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The date was Sept. 17. I remember it because it was remarkably early – the earliest I can remember seeing such a thing.

I had driven to the local Lowe’s Home Improvement store to buy collard plants for our little garden and a hook latch for the screen door. Nothing unusual about that.

But when I walked from the garden center into the main store, what to my wondering eyes should appear but a full-on display of more than 30 artificial Christmas trees, mostly strung with lights, plus a tall display rack filled with inflatable yard decorations.

Multi-ethnic Santa Clauses beamed from the top rack, along with Mickey Mouse, a giant Nutcracker, Rudolf and the Holy Family.

Cheerful polar bears prowled among the reindeer. A lighted circular archway was marked $298, a “Merry Christmas” yard art pickup truck was going for $398, and a mailbox for letters to Santa for $310.

Now I know where the Christmas people who light up the neighborhood with giant displays get some of their stuff.

At least 100 artificial trees waited in their boxes for eager Christmas beavers to take them home, along with stockings to hang on the mantle and more celebrative Disney characters than you could shake a candy cane at.

Oh – and Christmas carols were playing in the background. Christmas carols. On Sept. 17.

I don’t know how long the display had been in place before I saw it, but other than year-round Christmas stores in resort towns, it was the earliest holiday offensive I could remember.

I couldn’t help but wonder why. I suppose Lowe’s simply has a marketing plan and wanted to get ahead of the game, but why are so many people so in love with Christmas?

It’s not hard to understand why children are anxious for Christmas: They’re expecting lots of new toys and gadgets under the tree. I can still remember the boyhood excitement of tearing through the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue, dog-earing pages and drawing circles around things I dreamed of getting (and most of them were dreams only).

As adults, we can still get a vicarious thrill from seeing the little tykes and their wide-eyed wonder, even if we stayed up until 2 a.m. trying to get that confounded playhouse put together.

But it’s more than children and gifts under the tree. Many people just love the whole Christmas season, the atmosphere, the hope they might actually experience peace and good will and the spirit of giving.

I’m confident the excitement is not about Jesus for most people – witness the store displays where Santa Clauses and Disney characters outnumber Holy Families by 20 to 1.

It’s true that many of us do look forward to Christmas with greater spiritual intent: We may love the Hanging of the Green and the lighting of Advent candles as we anticipate the annual celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Whatever our motivation, we need to gird up our loins and get ready for a different kind of Christmas this year. Online shopping will continue to displace trips to the mall, and not just for convenience.

Both church and family gatherings, for many people, won’t be the same. Some people will be missing, and not just from COVID-19. Many gatherings, hopefully, will be much smaller than usual because large and prolonged indoor family meals are a perfect recipe for spreading the virus to others.

Do we really want to insist on cramming everyone into the dining room when that might cause it to become Grandma’s last Christmas?

Christmas won’t be the same when we can’t have office parties, when we can’t see smiles behind the masks, when we can’t sing carols together, when we can’t add a hug to our Merry Christmas wishes.

But maybe, just maybe – could that be a good thing? Could a different kind of Christmas give us opportunity to reflect on a night when it didn’t feel like our version of Christmas at all?

There were no Santa Clauses to meet Jesus, no snowmen, no little drummer boy, not even the fancy wise men on that night. Just Mary and Joseph and a few scruffy shepherds, some smelly barnyard animals but definitely no cute reindeer.

I like to think the innkeeper’s stable boy would have been hanging around, offering to run errands, though he isn’t in the story.

We can’t look forward to the same kind of Christmas we’re accustomed to this year. That’s just a fact.

Still, if we spend less time shopping, cooking or traveling, perhaps we’ll take more time to reflect on a bare stable lit by nothing more than an oil lamp, and a gift to the world wrapped in swaddling clothes.

And couldn’t that be a good thing?

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