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Editorial: Look past gifts this holiday season

People crowd the first floor of Macy's department

People crowd the first floor of Macy's department store as they open at midnight in New York to start the stores' Black Friday shopping weekend. (Nov. 23, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

Finally, the joys of this holiday season, for so many, are near. The hubbub and hustle, hopefully, are almost done.

But this year, perhaps more than ever before, there is a flavor of contradiction, a dissonance. How badly do we want all the things we've been chasing through a frenzied holiday season, and how much of it will we need to buy before we can be satiated? Much is spent on hollow glitter and not enough on deep relationships or thinking about the fate of mankind.

In September Pope Francis, who will celebrate his first Christmas as pontiff Wednesday, speaking to a crowd at Mass in St. Peter's Square, said: "Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the center of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings." He is not the first to say such things, but his words on charity and godliness and love and spirituality have had an astonishing resonance.

There is growing discussion about income inequality and lack of opportunity, what they portend, and how to combat them. There is fear that disadvantaged children are suffering poor education outcomes, and a belief that such outcomes, once cemented into place, are nearly impossible to overcome. Even for some who have college degrees there is sense that their grasp on the middle class is slipping.

Now, more than any other segment of the year, is the time to ponder those concerns.

The madness of this season starts on Thanksgiving, if not before. For many, the giving of thanks is cut short by a headlong rush to the stores, trying to get a head start on the perfect Christmas, or just make a living. There are deals to be had, crowds to beat. Lost perhaps are opportunities for snuggles with children and grandchildren, late-night board games or favorite movies. Squandered is the chance for a good night's rest and a good morning's breakfast, scrunched around the table with generations of family.

Still, we can revel in some of this, feeling the season deep in the spirit, deriving joy from the efforts. Some minimize the commercialism and maximize their capacity for charity and reflection.

But there is so much to get done, to buy, to plan. There are the office parties and those held by friends, the school events, and visits. There are the presents for children and parents, spouses and siblings, and for a host of others for whom we have no idea what to get. There's the grocery shopping and long hours cooking, the traditional cookies, the meals, and something to take to every one of those visits.

It is all done out of love. The presents, the meals, the gatherings and wrapping frenzies and trees and ornaments. But how much do we need? To what extent can all this grasping and buying and wanting and hurrying coexist in our hearts with sincere desire, and efforts, to make the world a better place and succor those least among us?

Perhaps, to access that something more, we must try for less.