I spent the day running errands, mailing a few A Faraway Christmas CDs, and picking up what we needed to do a couple of things on the house before my in-laws come in a little over a week, which means I drove a lot and had incidental conversations with people I don’t know. My favorite was at Lowes, where I was buying paint.
“Do you want our Signature paint or the Premium?” the paint guy asked me.
“What’s the difference?” I replied.
“The Signature is our best paint,” he answered.
“What’s the difference between them? What makes it better?”
“It’s our best paint,” he said.
I left with my Signature paint and a couple of other things and came home. About six forty-five the phone rang and our friends Carla and Lindsey invited us to meet them at the Regulator, our very cool neighborhood independent bookstore, for a reading. I didn’t know any more than that as I grabbed my coat and hat and walked up to meet them. Turns out the bookstore wanted to do something to “get people in the Christmas spirit,” so they asked Allan Gurganus to come and read his story, “A Fool for Christmas,” which he read on NPR a few years back. He was not promoting a new book – or even the story; they just wanted to get people together for Christmas. They had hot cider, mulled wine (using Clarence’s recipe from It’s a Wonderful Life: “heavy on the cinnamon, easy on the cloves”), and several tins of Danish butter cookies and a roomful of folks who all seemed happy to be there.
The story was told in first person by Vernon Ricketts, the manager of a mall pet store, who notices a runaway girl hanging around the mall and offers her part-time work walking a cocker spaniel puppy, Butterbean, around the shopping center to entice people to come buy a pet for Christmas. The girl is pregnant and the story culminates in a strange nativity scene with him delivering her baby in the pet store surrounded by puppies and kittens and an African parrot.
I loved it.
In his introductory remarks before he began the story, Gurganus commented about the current economic state of things in a refreshing manner. “We are going to have to make some sacrifices,” he said, “and I’m ready,” going on to talk about how we have a chance to dig in and make something great come out of this time of hardship. Two things crossed my mind in quick succession: I resonated with what he was saying and I felt fortunate to be one of the ones for whom sacrifice is a choice.
I’m the only one in my kitchen at Duke who doesn’t work at least six days a week; I’m one of two who only has one job. And, day in and day out, the guys not only show up for work but come with a sense of humor and good spirit. They don’t get to choose to sit down, sip wine, and listen to stories very often. And they are not alone.
I’m a sucker for Christmas movies, Elf and Scrooged being two of my favorites, along with the aforementioned It’s a Wonderful Life. They all build to a call for us to be better, kinder, more compassionate people who understand the power of personal relationships, and to be people who realize the world is not primarily about themselves. They are all about redemption, even if they are sentimental Hollywood movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
A real part of the Advent/Christmas season is about looking for the connectedness reflected in those movies. We want to belong. We want to matter. We want to be together. What becomes difficult are the consequences of that connectedness. In the last section of “The Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot writes:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Once the wise men got back home, they realized they had seen too much; redemption came with a price: they had to live and act differently long after the Christmas season had passed. Maybe that ‘s one of the reasons we celebrate it year after year: we need help remembering what it means to be redeemed, to be called to sacrifice.