I think there was a time when people in general enjoyed themselves and had fun around the holiday season.
I'm not sure when it was, however, because it's been a while.
Now, it seems even if you have the temperament to be happy, you're constantly hammered by warnings, guilt and stress. How often do you hear someone ask, "Why do we do this to ourselves?" or remark what a sick society we've created? That's OK; you don't have to count them up.
How is one supposed to react when 2,000 frenzied shoppers trample a Wal-Mart worker to death? In the past, when you heard about stampedes, they ordinarily were in other cultures involving large religious celebrations, pilgrimages or soccer crowds. A panic would spur movement.
In our society, it was shoppers' obsession for some product probably made in China.
Does it mean that this season's hopelessly tainted, or is there some hope of redemption? We can recover, but making it through the rest of the month may seem like running a gantlet, with bombardment from all sides.
What should we have done on Black Friday, then? Followed the dictates of Buy Nothing Day? Surely, many people did without thinking they were making a statement against commercialism.
You can protect yourself from stampeding shoppers by staying home and buying online, but then you hear warnings about your security and privacy being compromised. So you're extra careful, but then read how important it is to shop locally for the sake of the businesses in your greater community.
With the economy continuing its collapse and our leadership seemingly helpless to do anything about it, people are losing jobs, their investments or their pensions. You think it might be prudent to cut back on spending this year. But the kids don't understand such things, especially if there's a family tradition.
So, following the advice of common sense and consumer financial experts, you decide at least to avoid further credit card debt and set limits. You even decide to try to make the time this year for more homemade gifts.
Then, however, you hear about the health and environmental groups that have been reporting on poisons in many children's toys.
On Wednesday, a coalition of such groups in Albany released its annual "Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Toys," which warned parents about chemicals, choke hazards and other risks posed by popular but dangerous toys.
Great. OK, so in desperation you decide to try the strategy of the family that just couldn't take it anymore and decided to celebrate the holidays without the gift-giving tradition.
Colin Beavan, writing in YES! Magazine, describes how his family had an ordinary Christmas last year with relatives together, music, food and what he termed ``an amazing good time.
``What we didn't have, though,'' he continues, ``was the average American's $800 hole in our bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor did we have the credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts we didn't really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home those unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.''
What his family had instead, he says, was the part that studies show makes people happiest.
After planning accordingly, however, you hear the media reports on tips to keep from looking like Santa after a holiday filled with feasts and treats that can leave you starting the new year unhealthy and unfit.
"The American diet is one of excesses," health writer Dr. David Ostreicher says. "We eat too much, too many calories, too much fat, too much salt and too much sugar. And those elements make up the Foul Four' dietary villains."
Oh, great, now you can't even have a few holiday meals with the extended family you've invited in lieu of gifts, without feeling guilty about what you're eating. Is there no end to this line of club-swinging dangers and stresses you have to endure?
This week, during an editorial board discussion of issues related to the Wal-Mart stampede (See Page D3), one editor asked what had happened to the meaning of Christmas. Another member blamed the whole gift-giving tradition on the three wise men for bringing presents to the manger. If there's a real meaning, it's elusive.
It seems this time of year, many people are caught in a web of expectations and demands, while the only way to free themselves is to give up some of the most pleasant activities they remember.
It is sort of like the tormented guy in the Leonard Cohen song who heard a beggar with wooden crutch caution him that he must not ask for so much, while a beautiful temptress urged, hey, why not ask for more.
We just have to find the middle way.
Cary Brunswick is managing editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at (607) 432-1000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.