The holiday season is upon us, and I’m afraid of getting sucked up into the commercialism of it all. I’m not trying to sound like Charlie Brown, but sometimes I feel like the sock that’s added to the washing machine with two minutes left on the wash cycle. Floating around on top for a bit, then sucked down to the bottom of the pile by a big agitator fin. Well, maybe the agitator fin part doesn’t fit right, but sometimes I feel like the commercialism of Christmas is sucking everybody in.
When I was a youngster, Christmas marked a variety of things for my family. All four of us (Mom and Dad, my sister and I) would pile into the car for the annual Christmas shopping experience. It was the one time all year that my father set foot in any type of store, usually J.M. Fields. It was the one of two times that we would eat at McDonalds. (The other time being after our annual dentist appointment – my mother liked to watch us try to eat a Big Mac after being on laughing gas.) And it was my father’s annual trip to Central Farm and Tractor; the place we spent most of the time Christmas shopping.
It was also one of the few times during the year that my maternal grandparents came up from the city for a visit. As I look back, I realize how just a special time it was. My sister and I desperately trying to stay asleep until 6 a.m. and then running downstairs and looking at the few presents under the tree, as Mom was trying to remember where she hid the rest of them. Dad reading the pile of books he had purchased for himself during the shopping trip, looking up once in a while to contribute his favorite adjective-verb… “Huh”. And Grandma and Grandpa sharing the joy with us as opened our presents. We couldn’t actually start opening presents until everyone had their breakfast – french toast and orange juice. That was the rule. And then we would open our gifts, a game or two, some clothes, usually something crocheted by my grandma. As I think about it, we may not have had a lot material-wise as a family, but we did have love and I heard The Chimes.
My favorite writer, Erma Bombeck, often wrote about “The Chimes” around Christmas time. It’s the story of a young, poor boy, following in the footsteps of kings, queens and statesmen that were leaving gifts on the altar. Legend has it that the chimes would not ring unless a true gift of love was left upon the altar. The kings and queens left many riches of gold and fine silk. But the chimes remained silent. And then, this young, poor boy, moves up to the altar. He removes his only possession, his coat, and places it on the altar. The chimes rang beautifully.
As a young kid, I often heard The Chimes. I didn’t know what they meant at the time, but I did have the sense of being loved very much. My sister and I rarely argued. My parents did their best to give my sister and I a happy childhood. My grandparents were very nurturing. But as I grew older, something changed. My mother and father grew apart. My sister and I became teenagers, and well, teenagers don’t hear chimes, they want Atari! And while we were for the most part a loving family, it wasn’t the same as when we were young. As time moved on, we had plenty of material things, but it didn’t hear the Chimes.
As I moved through my twenties, I really took a swing at “commercial Christmas”. One year, I bought my parents a VCR. I was man now and I could afford anything! Good thing they didn’t see my face when the cops called about my bounced check. Another year I bought everyone what I would have rather wanted and didn’t really think about what they would have wanted at all. (“Mom, you really need a new calculator to balance your checkbook!”) And yet, another year everyone got a gift certificate. Boy, to see their faces light up when they opened up the envelope to see a $25 gift certificate to Papa Loon’s pizza emporium. Yeah, right.
But I did hear The Chimes one Christmas. It was Christmas 1991. I was working for Association for Retarded Citizens. I worked in a group home setting at the time, a home for ten mentally challenged adults. Because of the way Christmas fell that year, I was slated to work a 17 hour shift Christmas Day. I could have had the day off, but I opted to work, quite frankly, because I needed the overtime that would come along with working a holiday. After everyone was up and had opened their gifts, one of the folks walked up to one of my co-workers and gave her a present.
“Here, Linda. This is for you. I made it at day treatment.”
“Thank you, Jeanette.”, she replied as she opened it.
It was a construction paper cut out of a Christmas tree, colored green with crayons with little red dots all over it. On the back it simply said, “For Dinla” in huge, clumsy letters.
“It’s very nice, I’ll hang it on my tree when I get home tomorrow.”, Linda told her, with a tear in her eye.
“Really?”, she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“Yep. I promise.”
I heard The Chimes then. And in my heart, though I haven’t seen Linda in a good number of years, I just know that she still has that Christmas tree hanging on her tree to this day.
That Christmas I learned a lot of things. And it made me strive to be a better person. I called my Mom and Dad up and told them how much I loved them. I said a small prayer for my family and friends. I prayed for the soldiers that were returning from the middle east.
Nowadays, the holidays can become very complicated. My parents are separated, so that means separate dinners and separate houses and separate gift exchanges. My sister could be living anywhere between here and Boston so we need to get her schedule coordinated. Plus, Earl’s family lives in suburban Philadelphia, so we need to fit a 700 mile round trip in there to visit his folks, and we have all the nieces and nephews to buy presents for, and Earl gets sick (whoops, that’s a different story), so sometimes its easy to get caught up in the rush of it all. Gift receipts and wrapping paper and Target and bows and cookie platters… it goes on and on.
But every Christmas morning, when I get the camera flashing in my face, and my 41 year old partner jumping up and down with the glee of a ten year old because he’s excited to see ME open MY presents, I hear the chimes. When we sit down for cereal and orange juice, nothing too extravagant for breakfast Christmas morning, and we take the time to bow our heads in prayer, I hear the Chimes. When we pause for just a moment to remember our loved ones, thank our Lord and reflect upon what Christmas is really all about, I hear chimes. When I give him a clumsily wrapped gift of a coaster with two rolls of tape and 10 yards of wrapping paper, I hope he hears The Chimes!
This holiday season, take just a moment to enjoy Christmas for what it really is. Tell your family and friends how much you love them. Don’t give in to the urge to ‘flip the bird’ to the gal in the minivan that just cut you off on the Turnpike. Give that homeless person on the street an extra dollar.
Sit back, and listen for The Chimes.