washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Metro

A Season for Kindness

Holiday Spirit Seems to Infuse Even the Grumpiest

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page C01

The holiday spirit is apparently a potent thing: It stays the hand of the ticket-writing police officer, puts a smile on the face of the aggravated airport screener and melts the hearts of even the gruffest of those professional grouches, radio talk-show hosts.

"I have been referred to as too young to be a curmudgeon, but at Christmas it completely falls apart," said Michael Graham, 41, a self-described conservative crank on WMAL radio who admitted this week that he tears up during "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" to the point that he has to go into the other room.

Johne Forges, a screener at Reagan National Airport, is used to dealing with stressed people. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

While we all know we're supposed to be nicer around the holidays, confirmation of seasonal goodwill came from far-flung corners: the 25-person-deep returns line at Wal-Mart, the telemarketers fielding panicked calls to Neiman Marcus, the security officer in charge of keeping peace at yesterday's Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game.

"We are definitely more lenient. The last thing we want to do is make an arrest and take people from their families, or write a ticket or something during the holidays," said Indianapolis police Maj. Mark Carrico, who typically oversees things like hostage negotiations but yesterday was in charge of keeping the peace at the first meeting of the Pacers and the Pistons since their epic fight this month in Detroit. "Everybody's a little bit nicer."

Then there's Chris Matthews.

"Do you know what day it is?" the host of MSNBC's "Hardball" show barked on Christmas morning before berating a reporter for five minutes for not regularly watching his show. His wife, local TV anchor Kathleen Matthews, took the phone in an effort to debunk his grumpiness.

"He may appear to be a scrooge on TV, but in fact he gives giant turkeys to kids on the street and spends every Christmas Eve with his family in Philadelphia," she said. "He's like this all year, but especially so during the holidays."

But the holiday spirit didn't bat a thousand. Postal workers described being tortured by customers this time of year to the point that they don't even celebrate Christmas themselves. An airport baggage supervisor admitted he was happy to go to his second job scanning packages for FedEx at the end of the day because "boxes don't talk." And one woman in Fredericksburg said drivers competing for parking spaces at the mall were giving one another "sign language."

"People can be demanding and sometimes nasty," said Leslie Brown, a postal worker from Oxon Hill who was taking a break Friday morning in the back of the Kingstowne Branch in Alexandria. "I don't feel the need to go Christmas shopping anymore, after coming in here and dealing with customers," she said. Judith Williams, a colleague from Woodbridge who is in her 18th Christmas season with the Postal Service, agreed. "It kind of turns you off a little," she said.

Ibrahim Mousa, a 59-year-old originally from Syria, was the ultimate barometer of the holiday vibe Friday as a greeter at the Wal-Mart in Alexandria, answering questions and checking receipts as waves of people went in and out of the store.

"People nicer," he said in broken English as a woman breezing past brusquely asked her companion if she knew where the car was parked. Mousa's gauge of the holiday is influenced by something else, however. "For me, I am happy all the time because God sent me twin boys. So I don't care if someone smiles or someone else is angry at his wife or whatever."

That Zen approach is what envelops Johne Forges, a tap-dancer-turned-airport-screener "in my forties," in the holiday mood. Surrounded by harried-looking Christmas Eve travelers at Reagan National Airport, Forges described his view: "People are a little more stressed because you're talking about a holiday -- a major holiday. But people have needs. And they are flying because they have a need. So it's not about me here; I have to put my personal problems behind."

The straight-faced Robert Novak, who bragged that in 41 years he hasn't written a Christmas column -- typically a gold mine for sap -- said that although "it's hard" for him to be nice, he tries. "I love Christmas. I do act nicer, but it's hard for me to be jolly," he said.

Graham was transformed from someone sarcastic and austere enough to name his son "Mencken" (for the acerbic writer H.L. Mencken) to someone who this week posted a Web column that likened Christmas to "the scent of a crib warmed by a sleeping baby."

"It's maudlin," he said.

But don't be fooled. Graham had some sharp commentary on how society has degenerated.

In a politically charged, politically correct era, he said, people feel forced to say "Happy holidays."

" 'Merry Christmas' has gone from being the most genteel of greetings to something like a gang displaying signs," he said. "There's this attitude that's developed where people throw 'Merry Christmas' like a taunt," he said. Which isn't entirely bad for someone like him -- "and that's fun to watch."

Still, Michael Kahn, a psychologist and "life coach" from Severna Park, said people are definitely more "loving and caring" around the holidays, perhaps because they are more grounded in their personal connections. "I think there's something about this time of year," he said.

Terry Pratchett, Britain's No. 2 best-selling novelist after J.K. Rowling, theorizes that "something" may be quite tangible.

"People have had a drink or two, which always helps, and they are weighed down with a lot of food as well," the contemporary fantasy master said yesterday from his home in Salisbury, England. "The whole thing causes a genial, reflective mode of being."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company