I was in my South Carolina hometown last year in the week leading up to Christmas. Each day, we crammed in all of the errands of the season: a run to Publix for cranberries; a stop at Toys-R-Us for a doll; one of a dozen trips to Target, because that's what people do. You know what I'm talking about.
I don't freak out about Christmas crazy. We make a budget and we stick to it; we strive to enjoy the season of Christ's birth by doing simple things like baking cookies and decorating the tree. We'll do a family service project (like the Angel Tree or Operation Shoebox) and celebrate Advent by lighting our special yule log candles. Jonathan and I try to keep things fairly basic.
A day or two before Christmas, I decided to buy three small presents for my girls' stockings. I had candy, but wanted something a little more substantial for the stockings.
With limited time and not wanting to go near the crowded mall and city center of my hometown, I decided to "rough it" and stop in at our down-at-the-heels Kmart. This KMart has been around since before I can remember and it sags with a thick sheen of retail desperation.
Inside the KMart, I was surprised to see long lines and crowded aisles. "What am I doing here?" I thought. But happily, on one stuffed aisle, I found three little Minnie Mouse dolls for $7 a piece. I grabbed them and then joined the end of a long line. I thought I was waiting to check out, but I was about to get schooled.
When I reached the cashier, a young, blond woman, we made small talk. Something along the lines of the classic question: "Are you ready for Christmas?" I think I said something boring like, "You must get a lot of your shopping done here, I guess, because it's so convenient."
Her eyes widened as she swiped the Minnie dolls. "Shop here? Oh no, it's too expensive," she said, sucking in her bottom lip. "I can't shop here."
And just like that, I was sucker-punched by Christmas. By my own casual wealth, which is just a normal, middle-class kind of wealth, but is still several rungs above a retail worker ringing up holiday trimmings. Miles above the poor in many, many countries around the world.
I had joked to my husband, "I'm going to slum it at K-Mart," on my way out the door. I had joked without thinking or caring that for some, even my town's humble K-Mart was a shopping palace too grand to spend one hard-earned dollar.
I wish I could tell you I returned to the store and slipped the clerk a little holiday money. I did not. I retreated into my own whirl of Christmas preparations. I baked yams, pies, cookies. We went to Christmas Eve service. I saw the joy in my own children's faces when they opened special presents.
Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Last Christmas at KMart, my eyes were opened to what it looks like to be on the poorer end of the scale when it comes to the frenzy of Christmas. Of course, you can and should have a quiet Christmas, devoid of Black Friday insanity and credit card debt. Christmas is not about shopping, whether it's Crate and Barrel or K-Mart. But a growing class of fellow citizens are being left behind in regards to wages, education and intact, healthy families. And they are with us now.
For the past year, I have prayed: God, let me see your poor and care for them. I don't do this well but I know you will teach me. I can't do it without you. In Jesus' name, Amen.