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I find it ironic that the season that brings out the best in people also brings out the worst. My husband and I went Christmas shopping at the mall (as much as we tried to avoid it, there were things that just couldn't be found elsewhere) and I was amazed at all the dour, unhappy faces out there. No one seemed to be enjoying their task as they purchased gifts and marked them off their list; lines were long and tempers were short.

Why? Is it because of the economy? Are people stressed over not being able to provide the lavish gifts they're accustomed to giving? Or have so many years of commercialized gift-giving sapped the spirit from the season? Maybe it's a combination of all those things and more but it started me thinking.

Last year, our finances were radically different from what they are today. We had little to give to anyone, including ourselves but through the generosity of others and our family, we had a lovely holiday that we never expected and it filled our hearts with love and gratitude. It was a humbling experience but good for character growth and I know I appreciate our blessings so much more for having gone through it. I'm also more compassionate and understanding when it comes to those who are going through similar struggles because I've walked a mile in their shoes and I know how hard it is to hold your head up and keep that chin lifted when all you want to do is cry.

So, this Christmas as I made my purchases for my family and friends, I didn't stress about the money I was spending. I made careful, thought-out purchases, looking for gifts that would have some kind of meaning or purpose instead of just buying something - anything - to stick a tag on it. I tried to shop locally as much as possible because I know how hard times are for businesses to make it right now and I tried to not get sucked into the commercial machine that churns most people up and spits them out broke and unhappy after all the hoopla is over.

My attitude adjustment has enabled me to smile while others are frowning; take a deep breath and rein in the acidic comment that might otherwise have flown from my mouth when aggravated; and laugh off the rudeness of strangers.

I read something a few months ago that has really stuck with me and it's appropriate for the holidays as well. It went something like this: Be nice. No matter how hard a day you're having, someone else is going through something worse.

Boy, that's the truth. When I think of my sister, Kristen, and what she goes through on a daily basis with her son as well as her own health - and now financial worries - I realize I have little to complain about. My children are healthy. My husband is employed. We can afford our monthly obligations. These are blessings. We can't take anything for granted in this day and age. We are in a recession, heading toward a depression if the state of the nation doesn't improve, and no longer are we shocked by the news of more foreclosures, sky-rocketing unemployment, and out-of-control health care costs. So, yes, we all should count our blessings - small as they may seem - because the person standing next to us may have even less in their lives to be thankful for.

My heart goes out to every mother who is crying right now because she has nothing to give her children aside from her love; I know her pain and I've cried right alongside her.

My eyes water for every man who is struggling to find a job to provide for his family but each day comes home empty-handed from his search. I know his despair and I've walked beside a man who has felt that defeat.

This Christmas - whether your holiday is bountiful or slim - remember this:

What goes up must come down and you never know when you might be on the other side so be nice out there. Say "Thank you" and offer "You're welcome." Open doors. Give a stranger your kindness instead of your bad temper. There are many ways to pay it forward and sometimes it's as simple as a smile.

Merry Christmas, Oakdale.

Kim Van Meter is a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader, The Riverbank News, and The Escalon Times. She may be reached at or by calling 847-3021.