How I Know it's Christmas

"How many DVDs in a row can your kids watch before it's considered abuse?"

So wonders my friend, who leaves tomorrow on a 20-hour car trip from Florida to Indiana to spend Christmas with her in-laws -- travelling through at least one snow/ice storm, and who knows how many tears and "time-outs." The kids will probably get tired and grumpy too.

I've postponed my travel home twice now, in a vain attempt to get "caught up" with work and home chores, and shopping. At some point you just give up, call it good enough, and then, like magic, Christmas happens. It never seems to matter on Christmas Day -- that last gift you meant to get, the cards you meant to send, the phone calls you didn't return, the to-do list, the work waiting in your inbox. No matter what we do or don't do, Christmas doesn't seem to need our help at all. It simply requires that we stop, be still, and look around us. Then, Christmas happens.

Christmas last year began for me at the stoplight at Holden and High Point Roads. It was miserable mall traffic, and I stewed in holiday stress as I waited for the red light to get out of my way. In front of me was a car packed full with five members of a Hispanic family -- little kids in the back, Mom and Dad in the front. It was the most beat-up early 80's Toyota Corolla on the road. Poop-colored brown, with rust to match; dented bumper, unhealthy combustion cycle. If this was their family car, and it seemed to be, then this was a family that didn't have much.

One of the regular street beggars was walking the line. He was bearded, roughly dressed, holding a familiar sign: "Homeless. Please help." I braced as he worked his way back towards me. I'd read the newspaper profiles of these people, how they make a killing with this begging routine, some driving decent cars and living in perfectly adequate homes, doing well off the basic decency of their fellow humans. I waffle on the issue of hand-outs, and usually don't give. I'm not rich, I tell myself. I can't afford to help everybody.

When the man approached the family in the Corolla, there seemed to be some excited scrambling about in the car. The kids all leaned forward, and I saw the mother pass something to them in the backseat. The kids rolled down their window, and with six hands as one, put money in the man's bucket. He nodded, and thanked them. They bounced up and down as if they'd just seen Santa.

There was no hesitation, no wary discussion of whether this man seemed deserving. It was a gift, freely given and gratefully received. It was over in the cycle of a traffic light. The light turned green, and I was given a reprieve. I wasn't going to have to decide. The family drove on, buzzing down the road towards a Christmas that probably wasn't going to include lots of brand new toys and electronic gadgets. That was the beginning of Christmas, 2003.

Christmas isn't something we do; it's a gift we're given every year, without regard to how deserving we are. We can't earn it by the thoughtfulness of our gift-giving, the bounty of our cooking, or the perfection of our tree. It's given to all of us, rich and poor, jobless and successful, mourning or celebrating. No one owns it, and it's not for sale. It can't be controlled or legislated. It's Christmas -- the one time of the year when human beings are forgiven their shortcomings, and given a chance to try and do better.

As I sow the same stress and frustration of a holiday season in which it's not possible to get everything done, I remember how worthiness has so little to do with Christmas. Whether I deserve it or not, I get to go home and be with a family that loves me. We'll eat stupendous amounts of food and give each other material things that we do not need. I haven't earned any of this; I never could.

It's a gift, and I simply try to stop, be still, and know that it is Christmas. 2004.

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