Christmas is a time of joy, good will toward others and peace on earth. However, if you get caught up in the reporting of the national media, it can seem more like a battleground.

This year's battles started with the opening day of shopping, which has been creeping up each year and now includes Thanksgiving. This isn't true about the stores in our reading area, but the bigger cities likely drew some of our residents to their Thanksgiving sales, interrupting the family day.

My solution is to stay home. But that likely has no impact on retailers. I have never ventured out for shopping on Black Friday, and the big day is successful as ever despite my absence.

We didn't hear about the war on Christmas as much this year. Some people are offended by the use of the generic holiday greetings in place of Christmas greetings by businesses and others. They shout out their displeasure, usually in a politically-charged way that ends up becoming another "war" on some perceived offensive group.

My feeling is that if people are cheerful, I don't care what kind of greeting I get. Besides, I don't go to stores or look to strangers to find meaning in my holiday.

The annual debate about the division between church and state always seems to come up around this time of year. A recent battle took place in Minnesota when the Rutherford Institute, whose founder, John Whitehead, who occasionally has an opinion piece in our publications, won a battle against a charter school in Ramsey, Minn., that refused to display a student-created art poster.

The poster depicted Tim Burton's "The Nightmare before Christmas" and other secular Christmas icons as part of a student campaign to encourage people to buy school yearbooks as holiday gifts. School officials were concerned with the "religious" implications of the poster because it said "Merry Christmas" and depicted Christmas-related themes.

Attorneys pointed out that the poster is entirely secular and couldn't be interpreted as promoting religion in the school. They also argued that the school had misapplied the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from endorsing religion in the school, but also prohibits censorship of free speech and expression.

There is a fine line between endorsing religion and celebrating religious holidays that are also, in many ways, secular. Some schools tend to go too far toward banning any references that could be interpreted as religion, perhaps not necessarily out of excessive political correctness, but fear of offending anyone or getting sued.

Although schools in our area aren't as diverse as others, they seem to do a good job of finding that balance as Christmas, a holiday of great social significance, is acknowledged without promoting religion. And, over the years, I have seen other religious holidays, such as Hanukah or Kwanza, acknowledged along with Christmas in our schools.

Tolerance doesn't come from subtraction. You can't force tolerance through bans and censorship. True tolerance stems from a basic respect of other people, no matter their beliefs. Schools should be including more education of religions rather than excluding all references to religion.

People in our communities don't have such a "us vs. them" mentality in which the war on Christmas gains any traction. They have also been showing an increasing amount of respect for fellow humans, whether it is in celebration or charity.

Santa's visit used to be just for the kids. Now, communities are basing larger celebrations around Santa, some that rival the annual town festivals with parades and other activities. Getting people out to public functions and interacting with their neighbors leads to a more connected and vital community.

There also seem to be more and more opportunities to share. Whether it's Salvation Army kettles, food shelf drives or programs, such as Toys for Tots or others that provide gifts to the needy, the giving in our area seems to be increasing each year. We've had stories in our newspapers about everyone from a bank president to kindergartners helping those in need this holiday season.

As with so many things in life, the holidays can be what you make of it. So ignore the invented battles at the national level, and connect to your community, your family, yourself.

If you are reading this prior to the big holiday, have a joyful and merry Christmas. If you celebrate another holiday or are reading this after Christmas, here's wishing you Happy Holidays during this extended time of good will.