For the first 33 years of my life, Christmas meant a kind of exhaustion that most people cannot fathom. Christmas in The Salvation Army is a beast. I’ve experienced it as a soldier (church member), as an employee, and as a officer (minister), and while it’ll surely tick some people off by me saying so, nothing comes close to the kind of busy/exhaustion/pressure that corps officers (local ministers) experience. It turns Christmas into a kind of ultramarathon that can eat you alive. Even when you love Christmas, even though you think you know what you’re signing up for prior to your first Christmas, it is something to survive.
This is the first year that I have experienced Christmas outside of The Salvation Army, and it has been weird, to put it mildly. This perspective is so different, this schedule so befuddling, this setting so different that despite the decorations and music, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Not one little bit.
I’ve gotten to do things that I hadn’t been able to do for years: go Christmas shopping at reasonable hours, bake Christmas cookies with my family, wrapped all my presents in carefully coordinated papers, watch White Christmas, go downtown Chicago (my favorite thing to do all year long), guzzle too many red-cupped doses of Starbucks, and yet, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. I haven’t stood at a kettle, driven bellringers around town, taken a Christmas assistance application, done a TV or radio interview, shoveled a parking lot, gotten cussed out because of the contents of a food assistance box, scrambled to find presents for kids, visited a nursing home, decorated a church building, planned and executed any kind of Christmas program, or any of the other millions of things I spent my life doing. It has been hard watching my tribe continue to live through the monstrous exhaustion, sleep deprivation, soul-crushing emails from headquarters, borderline malnutrition, and emotional swings. I want to rescue them.
It hasn’t helped that my circumstances aren’t exactly what I would like them to be. I’m still looking for work, and I am so not used to living with people anymore, even my parents, and this year, it seems harder to miss my friends who are far away, probably because I’m not so busy that I’m distracted. I’ve gone and gotten myself a boyfriend, CJ, which has been exciting and fun and insane and anxiety-inducing all at the same time (more on that in a different post). It has been freakishly warm with virtually no snow all season, and not even my favorite Christmas albums are helping.
So here it is, Christmas Eve, yet in some ways, it might as well be the middle of February. It just doesn’t really feel all that special.
Hopefully that will change in the next few hours, when my brother and sister-in-law get into town and I go to Christmas Eve service at church. Even while writing this, things have started to look up: an unexpected Starbucks gift from my bff Brandon, listening ears and encouragement from my other bff Melissa, unexpected messages from people in my tribe who have paused to say “Merry Christmas” and wish me well, a text from CJ that made my heart a little happier, and my anxiety is dropping.
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll have some kind of grand holiday offering for you, but today, it lies here: It’s Christmas Eve and I’m a bit of a mess, but I can celebrate the love and kindness of my friends, who see the mess that I am and love me in spite of it.
When I was in seminary, there were two buildings for student housing: one for those who had families, were single men, or older single women, and one for the younger single women. There are a bunch of practical reasons for doing this, but one of the underlying reasons was to keep the single women separated from the single men and families. Even though we all had apartments, there was concern over whether or not we would get too close and cross too many lines. Even as adults who had undergone an incredible amount of screening before admission, we weren’t trusted. Nevermind the fact that single men and married individuals were capable of having affairs; it was very important to keep the younger, unmarried women separate. Unless they had kids, in which case, they were housed in the family building.
This is the case with one of my best friends at the time. She was a single mother, so when we hung out, it was most often at her place so that her daughter could do homework and be at home. She is a person of big ideas, and I was happy to go along with them. One Saturday, I took her, her daughter, another seminarian, and her son to the pumpkin farm that I had gone to while growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. We decided that since we had never made pumpkin pie from scratch before, we would get a few pumpkins and give it a whirl, and the next afternoon, we looked up a recipe and got started.
Holy buckets, Batman, I had NO IDEA how long it would take or how much pumpkin you can actually get out of a pie pumpkin! We carved and we roasted and we mashed and we baked… for HOURS. Neither of us could bear to even look at pumpkin anymore when we pulled the last one out of the oven at about 3:00 a.m. We were both exhausted, and at some point, I fell asleep on her couch. A few hours later, she woke me up and I walked back across campus in the same flannel pants and hoodie that I’d been wearing the night before, to get showered and changed before morning prayers. As I was walking back to my apartment, my path crossed with another friend’s, and he made a joke about me wearing my pajamas to prayers. I told him that I’d been baking all night, eventually crashed on a couch, and was on my way to change. He said OK, and we made more small talk as I walked back to my apartment.
I could not have imagined the kind of crap storm that that night set off. Later that Monday, I was told to go to what is essentially the dean’s office. When I got there, I was totally shocked to be told that my behaviors had been reported, and that I needed to watch myself. Apparently, the time I spent at my friend’s apartment doing homework, watching movies, and baking, was sending out the impression that I was a secret lesbian. I explained that there were usually other people there, but since they were people who already lived in the family housing, it wasn’t as obvious that they were there. I tried explaining that she was one of my best friends, and since we had both just moved hundreds of miles to get there, it was understandable that we would depend on each other for support. It didn’t matter, though. No matter what I said, they weren’t sure that I wasn’t a lesbian and I needed to be careful.
I was floored. I was furious. I didn’t see why it was any of their business, and why the assumption would be that two women cannot be very good friends, but instead, have to be romantically involved in order to spend a lot of time together. We lived in a community of about 100 people, surrounded by a tall brick wall, so we didn’t have a lot of choice but to spend time with one another.
