It's not hard to find Christmas. It's right there on the calendar — that big 25 near the end of December.
But though Christmas is easy to find, finding the Christmas spirit is another thing altogether. There's no telling when it will arrive.
Or sometimes whether it will come at all.
I'm not a Grinch — really, I'm not. I don't want to steal the Christmas spirit from little Cindy Lou Who, or from any other Who down in Who-ville. If the spirit blazes in you while you're still your trading your candy corn for somebody else's Snickers, that's fine with me.
I'm not a Scrooge, either. Not really. I don't begrudge the passing of my pennies when we buy presents for the kids and grandkids. And it doesn't take a gang of ghosts to haul me from my bed to beat the Christmas spirit into me. At least, not most years.
But that doesn't mean that the spirit is always quick or easy in coming, either. It's just that I never know when it will get here.
One local radio station this year tried to tell me that the spirit had arrived on the first day of November, the day after Halloween. I'd tell you which station that was, but I don't remember, because I haven't touched that preset button in the car ever since.
The big-box stores told me that it was time to start ho-ho-hoing as I loaded up the shopping cart with turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing mix a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The store shelves that used to hold bug spray and weed killer were by then groaning under the weight of wreaths and colored lights. But I walked right past them all without a glance.
The newspaper ads screamed that the spirit would be ablaze on Black Friday or on the following Cyber Monday, but at my house that just made the recycling bin heavier than usual on garbage collection mornings.
None of them were able to light the Yule fire in my heart this year. In fact, some of them even Grinchified my inner Scrooge.
But then on Dec. 2, even before I had put up any decorations or addressed a single greeting card, the spirit washed over my wife and me so warmly it brought tears to our eyes.
Because that's when the carolers showed up to sing a few songs to us.
It was nearly half past 5 in the evening, as the sky in the west had begun to blush orange with sunset. It would be time to make dinner soon, but for some reason my wife and I ventured out to the front sidewalk to take in the cooling evening air. Across the street we saw our neighbor Joe, puttering with a few things in front of his open garage door. We waved, and he came across the street to chat.
And then a car rolled by slowly with six people aboard, all of them dressed in red and green. It stopped just past our driveway and parked.
And then another car, and another.
Within minutes a dozen or more cars lined the edges of the street. Red-and-green bedecked folks piled from the cars and walked over to where we stood — more than two dozen of them. Some held folders, which they opened to read. One lady had a string of flashing lights hanging around her neck. One man carried a guitar.
He strummed a chord, and the group sang "Silent Night" to us.
By the end of the song two of the women carolers had tears running down their faces, and when I glanced at my wife I saw why — because although her strokes have left her unable to clap her hands or even to say "Thank you," her cheeks ran wet with the joy of the moment.
And then my eyes were wet, too.
Other neighbors strolled out from their houses as the carolers sang for 15 minutes or so — maybe a half-dozen songs — and we all sang along with them:
"We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
And then, after handshakes and hugs of thanks and well-wishes, as quickly as they had come the carolers were gone, back in their cars to carol elsewhere.
That left us standing there on the sidewalk, a gaggle of neighbors who always share a wave or a smile, but often little else. Erin and Mike from across the street walked over with their three preschoolers — Michael, Jake and Hannah. Some of the neighbors were meeting those little tykes for the first time. Alex, who lives next door to them, stopped tinkering with his Harley and came over to share a word or two.
By now the western sky blazed red and pale green. Not quite Christmas colors, but closer than you might think.
Gradually the group began to splinter.
Some, who had not yet seen the marvelous museum-quality hand-crafted Christmas decorations that our next-door neighbors Tom and Bruce had filled their house with, took the tour. I knew they would all come out with home-baked cookies in hand, as my wife and I had when we stopped in to visit a day or two earlier.
Four other neighbors — Joe and Linda, Dennis and Jane — came over to our house to see some landscaping and gardening projects my wife and I had been working on through the fall.
And then we all traded one more round of hugs and handshakes and went our separate ways. Because, after all, it was just another Tuesday evening in early December, with the everyday dinnertime chores waiting for us inside.
And yet, as the stars winked on in the blackening sky outside, and as my wife and I sat at another quiet meal together, we knew we weren't alone this night.
We felt that elusive but dependable spirit had finally come to sit with us at the table once more.