The Magi and the mall

This is the time of year (approaching Christmas, in case you’re reading this at any other time of year) when Christian believers celebrate traditions both new and old, including one of the most venerable of all:

The tradition of bemoaning how commercialized Christmas has become.

In fact, you could put it as a sort of liturgical lament. Let’s just reword Psalm 12 a little bit:

Oy! Christmas at the mall! God, I don't have to go in there, do I? "Angels fear to tread", and all that.

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
those who really celebrate Christmas have vanished from the human race.
Everyone competes for parking spaces;
with their lips they say, “Merry Christmas,”
or at least, “Happy holidays,”
but in the malls they act like a$$#@!%$.

 
This, by the way, is one of the many reasons I wasn’t selected to write the Bible. I’m not supposing anyone would be delusional enough actually to like hassling with the crowds, demo-derby parking, and frayed tempers of shopping at Christmastime (and if there are any of you out there like that—I don’t want to know); but actually, if you live in an urban area especially, you should already know how to navigate crowded, manic traffic / parking / sidewalks / malls or any of the rest of that. Granted, at the holiday season it’s all amped up by several orders of magnitude, but it’s not like the attitudes are anything really different from any other time of year. So what’s the real problem that bums Christians out at Christmas?

Owooooo! Christmas is so commerrrrrrrrrrcialiiiiized! Let's goooo shopiiiiiiinnngg!


Maybe it really is the commercialism itself, like I had said. Oh no, the Christmas “c”-word! You never heard such a howl raised by Christians over that travesty of what should be a holy season! Of course, the only reason you do hear people wailing about that is because, like everyone else, they’re—watch this—out at the malls, buying commercial goods like everyone else. Or, they’re watching Christmas TV specials, like everyone else, which like all other TV shows are sponsored by commercial advertisements. (Hint to people who hate TV commercials: hello, mute button?) Where else would people encounter “all the commercialism of Christmas” if they weren’t wading hip-deep into it?
 
So here’s a little Christmas mall tale, maybe to lift some shopping-frazzled spirits:
 
A Christmas mall tale, maybe to lift some shopping-frazzled spirits
 
I know, the title is redundant, but I needed some kind of title header there. One Christmas season, when the survival-of-the-fittest-shopper struggle was in full agony at a large mall, a frazzled young retail clerk glanced from the pile of tangled clothes she was gathering off the floor, to see the feet of yet another shopper standing before her. Great, another aggravated question from somebody I’ve never done anything wrong to, she groaned to herself. But, “May I help you?” is what she said, as she looked up at the shopper’s face.
 
A bearded gentleman, with years of cares etched into his face but lifted by smiling wrinkles at his eyes, surprised her by stooping down slightly. “This is for you, he said, handing the surprised young woman a small gift-wrapped box. “Wh—” she stammered, but the gentleman turned, and vanished into the surging crowd of shoppers before she could ask him what it was about. She didn’t have time, at the moment, even to open the box to find out what was in it, and just stuck it under the counter where she could retrieve it later; but she went about her work again with a mildly bemused, gently smiling expression as she thought of the man’s seemingly random act. She was nicely surprised, in turn, to find her customers not nearly as irritable as they had seemed earlier; or maybe it was her different outlook, she wasn’t sure.
 
About the same time, further down the mall, a young mother was trying to jostle bags that wanted to fall out of the back of a stroller, in which her young boy was letting her know it was far past high time for his nap, while she was also trying to comfort or distract him, all while trying to edge out of the surging foot traffic toward a wall where she could put things down and care for her son, a struggle she was rapidly losing.
 

If the stern looks hadn't worked, this was her next tactic.


“Please, let me,” said a voice, and from her contorted angle balancing packages and stroller, she managed to peer around to see a kindly woman, about her mother’s age, reaching out to deftly gather the collapsing bags and help nudge the stroller toward the wall. She also used her ample girth to help part a way through the crowd, aided by an occasional Oh, no you didn’t glance at some unusually aggressive shopper, which served as pretty good traffic control. As soon as the young mother and child (and shopping bags) were safely gathered by the mall’s side, so that she was able to pick up her child and comfort him, the other woman smiled assuringly, patted the young mother on her shoulder, and stepped into the river of shoppers, gone before the younger woman could say, “Thank you.” She wasn’t sure if she was just able to reload all her bags so that the stroller was easier to manage after that, or if the moment’s break and help had let both her and her child gather their breath and be calmed by each other’s touch, but their path through the rest of the mall seemed a little easier after that, even though the human river was just as noisy and turbulent.
 
