Christmas has been a little ... disheartening this year, for a number of reasons.
One of them is Target.
I went there today. I know, bad idea. I found myself wandering the final aisle, looking for my 4-year-old son's requested box of candy canes for Santa's reindeer - apparently they don't eat carrots anymore.
The aisle was strewn with broken candy canes and broken dreams. People crushed each other up against their carts, careening from side to side - wondering if I can fit between the aisle and the column without smashing the guy next to me ... Nope.
Red and green and gold wrapping paper covered the ground, ripped from end to end, smashed chocolate Santas and opened boxes of 100 Christmas cards with Jesus and snow and Santa on them all over the floor, melting in a stream of muddled brown Starbucks coffee dumped over by a rushing woman carrying a little baby -- no time to pick it up.
The workers were like zombies. This year seemed worse than before.
Destruction and devastation on this scale was more common on Dec. 26.
It's not even Christmas yet.
As I picked my way back to the overcrowded aisle of Frozen cheese balls and Santa Pez, I wondered briefly to myself:
What's the point?
Why are we subjecting ourselves to this misery?
The anger about the recently passed plastic bags ban. The lines. The screaming. The parking lot - no, not the parking lot!
I guess we get gifts for each other on Christmas because we love each other and we want to express that to each other. Because on Christmas God loved us so much that He came to earth in the form of a tiny baby, subjecting Godself to things like hunger and gas and sleeplessness and pain and even death. To defeat death forever on the Cross and promise us eternal life.
And he loved us that much, so I guess we want to respond in some way and somehow our response got mixed up and it became I love you so much that I clicked ORDER on Amazon and shipped you a gift. Easy. Done. No manger, no shepherds, no dramatic flight to Egypt.
$9.99 on Prime. Didn't even have to pick up the phone.
Instead of being the gift, Merry Christmas - the Merry Christmas that meant the revolution of the baby Jesus who came to save the world - that Merry Christmas seems to be an after-thought.
Instead Merry Christmas has become a defense mechanism.
I'm OK. I'm great. I'm busy though. Merry Christmas!
Whew. Didn't want to talk to that person.
As I wandered through the post-apocalyptic haze that was Target on Dec. 22, I contributed to the insanity. I had my phone on speaker with obnoxious hold music because I'd been on hold with a customer service line for a local furniture store for about 25 minutes. It had become one of those calls that wasn't that big of deal but now that I'd waited this long there was no way I was hanging up.
I just wanted to be removed from a mailing list that meant once a week a catalog would be put on my driveway, littering the neighborhood, and on rainy days like today, scattered in mushy torn pieces along the driveway like some haphazard TP job with photos of sectionals and dining room tables.
The garish electronic music finally paused and a woman - a real, live woman! - answered, harried. I told her I'd first been hung up on and now had been on hold 25 minutes.
She was silent a second.
Then said, "OK, what's the issue?"
She was decidedly not sorry about my wait time.
I explained to her the issue and she sent me to the 1-800 number, that she couldn't help me. I tried explaining more, pretty patiently.
She cut me off: "Alrighty then. Merry Christmas."
And abruptly, she hung up.
It didn't feel all that Merry.
Once she hung up I found myself wanting to call her back. To say wait: that's not what Christmas is about. Let's talk. We can work this out. Who are you? What's your name? Do you have kids? Do you live here? Do you pray? Do you believe? Does it matter?
I don't think it means what we sometimes think it means.
Merry Christmas isn't a way to get somebody to shut up.
If anything Christmas is about openness. About love. About starting a conversation, not ending one.
About listening, not silencing.
Christmas was the beginning of God's new conversation with humanity, not the end.
So I wondered about the woman on the other end of the line.
Maybe she was facing Christmas alone. Maybe she was grieving. Maybe someone had just given her a bunch of grief. Maybe the other worker hadn't come back from lunch for 3 hours and she was left alone dealing with all these annoying people without a break for hours.
I worked retail for three years and I remember the feeling. The endless line of people. The frustration. The 30-minute break in the windowless room with a microwave. The tiny paychecks. The unfairness. The working holidays.
I was just an anonymous person with an anonymous problem and it didn't really matter.
And we're all under such pressure.
The mortgage the bills the loans the family the health care it never stops the diet the exercise the heart monitor the anti-anxiety meds the addictions the cheating the depression the race the sleeplessness the fear the loss of faith.
We have to pick and choose and some people get to count in our lives and others become these lifeless mirages somewhere off in the distance who don't matter, can't matter - because we just don't want to feel that much anymore. We can't.
I've felt that urge this Christmas. To wall myself off. To sink into the comfort of my little family of four. The two healthy little boys. The loving husband. The Christmas tree. The cookies.
I read the articles from Aleppo and I kind of half look at the pictures. Don't feel can't feel. Look away.
We've been surrounded by death at the church where I work. Good women, good men - we watch them die before our eyes, some suddenly, some much too soon, some bitterly, all leaving behind a hole that cannot be filled.
There's only so many tears a person can cry. I find myself looking through people, like holograms. It's too hard to feel. Too scary. Back to my Nordstrom Wish List.
I heard her voice again saying Alrighty. Merry Christmas.
As though God sent her to wake me up out of my slumber and remind me that
Merry Christmas can't be just words.
I don't really say Happy Holidays. It's Christmas, after all. And if for you it's something else, you can say that to me. We can coexist without denying who we are.
But my saying Merry Christmas doesn't make it merry, especially if I say it to drown out the voices I don't want to listen to, or the feelings I don't want to feel.
Merry Christmas, the world-changing Christmas God created, washes over me as the music plays:
Go tell it on the mountain! Jesus Christ is born!
Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born.
And God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.
I felt my heart cracking open. For the overworked retail workers taken advantage of by our consumerist economy. For the UPS deliverymen and women in the rain. For the slow driver in front of me whose brake lights don't work. The mom who spilled the coffee at Target.
The little boy in Aleppo.
The little girl in Mosul.
The terrified marketgoers of Berlin.
My heart cracked open, and empathy rushed in.
This is Christmas. Not the perfect reindeer leggings. Not the brand new iPhone. Not the tree or the custom mugs or living an unperturbed life.
This is Christmas. God perturbs us, and the baby Jesus is born.
If Christmas does anything, Christmas makes you feel.
God became human so that God could feel.
God became human so that we could feel for one another.
We see God in a human baby.
In the human faces before us in our lives, we see a glimpse of God.
In each other, we see the image of a God who was born, lived and died for love.
That's Christmas. That's the point of Christmas.
Let's not be so busy saying it we miss feeling it.