Monday, December 28, 2009

Remembering True Meaning

We saw it a couple of times over the last few days in Long Island, though, for all we know it was the same car. The bumper sticker said, "Put the Christ back in Christmas!"

Strangely, even though I'm Jewish, I get it. Something about the shopping panic surrounding the holidays this year rang particularly hollow, seemed not quite right given the shape of our country, the inability of some people, a lot of people, to afford basics let alone have many gift-wrapped boxes under a big expensive tree.

I chatted with a woman in my neighborhood, one of the few religious Christians I know, on the train the other day. She apologized for imbuing His name, but talked about how she had made it through all the stresses of the season remembering Jesus's love.

She explained, somewhat defensively, "It makes me feel better."

I smiled. "That's what all religion should do," I said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Capitalism co-opted Christmas and, for many, it no longer makes them feel better. In fact, it can make them feel worse, unable to give as much as they feel they should as, sometimes, they are expected to. The moment after presents are unwrapped, if you're not careful, is one of the worst of the year. Expectations have been built up over a long period and almost nothing in those boxes could live up to what we imagine in our minds, even if it is what we asked for.

My husband's family gift-giving was aptly more restrained than in years' past and no one, except my 2-year-old nephew, devastated only because he loved to unwrap, shed a tear. A few nice, thoughtful gifts were shared and the deal was done. On with our day, with our weekend, with our year.

Yesterday, as I grabbed a few things at T.J. Maxx for my kids and myself, I joked with the young guy behind the counter.

"Happy, now that the holidays are over?"

"Yeah, I guess," he said.

"People are still shopping, but now it's for themselves," I said. "So they're probably happier..." I laughed.

He looked up at me, stopped ringing my purchases. "Yeah!" he said. "They're not yelling at me anymore!" He shook his head, went back to slowly ringing me up, steam practically shooting out of his ears. "Man..."

The bad memories of mean holiday shoppers clearly filled his head.

"Well," I joked, "better to yell at you than someone at home. You can't retaliate."

The girl at the next register, ringing up someone else joined in. "Right. But it gets bad. By the end of the day, we're all yelling at each other, and then we go home and yell at our families..."

I sympathized. "I worked retail, I remember," I said.

The boy looked up at me gratefully. "So, you were miserable once too?"

I laughed. "Well, it's not as bad as waitressing. Then, when you retaliate at people, you don't get paid, they don't tip you."

The girl responded. "I waitress too. It's a nightmare."

"Well," I said, "you do learn a lot about people..."

She scoffed. "Yeah, you learn they're all assholes."

I laughed. "Well, you have to look a bit underneath that..."

She shook her head. "You're too hopeful."

I smiled. "Sweetie, you're a little too young to give up on people," I said.

The boy finished ringing me up finally. "I don't know how I'm going to get through this day," he said, head on the counter.

"Do you drink coffee?" I said.

"No, Red Bull," he said.

"Well, I bet you're looking forward to your Red Bull break?!"

"You don't even know," he said.

I laughed and waved. "We all need something to make us feel better," I said.

As we drove home, the birds flocking together in harmonious clusters against the blue sky, I felt the warm, fuzzy, post-Christmas relief wash over me. It is always nice, every year, to hear store clerks move from "Merry Christmas!" to "Happy New Year!"

I would hope there could be a correction, like with the economy, where we are forced to look at our actions surrounding Christmas anew, start back at the beginning when the tradition first started with meaningful intent for true believers. I guess our best bet is to just make it meaningful for ourselves and our families and friends. And not be mean to strangers in the process. It is among my many New Year's resolutions to be sure...

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