For all its buildup, which for some begins as early as October, Christmas is something which we seem to be anxious to discard once it has arrived. Letís clean up the gift wrap, move out the merchandise and tear down the decorations. Valentineís Day is approaching, for goodness sakes, and weíve got to get ready.

Iím no longer one of those who decry the trend that has found people announcing the approach of Christmas earlier in the year than many believe appropriate. You say youíve seen Christmas decorations on the shelves next to the Halloween costumes? OK, maybe that sounds a bit premature, but now that itís Dec. 28, consider: Doesnít Halloween seem like just yesterday?

Even with such an early jump on the holiday season, the end-of-the-year time crunch always hits. As a result, it can be difficult to find much good will during the month of December. Travelers nerves are on edge as they fight crowds and weather to get to their destinations. Shoppers find parking impossible, check-out lines incredible and the selection of most-desired gift items dwindling.

We have this image of sugarplums dancing in our heads, the ideal of a perfect Christmas illustrated to all of us in television specials and holiday cards showing families gathered around a fireplace while snow falls on the pine-forested backyard visible through the picture window.

USA Today reported last week that many Americans are challenging the hectic schedule we set for ourselves at Christmas, and consciously deciding to slow it down, spread it out and ó above all ó simplify things so they can be enjoyed. They are establishing holiday traditions that arenít so dependent on everything happening on or around Dec. 25.

For example, many families may decide to stay at their own homes and observe Christmas Day in their own way. Then, the big intergenerational gathering at Grandmaís house is planned for some other time ó perhaps at New Yearís or even later in January. Weíve already heard of several people who are making Thanksgiving their family celebration for the year, with Christmas becoming something more private and focused for individual family units. Considering how the weather can turn at the end of December, altering travel schedules to avoid being on the roads or in the airports at that time of year makes sense.

From a religious standpoint, the time period most of us celebrate as the Christmas season actually falls during Advent, the weeks that lead up to Christmas. Christmas Day is the beginning of the celebration, not the end of it. But our secular observance has this reversed, and perhaps that point doesnít surprise some people in the least.

How ironic it is that at the season when the message is the hope of Godís peace in the world ó peace in our hearts, as well as among each other ó that we should lose it in the holiday bustle we unnecessarily create for ourselves. The spirit of Christmas is no longer peace, but stress.

It doesnít have to be that way. Society has set Dec. 25 as Christmas Day, but itís an arbitrary date with no direct association to the event which it celebrates. And its message is so important that it should not be limited to that arbitrary date.

Perhaps it helps to remember that the events which form the Biblical Christmas story did not all happen on one day, or even in one hour, as we might come to believe during those childrenís pageants at church each December. Joseph and Mary were making Christmas preparations for at least nine months, and who knows how long it took the wise men to follow the star and travel to Bethlehem from their homes?

If youíve been enjoying a live Christmas tree for three or four weeks, and itís beginning to get dry and become a fire threat, itís understandable that you may want to take it down soon. But whether your decorations stay up until tonight, New Yearís Day or Epiphany, donít take down your Christmas spirit. The sentiment of ďOn Earth peace, good will toward menĒ deserves to be celebrated every day of the year.

Gene Deason is managing editor of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Friday. He may be reached by e-mail at gene.deason@brownwoodbulletin.com.