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Editorial: A day to celebrate caring for others

Today, as more than 2 billion people prepare for Christmas, our hope is that this holiday will come to be seen in its broadest sense, as a day when people can celebrate the impulse to care for others. That force, it seems, has been with us since the beginning.

Last week, an article in the science section of The New York Times, described one example after another of primitive societies that cared for individuals who, due to bad luck, bad health or an unfortunate confluence of genes, couldn’t care for themselves.

In Vietnam, 4,000 years ago, people were buried lying flat and straight, as they are today, but in one grave discovered by archeologists a young man’s remains revealed that he had been buried in a fetal position. Further study, in a field that has come to be called bioarcheology, revealed that the young man had spent his life bent and crippled so severely by disease that he couldn’t even feed himself. Compassionate members of his family or community had kept him alive for 18 years.

Excavations in Florida revealed the 7,500-year-old skeleton of a boy who, despite having been born with spina bifida, a congenital abnormality in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth, survived for 15 years, a feat that could not be accomplished without a wealth of help. On the Arabian peninsula, a 4,000-year-old grave contained the remains of a woman who scientists believe was almost completely immobilized, perhaps by polio, yet she too lived for 18 years. Her teeth were badly rotted from what scientists believe were efforts by community members to make her happy by feeding her dates.

What do such discoveries have to do with Christmas? Nothing and everything. Christians celebrate the holiday as the birthday of Christ, who, they say, gave his life so the sins of others could be forgiven. But more broadly, it should be an opportunity to celebrate the impulse to sacrifice one’s own well-being, whether by a bit or a lot, for the sake of others.

Expanding the meaning of the holiday does not denigrate Christmas but elevate it. All over the world, Christmas trees and other trappings associated with the holiday can be found in the homes of people who are not Christians and in lands where Christians are a tiny minority of the population. Perhaps that’s because any holiday anywhere that can be commercialized will be, or because it’s only human to look for any excuse to celebrate. But our hope is that Christmas can come to mark not only the birth of Christ but also an opportunity to honor and emulate all those who in ways great and small, give of themselves for the good of others. Merry Christmas.

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