I'm normally with those who grate their teeth on seeing Christmas lights and ornaments on store shelves in September. Do we really need to celebrate this holiday over the last third of the year? Can't we have a little fun with Halloween and Thanksgiving before the tinsel comes out?

The shared Christmas Creep outrage has hit new heights this year. Over the past week, the late summer arrival of holiday lights and ornaments at Costco and other stores has generated national and local TV news stories, not to mention crabby tweets and Facebook posts lamenting the merchandise's early arrival.

Granted, this ranks at the bottom on the list of life's problems. But it's still irritating to many, which is why I'm surprised I'm not among the unusually noisy chorus of complainers this year.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not rushing out to drape the shrubs with lights or dragging down the faded plastic Frosty from the attic. The skeptic in me still says this is an attempt by retailers to guilt thrifty consumers into opening their wallets.

But I'm not as outraged as usual. Seeing the shiny reds and greens has brought an unexpected measure of comfort, and I suspect I'm not alone. This year has been a difficult one for many. Global economic problems are deepening, and the political discourse keeps reaching new depths of ugliness. Our political leadership, and those angling for it, have not inspired confidence.

The holiday goods this year are a welcome break from all of that. I'm still rolling my eyes at seeing Santa in September. But even the cheesiest plastic Christmas critter has the ability this grim year to conjure simple pleasures from Christmas past -- from baking cookies with my mom to coming home from work and seeing our house lit up on a dark December night.

Those traditions loom ever more important as we get older, and they sustain us anew each year. Amid all the uncertainty, it's nice to know that straight ahead are family gatherings, colorful lights, the smell of sugar cookies in the oven and the contagious glee of kids eyeing up presents under the tree.

A wise colleague smiled when I told her of all this, then e-mailed me the lyrics of a song from the musical "Mame." It tells the story of a down-on-their-luck family during the Great Depression who put up Christmas decorations far too early. The song's title provides the reason: "We Need a Little Christmas.''

A little early Christmas seems appropriate for 2011, too. And that's why I bet many of us, including those who are outwardly grumbling, will nevertheless steer our shopping carts through the holiday section for the little lift it provides.

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Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.