The checklist of things we do to make ourselves jolly can make us a little crazy instead.
Pictures with Santa, Black Friday mortal combat to get a TV too big for our homes, arranging the decorations, plugging in the Griswold-size light displays, baking cookies, mailing cards, and on it goes.
But what about making room in our hearts in a way that pushes our comfort zone? That’s really what holiday spirit is all about.
I witnessed one of those moments the other evening, as I was running through my own crazy-jolly checklist. I took the boys and one of their friends to see the White House Christmas tree. They threw pennies at the model trains and posed with frozen smiles for a photo in front of the lights.
As we were heading back on that cold, cold night, we watched a homeless man, with his pile of gray blankets, settling down on the Ellipse. I’ve seen it plenty, but you never quite get used to the image of a human sleeping outside, surrounded by such prosperity.
Another family coming back from the tree also stopped to look at the man. The dad, who was pushing a stroller, began to take off his jacket when he saw the shifting pile of blankets.
“What are you doing?” his wife demanded.
“This ain’t right,” he said as he approached the man on the lawn, draping his blue, puffy jacket over the man’s shoulders.
Dad was in a T-shirt for the rest of the walk, powering through the goosebumps. The wife was silent.
About 50 yards out, I saw Dad do the frantic pocket-pat thing that happens when a person can’t find something. “The Denali!” shouted the wife.
Dad sprinted back to the man on the lawn. “Sorry. I left my car keys in the pocket,” he said to the man.
“That would’ve been a hell of a gift, but I don’t need a car,” the man replied. “I’ll keep the jacket, though.”
I love this exchange because it speaks beyond the cruelty of the homeless man’s situation and the kindness that moved the dad to give away his jacket.
That homeless man, the kind of person we often turn away from, or don’t even make eye contact with when we do toss change into his cup — showed such delightful resilience and humor, even when he was sleeping outside.
It’s funny. You can spend big bucks on a ticket to see “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre, to learn the lesson about generosity and the spirit of the season and how it’s good for the soul to give to the poor.
It’s “the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on their journeys,” Dickens wrote in that iconic play we watch at this time of year.
We’ll watch that play and maybe shed a tear over the plight of Tiny Tim. But on the street, the panhandlers who look nothing like Dickensian waifs don’t always tug at our heartstrings.
We have that right here, outside the White House. And that dad with the jacket could have driven his Denali to his comfortable home and he could’ve written a check for a new coat without breaking a sweat.
He was clearly uncomfortable approaching a man who looked so different from him. And he probably didn’t want to be out in the cold wearing a T-shirt. But he did those things. And his act, as well as the charming response from the man who received the jacket, will probably stay with both of them forever.
The holiday spirit is the most delightful, viral trend of the year — the layaway angels — people anonymously paying off the layaways on toys.
It’s giving to those who are poor without judging the way they got there.
It’s stopping to thank the police officers who remember respect and dignity as they protect our communities.
It’s trying to understand what it’s like to be treated so differently every day because of the way you look.
It’s about a retired trash collector in Maryland who used his money to fund a charitable organization to give food and clothing to the homeless of Gaithersburg.
It’s folks in a Northeast Washington neighborhood raising money to buy one of their neighbors a new wheelchair after the old one was stolen and insurance wouldn’t cover a replacement.
It’s about Winston Duncan, an Arlington 20-year-old who just returned from Tanzania after delivering hundreds of donated bikes to remote villages.
Put the frosting down. Scratch the last dash to the mall and stretch a little to help a fellow human being. I promise it’ll eventually feel good.
And that light display you didn’t get to won’t matter at all.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.