“Reality shows” on TV are popular right now. Correct? So then, why is it that maybe the two biggest box office hits this season will be fantasy movies: Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnai?

Is it because “’tis the season”? You know, it’s the time of the year to create a fantasyland with Christmas trees and lights and Santa and the Nutcracker Ballet and cookies and presents and Christmas music and dress up party clothes and It’s A Wonderful Life. . . . and, of course, lots of booze. It’s the Magic Kingdom without having to fly to Orlando.

People all around the world can get into Christmas. Right now the lamp posts in the Ginza, the “Miracle Mile” of Tokyo, are decorated with Santas and giant plastic candy canes and Italian lights. It isn’t only baseball that the Japanese have acquired from us.

We all know that it’s make-believe, but so is Halloween or the Circle Theater or many kinds of real play. Fantasy can be a break, a time out from the stresses of reality that refreshes the spirit. We say that we set the whole thing up “for the children.” But we know that”at least vicariously”even we who have been around the block a few times can get sentimental and romantic when the whole family is together opening presents.

Here’s the question. Does the product deliver as advertised? I mean, will getting into the Christmas fantasy make you happier, more joyful, more at peace? The answer”from what I have observed”is that it will make you happier if you are already happy. If things are going well for you”the kids are getting good grades, you get along with the in-laws and you have a job that pays enough for you to deal with the credit card bill you get in January”then the whole Christmas fantasy will make you happier.

But if life has been rough lately”if you’re newly divorced, been diagnosed with cancer recently, worrying about a child who is on drugs or poor”then the holidays can be something to just get through and survive.

So far, my holiday season has been anything but a fantasy. My father-in-law had a massive stroke on November 11, was put in hospice care on November 18 and died on November 22. His funeral was Sunday.

Instead of the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, we found ourselves reading the Twenty-Third Psalm. We spent hours at his bedside. The family was all together, but not for the purpose of opening presents. It was reality, a huge dose of reality. Heavy decisions were made. Decisions about “do not resuscitate” and how to involve the grandchildren in Grandpa’s last days.

The whole experience was hard. It was emotional and exhausting, especially for my wife and her brother. The funny, unexpected thing about it, though, is that I think it is enabling me to get more out of Christmas than I have in many years.

Why? First, I believe, it forced me to deal with reality. Watching my father-in-law die forced me to face my own mortality and thereby get my own two spiritual feet more firmly on the ground. Second, especially by being in the hospice environment, I was able to see many acts of compassion and competence in the midst of loss. You might say that I saw the Christmas spirit in action. Third, I was reminded of how important it is to have faith, family and friends.

The net effect has been that I feel more ready to look reality straight in the eyes and not be as intimidated as I used to be. If it had been a fantasy vacation I had been on, I would be dreading the time that it would end and I’d have to go back into reality.

We should know better, I think, at least we who are Christian. Because if you read the Bethlehem story without sentimentalizing it, it was a very difficult experience. Pregnant before they’re married, Joseph and Mary are forced by an occupying army to travel to a town where Mary gives birth in what amounts to a homeless shelter, a stinky, cold, unsanitary stable.

Anything but the Magic Kingdom. And the story goes on to say that Mary and Joseph flee from Herod’s bloodthirsty baby killers and become refugees in Egypt until Sadaam”I mean Herod”was out of the picture.

In other words, the story that started this whole Christmas thing was much more a reality show than a fantasy movie. And the purpose of the story was to bring good news precisely to the ones who are going through a divorce or have been recently diagnosed with cancer or whose kids are in trouble with the law. Those shepherds who visited the stable, they were bottom of the barrel in terms of social class. As the story goes, it was only poor people and foreigners who even noticed what had happened.

There are two stories being told at Christmas this year. One is a reality show. The other is a fantasy. Both can be a blessing, but they work differently. Understand the difference and invest yourself in each according to what they’re worth.