When does the Christmas season start?

The answer isn't as obvious as it may seem.

It's easy to look at the calendar and pinpoint how many days are left before Christmas.

It isn't easy knowing when the Christmas season starts because the answer is different for everyone.

For merchants, the Christmas season used to start the day after Thanksgiving. That's when they would roll out their Christmas merchandise and holiday displays. That was also the first day families started to decorate their homes.

There seemed to be an unofficial rule that first we celebrate Thanksgiving before we turn our thoughts to Christmas.

Not any more. At first, stores pushed up the Christmas season by playing carols and putting up Christmas displays before Thanksgiving.

This year, it was before Halloween. When I was shopping in an area department store right before Halloween, I was startled to hear a Christmas carol over the loudspeaker.

I guess that's supposed to get shoppers in the mood to buy earlier in the season. It doesn't work for me. Hearing traditional carols before Thanksgiving only means that I tire of them before Christmas.

In my own home, I don't start playing my favorite Christmas CDs until I first feel the spirit. And, for me, that's when my official Christmas season begins – when I feel it in my heart.

I believe Christmas is not a date on the calendar. It's a season of the heart.

The actual time I first "feel" Christmas is different every year.

Sometimes I feel it when I'm touched by the first beautiful hymn of the season.

Sometimes I feel it when I'm moved by the actions and generosity of others as they reach out to help others.

And other times, the calendar creeps closer and closer to Christmas but the meaning and spirit of the day eludes me because I'm too busy.

One year, I didn't feel the beauty of the season until I was in church on Christmas Eve. In the still of the church, I was flooded with warmth and joy, knowing the beautiful peace that descended on me was yet another gift from the Christ child whose birth we were there celebrating.

Before that magical moment in church when I finally "felt" Christmas, I was too wrapped up in the "chores" of the season – the shopping, the presents, the preparation. But a beautiful church service can center us on the reason for the season.

We sometimes can go through all the trappings of the season without being touched by the magic of it all. I think it's more important to "feel" Christmas than it is to "do" Christmas. And we all know it's not one and the same.

I can pinpoint exactly when I first felt the magic of the season this year. It was earlier this month while I was on a boat during our local Lighted Boat parade.

In many communities, people decorate floats and bikes for the town's Christmas parade. Here in southwest Florida, where boats are as prevalent as cars, we decorate and light up our boats.

The sight of dozens of lighted boats reflecting on the water is a stirring sight. I was on my friend's boat, "The Dancing Dragon." Our "job" was to dance as we paraded past cheering crowds. Actually, I was so happy I couldn't stop dancing with joy.

There are routine moments that also warm my heart during this Christmas season. Yesterday, as I was on yet another shopping trip to Home Depot with my husband, he held my hand and hummed "Joy to the World." It was just one moment in time but it was perfect bliss.

Isn't that what Christmas should be?

One thing I like best about Christmas is what it does to bring out the best in us. It's a time when people smile more at strangers and open their hearts and wallets to helping others.

My heart is gladdened by the extraordinary way people are reaching out to those who are struggling to survive during these bleak economic times.

I was touched when one retiree went down to our local homeless shelter with a check for $5,000. He said he couldn't cure homelessness, but at least he could help provide food.

I was even more touched when my neighbor took a basket of food to a food pantry. She herself is struggling. There are times when she runs out of food before her next Social Security check arrives. Just $300 above the poverty line, her meager Social Security check is all she has for survival and she is struggling to pay her mounting medical bills.

But she reaches out to share what little she has.

Isn't that the true meaning of Christmas?

Food pantries are now getting the donations they so desperately need and churches are organizing drives to help those most in need.

When you join in the giving, you are truly getting into the spirit of the season.

If you're slow in getting in the Christmas spirt, make plans to attend one of the cantatas or sing-a-longs in your community. You can't help but feel the joy of the season when you join in one of the area's stirring productions.

When does the Christmas season start?

It starts any time you open your heart to the joys of this special time of year.