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For most of my life -- no matter what social media, the retail world, or my neighbors who put up Christmas decorations in October say -- I have traditionally considered the day after Thanksgiving to be the day when the Christmas season officially begins.
Over the last few years, however, I have changed my mind. I now recognize the Childhood Cancer Awareness Group of Coffee County's Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Coffee County Courthouse as the official beginning of Christmas. This ceremony is one of the most significant, moving, and special moments of the holiday season.
The ceremony is neither long nor involved. It is short, to the point, bittersweet, and solemn. It's a time when when the CCAGCC recognizes the children and families who are currently battling cancer and who have battled cancer in the past. The group also remembers the children whose lives cancer has claimed.
As you can imagine, it's not necessarily an occasion overflowing with joy and happiness. Everywhere you look, you see the toll cancer has taken on the lives of children and families in this area. Some have beaten cancer. Some are still fighting. And there are faces who were there the year before but aren't now. There is singing, prayer, and tears.
In spite of the heaviness of the ceremony, it is indeed filled with one important virtue: Hope. There is hope in community support. There is hope seeing children defeat the odds and survive the most dreaded disease of our time.
There is even hope in the white butterflies families place on the tree -- those butterflies represent the children who have passed away. Though they may not be with us anymore, their fight has ended. Their suffering is no more. They have finally found everlasting peace.
Ultimately, that is what the Christmas season is about: Hope, peace, and looking forward to the day when all suffering ends. The holidays are a time when things are supposed to slow down, when we spend time with family away from work and other obligations, when we reflect upon the blessings of the previous year and the prospects of the coming new year.
Unfortunately, that is seldom the case.
The holiday season is one of the most hectic times of the year. We rush from party to party, from family gathering to family gathering -- cooking, preparing, decorating, shopping, and all at a furious pace. There is little time for reflection and reverence. It's all one big blur.
The CCAGCC's ceremony is different. It embodies all that the holidays should symbolize. If your child or loved one is fighting cancer, count your blessings that the fight is still ongoing. If your child or loved one has defeated cancer and no longer receiving treatment, count your blessings that his or her health has been restored. And if your child or loved one has stepped into eternity, count your blessings that friends trod the path with you and your loved one will never be forgotten.
In all things, count your blessings.
Not all the endings the ceremony recognizes are happy. Likewise, the ultimate end of the Christmas story is not happy. The celebration of the birth of a baby on that first Christmas ended with Him bloody, battered, and broken on a cross, a blameless sacrifice offered for a selfish, ugly, and cursed humanity.
And yet, in the brutality of the final chapter of that baby's life on Earth, there is hope, joy, and comfort. That is the message of Christmas. That is the message of the tree lighting ceremony: Even in the darkest of days, there is hope.
That's when my Christmas season opens. And it began this past Tuesday night.
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