I'm a Christmas Grinch.
If you met me, you would find this surprising. What I mean is, I kind of look like I wouldn’t be. I look like one of those moms who loves to bake and decorate and Christmas carol and wrap presents with decorative bows and fancy paper.
But that’s not me. I jokingly tell people that my favorite day of the year is the day I get to put away the tree. Except, I’m not joking.
Because of my holiday humbug, over the past couple of years, I have implemented a few new traditions with my family. Most of them involve going out to eat. Yes, that’s right. I don’t want to cook a big turkey either. I especially don’t want to clean up a big turkey and all that goes along with it.
I have a close friend who’s the morning DJ for a popular radio program and I just told her I can’t listen to her station anymore until after the holidays because they’ve now started playing nothing but Christmas music. No one was meant to listen to The Little Drummer Boy that many times.
If you were to ask me what my issue is with the holidays – and trust me, many people do – my standard response is, “No one tells you that Christmas is so much work when you’re the mom.” And, it’s true. When you’re a child, Christmas is all about the tree and the gifts and the decorations and the parties and . . . did I mention the gifts?
But, when you’re the mom? You realize that someone actually has to go and buy those gifts and wrap them and plan that party and cook that food and bake those cookies and drag that tree out of the attic (heaven help the people who actually go and cut theirs down!) and hang the ornaments (only to have to box them back up three weeks later) and schedule the family Christmas photo – and then survive the family Christmas photo shoot – and write out the Christmas cards. It’s a lot of work. A lot of work. And, frankly, I’m tired.
The thing is . . . although I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am not one-of-those moms – the ones who love to participate in all the Christmas activities – I haven’t quite found a way to suppress the guilt that comes along with the realization that I am not. Because, there is, in fact, a part of me that feels like I’m letting my kids down.
I think it was my lack-of-Christmas spirit, and my desire to turn this whole holiday irritation and my poor attitude around, that led me to the Walmart layaway department last year four days before Christmas.
I approached the man behind the layaway counter – a young boy, really. “I’d like to pay for someone’s layaway items,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said, barely looking up at me. “What’s the name?”
“I don’t have a name,” I told him. “I need you to pick one.”
“Huh?” His head popped up.
“I want to pay for the layaway items for a stranger. About a hundred dollars’ worth. And, I’d like you to pick someone who has toys on their list.”
A blank stare greeted me. “Uhm . . .” he said, his voice bearing the tone of someone who thinks you might be a bit off your rocker. “You’ll need to speak to my manager about that.”
“Can I help you?” the manager asked, as he walked over to the counter. I explained to him what I wanted to do. His blank stare eerily resembled the other employee’s.
“You want to do what?” I was beginning to wonder if I wasn’t speaking English anymore but instead, my words had morphed into some foreign Martian tongue. This was beginning to seem like a very bad idea. Nevertheless, I repeated myself.
Those last words must have come out clearly, though, because instantly the manager came to life. “That is awesome,” he said, joyfully. He then motioned, excitedly, to two other employees. “Come over here! We get to play Santa!”
Within seconds, each employee had a stack of receipts in hand, while the manager searched through his computer records. “What letter of the alphabet should I start with?”
“Uhm . . . I don’t know,” I said. Then, just to make it easy, I closed my eyes and put my finger down on a Walmart flier on the counter. “S,” I said, looking at the letter I had landed on. “And don’t forget, they have to have toys on the list.”
After a little bit of searching, we had a name. I don’t even remember it, but I do remember the list included items that led me to believe the woman was buying for a young boy and a preteen girl. Perfect, I thought. I have kids around those ages, too.
I paid the woman’s bill. It came to just over one hundred dollars. On the back of the receipt I wrote her a note. Merry Christmas. God loves you. Love, A Secret Santa.
After making the manager promise he would call this woman (Right away, he vowed!), I walked out of the store. I felt happy about what I’d done. It truly felt good to give.
Two days later, I was back in Walmart, this time searching in the electronics department for a Christmas present for my family.
“Hey, you’re that lady!” I glanced up. Next to me stood the manager.
“Hi,” I said, shyly. “Did you call the woman about her items?”
And then, as animated as if he, himself, were one of Santa’s elves, the manager told me an incredible story of how he never got around to calling the woman because she walked into layaway not long after I left. Before she even told him her name, she said she was going to have to put away some of the items on her list because she couldn’t afford them. When the manager realized who she was, he told her, “You don’t have to put any of them away. They’re paid for.”
He said her confusion was enormous. She kept insisting they couldn’t be – and he kept insisting they were. Then, she hounded him to tell her who had paid for them, certain she must know the person.
“I told her, I promise you, you don’t know this woman,” he told me. “I told her how you were a stranger and we just picked her name from a list.”
He then said the woman started to cry. The manager looked like he might also start to cry. I must admit, I kind of wanted to cry, too.
“That was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever been a part of,” he told me. “Thank you.” And then he walked away.
As I got into my car and drove home, I realized something. I will never be the mom who bakes ten dozen different cookies for the neighborhood cookie exchange. And, I will never be the woman who decorates her house with a thousand colored lights for the holidays. But, that’s okay, because Christmas isn’t about the decorations and the meal and songs we sing. It’s about a gift that was given to us many, many years ago. It’s about the way we love our families. It’s about the way we show that love to those around us. It’s about the memories we make, not the stuff we accumulate. That’s the joy of Christmas. And it took the layaway department at Walmart to remind me of that.
This year, right before Thanksgiving, I told my ten-year-old daughter that she and I and her six-year-old brother were going to spend Thanksgiving morning feeding the homeless. I must admit, I was a bit apprehensive about her response. We could, after all, stay home instead and watch the Macy’s Day Parade on TV.
“Really?” she said, delighting me with her words. “That’s great. I feel really good about that decision.”
I smiled and gave her a big hug. Me, too, baby. Me, too.
And then, as I kissed her head, I thought, maybe – just maybe - I’m not letting my kids down after all.