I might not have the means to give them material gifts," he said. "I think Christmas is based on the act of giving through love and not expecting anything in return."
Just like that, I was redirected onto the right road.
My personal all-points bulletin served as a reminder of what we're doing and why we're doing it each Dec. 25. Thankfully, I learned again about Christmas, the down-in-the- gut reason for the season.
It's opening a heavy door for a lady with her hands full, on Aug. 10. It's getting cut off in a freeway lane and not road-raging as though you've been singled out for injury. It's picking up trash on the sidewalk when no one is looking. It's the extra phone call to a friend in need. It's a kind thank-you to everyone from the grocery store checker to a hardworking waitress.
Most of all, it's loving your family, which leads me to the best gift I'll ever receive. It came in the form of a hug from my wife and a smile from my 12-year-old daughter.
There it was, unmistakable and as clean as fresh snow.
Once more, I found Christmas. May you never lose it.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.