I left the office and called my friend to give her a heads-up, in case she was asked about it. I called my other friend and asked if he had thought that I wasn’t truthful, and he said that he would have come to me about it, not reported it.
A few days later, my little sister and I were walking around a Borders on State Street in Chicago when we walked past some of their Christmas kitch. I’d told her about what had happened, and on the top of one of the displays was a rainbow foil Christmas tree that stood about a foot high. I commented that I should get the rainbow tree for my apartment since they thought I was a lesbian anyways. My sister, always one for egging me on, agreed, and I bought one. Because I had an weirdly massive bathroom counter in my apartment, it ended up being stuck there.
It stood there every day, long past the Christmas season, long after they told me to “finish taking down my Christmas decorations,” in a small act of defiance. I never took it down. In fact, when I went on my summer and Christmas internships, I took it with me. When I moved into my first and second parsonages, I unpacked it and placed it on the bathroom counter where it belongs. It’s my reminder every day to not let them push me around. It’s my reminder to be who I am and not let them force me to hide. It’s hard to miss a rainbow foil Christmas tree; it demands to be noticed.
About six months ago, I was at a regional event where another minister used the word “gay” to insult a kid right in front of him. It’s a knee-jerk reaction for me to call someone on using “gay” as an insult, and when I did, the minister informed me that she was going to say whatever she wants and I can’t stop her. That didn’t sit well with me, so I went to our regional leader about it. When I got done telling the leader what had happened, her tone changed a little and she said “it’s OK, Cindy, I think I know why it upsets you.”
Um. It upsets me because I witnessed a minister insulting a kid. It upsets me because I have an awful lot of friends who aren’t straight and I don’t like the implication that it means that they’re somehow lesser.
Her tone, though, and a few other comments she made, led me to wonder if she thinks that I’m a lesbian, but I didn’t call her on it then.
Three months ago, when I got to my new assignment, I was talking to one of the other ministers, and in the course of our conversation, she let me know that a significant number of other ministers in our region think I’m a lesbian. Apparently, having gay friends, supporting marriage equality, and a rare ally-ish post on Facebook meant, to them, that I must be gay, too. Then, she told me to “tone it down” so that people don’t get the wrong impression.
Tone it down? Mmm, nope. I can’t. I can’t because there’s no need to. I’m not going to stop having gay friends. I’m not going to stop encouraging marriage equality. I’m not going to stop being an ally.
I can’t because all of these moments have given me a teensy glance into what I imagine some of my friends have experienced: uncomfortable meetings with people who get way too far into your business, having the intimate parts of your life serve as gossip fodder for people who are supposed to be your friends, feeling like life would be easier if you did certain things or didn’t do certain things while also knowing that being anything other than yourself would be hell, pressure from religious leaders who are praying for your salvation despite the fact that you yourself have already been forgiven and given grace, feeling less-than-welcome in church despite it being the place that is supposed to welcome everyone… It was nowhere near the stories my friends have shared with me; their stories are heartbreaking and many of them have been able to show much more grace to their oppressors than I think I could muster.
Because of them, I can’t tone it down. Because I admire their faith, kindness, and goodness, I can’t tone it down. Because they’re smart, funny, fantastic people who make every day of my life better, I can’t tone it down. In the last few years, I think I’ve become kind of like my little pride tree: unobtrusive, not shying away from who and what I am, and not going anywhere. And sometimes, like my tree, when the light hits just right, I sparkle.
When I was very young, living in various places across the US Midwest, I knew one thing to be true: the real Christmas was in Chicago. Everywhere else just thought they knew what Christmas was. I, on the other hand, knew the truth. I knew the magic and wonder and love of Christmas was found on the gray and slushy south west shore of Lake Michigan. No matter where we were, we would pack the van, drive hours and hours, have breakfast at McDonald’s on the way, and finally get to a little white house on Hawthorne where my greatgrandmother, Nanny, lived.
This year, I didn’t get back to Chicago before Christmas. I just didn’t have time. A good part of me longs for the melodic chaos of State Street and Michigan Avenue. Even more than the windows at Marshall Fields or the tree outside the Daley Center, though, Christmas was about coming home to the people who made the rest of the days worth living. The people I’ve loved for as long as I can remember, who know every freckle on my nose and who have heard -or witnessed! – all my embarrassing stories.
One of the great things about being a grown-up, though, is that to an extent, you get to pick some of the people who fit into that category. There is no legal, genetic, or guilt-ridden obligation to choose them. They are merely gathered in and held onto, for all the perfect and imperfect reasons.
I got to go home for Christmas this year, but not to the house on Hawthorne. I got to go home to a few of those friends. Over chips and spinach dip at a TGIFridays in the suburbs, my heart was at home again with Jamie, Chrissy (who now prefers to be called Christine), and Brandon. We laughed and crossed every boundary on “TMI” map and made the waitstaff do more than a few double-takes as they walked past.
As I had expected, I didn’t want to leave them to head home, because as I get older, I realize more and more that my home has nothing to do with where I live. Home is with the people who hold all the little bits of my heart. The place where I feel the most at ease is not in my favorite chair in the basement, but in the company of those who ask nothing from me but authenticity. The home where I grew up is not just the brick rectangle with a single-car garage, but the stories of the people who grew up alongside me. Home, in part, is Jamie, Chrissy, and Brandon.
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.