When My Heart Finds Christmas
I confess it freely: I am one of those insane Christmas geeks. I get excited when JoAnn’s has Christmas stuff out in July. I have White Christmas memorized – not just the song, but the whole movie. I sing Christmas carols in April. I’ve had my tree up as early as October 10th.
Except for this year. This year, I didn’t hire the seasonal help that my church typically has, so I have been slogging through 14- to 17-hour days, doing all the Christmas work that needs to be done but without the usual Christmas joy that gets me through it. I haven’t watched a single Christmas movie or listened to much in the way of Christmas music, and my tree is still in its box in the garage. I wasn’t sure that I was going to get much out of this Christmas season at all, and it was breaking my heart.
Tonight, tired and ragged, I walked into the grocery store that is a few blocks from my church. It’s a regional chain with less to choose from than I would like, but I often shop there out of convenience – just 3 blocks from the office and I drive right past it on my way home. I picked up ingredients for tacos and got in line at the check-out.
I was only half-way paying attention to the woman in front of me tell the cashier about how excited she was to go home and make pudding for her granddaughter, just as her grandmother had done for her when she was a little girl. She was going to put sprinkles on top, just like her grandmother had. It made me smile and miss my grandmothers, both of whom have been gone for several years. I thought about the date-nut pinwheels that my Gramma M made every Christmas for me and my dad. I thought about the Jello Easter eggs my Gramma R made every year. Grandmas (or “Grammas,” as we called ours) help make holidays special, and now that mine are gone, holidays are just a little bittersweet. I had brief flashes of this woman and a little girl having their pudding together, and it made my heart happy.
“How are you going to pay for this?” the elderly cashier asked.
“With my EBT card,” the woman said, swiping the food stamps card with her right hand.
“That’s not enough.” The cashier seemed pretty irritated.
“How much is left? I think I have some change in my pocket,” said the grandmother, digging in every pocket she had. She came up with about $0.39.
“$1.13. You’ll have to put something back.” The cashier almost spit the words at her.
“THIS IS MY CHANCE!” I thought. This is my change to cross something off of my Random Acts of Kindness Bucket List: to help a stranger pay for groceries they can’t afford themselves. Granted, it was a pretty small amount, but just think: I could help her, she would have a better night, and get to make pudding with her granddaughter! I could go on with my night, having done something to help someone enjoy Christmas, which would help me feel more festive, too. I opened my wallet, pulled out a dollar and a quarter and held it out to the cashier.
“Here, I’ll take care of it.” My hand just hung there.
“No. She’s already on food stamps so she has to put something back,” the cashier said, picking up the phone to call the supervisor to come override the computer so that she could take something off.
“No, really,” I said, holding the money out even further. “It’s not much, and I want to.”
The grandmother was shrinking, still trying to come up with more change in her pockets, still coming up empty. I was getting increasingly frustrated with the cashier who wasn’t taking my money. The supervisor came over and tried to back things out of the system, but wasn’t successful. They would have to cancel the whole transaction, re-ring everything (minus the one item) and hope that the money wasn’t already pulled from the woman’s EBT card.
“I can’t take your money, but thank you.” The grandmother looked like she wanted to crawl into a hole as the cashier glared at her.
“I want to help. I’m a minister, and helping is what I do. Please, let me do this,” and with that, I reached around the scanner and planted the money in front of the cashier. “Take the money already.”
The cashier gave me the stink-eye, picked up the money, cashed out that last bit of the bill, and silently rang up my groceries while the grandmother thanked me and I wished her a Merry Christmas. I paid for my food, wished the cashier a Merry Christmas as well, trying to be kind to a woman who had just succeeded in making me furious about what should have been a happy thing. I stopped to say hi to Mike, the bellringer who was outside the store, got to my van, and sent a furious message to my friend, who shared my outrage at the horrible treatment that the cashier gave the woman. “It’s CHRISTMAS! Can’t she even be nice at CHRISTMAS!? Who cares if she’s on food stamps, if someone wants to help, who is that miserly old cashier to say that I can’t?”
Over the next few hours, somehow, despite my expectations and my rants, Christmas finally hit me, but in a way that is different than it has before. I don’t think that we’re wrong to celebrate Christmas with cookies and pageants and twinkling lights – I think that all these things that bring joy to us also bring joy to God, who loves it when His creation has fun.I think He gets a kick out of kids wearing bathrobes as shepherds and tinsel halos as angels while they sing carols in front of a sea of adoring camera phones.
Yet Christmas isn’t about that. Christmas is about God doing something for us that we could never do for ourselves. We could dig in all of our pockets until the sun falls out of the sky and never come up with enough to bail ourselves out. God offers His grace through His Son, and sometimes, we hold off on accepting it because we are embarrassed about needing it. Grace that the world resents, because it would like nothing more than to throw our destitution back in our faces.
My heart finally found Christmas tonight, but not in the way I expected. Not in the pageant I saw Sunday night, not in the carols coming from the van radio, but in the grocery line, digging my heels in (as my mother would say), determined that my love for this stranger was going to defeat the unkindness coming from the cashier. I’m glad to say that this Christmas, love won again, and I hope that that little girl has many more years of pudding with her grandmother.