Out in the parking lot, a man who had done some shopping during his office lunch break returned to find that his car had been sideswiped by whoever had just vacated the parking slot next to his: it wasn’t catastrophic damage, but there was an ugly dent and gash in the paint, and there also wasn’t a note from whoever had caused it. “[String of colorful language]!” he exclaimed, to no one in particular. “Why the [more colorful language, in a rhetorical question about why this had happened to him, now]?!”
 

Okay, so it wasn't quite THIS bad. This was at the NEXT mall.


“Are you all right?” said a voice behind him, which would have startled him if he hadn’t been so caught up in rage. Another guy about his age, but who instead of wearing business attire looked more like he was on his way back to a dusty factory or warehouse, had just walked by. “Some [equally colorful description of what had happened, plus his personal assessment of the driver who had done it]!” the man fumed, waving helplessly at his car. “Thank God at least you weren’t between your car and the other guy’s,” smiled the warehouse worker ruefully, as he dug a slightly grease-stained card out of his wallet. “Here, if it helps, I’ve been taking my cars to this guy since I learned to drive. And no I don’t work for him! He’ll give you good work at a good price, your insurance should cover it no problem,” he said, as he handed the businessman the card.
 
The man glanced down at the card, but a moment later when he looked up to say “Thanks,” the other man had already moved off, and he could just see the top of his head weaving through the cars as he made his way toward his own vehicle. It didn’t remove the dent or scrape in his car; but somehow it set him a bit more back on track, as he tucked the card into his wallet and got into his car. “At least he stopped to do something,” he thought, as a slight, grateful smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “Wouldn’t hurt for there to be more of that around.”
 
After the old gentleman, the matronly woman, and the young blue-collar worker had given their gifts, they each returned to their own homes by a different way; and the retail clerk, the young mother, and the businessman treasured up all these things in their hearts. Meanwhile, on her break, the young clerk finally had a chance to open the gift the kindly older gentleman had surprised her with; inside there was nothing but a note.
 
“If even this gesture made a difference to lift your day, that was the gift I hoped to give you,” it said. “If others noticed that difference in you, then you’ve already been giving that gift to others.”

It doesn't matter where you are, who you are, or how you give of your heart.


If you encounter anyone in the commercial-jungle-that-is-a-mall-at-Christmas who’s starving for good cheer, share some; if they are thirsty for someone with a kind heart, refresh them with that. Do not be overcome by commercialism, but overcome commercialism by embracing it as part of your Christmas giving and love.
 
Lamentation? Howls? Yeah, it’s a noisy season, depending on where you go—but sh, listen there a moment! There, just beyond the noise of the mall; there among the twinkling lights and decorations that really are reminders of the Christ whose birth this is all about; listen—there are angels singing. In fact, they’re inviting you to join them. Oh, and the Magi? Who said there were only three? You look like one of them too, if you ask me.

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3 Responses to The Magi and the mall

  1. Floyd Miller says:

    Actually, I feel that we need more to put “Christ” back in “Christianity”. Too many people have replaced Chrsit with Ayn rand and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with Sarah, Glenn, Rush, and Pat.
    In His Steps introduced “What Would Jesus Do?” and was the second best-selling book in the world next to the Bible. Now, it has been replaced by Atlas Shrugged, even in “Christian” venues.

    • Heh Floyd, yeah I heard that awesome take on it too (“Put Christ back in Christianity”), sometime last Christmas season — what a spot-on response it is to not only the misguided war on the (mythical) “war on Christmas”, but to a lot of Christianity in general, which is the point of course.

      For that matter, when people take up the fight against some perceived “war on Christmas”, not only are they as goofily nearsighted as Don Quixote jousting at windmills (thinking they were evil giants) — even worse they’re violating the “Christmas spirit” in the worst way possible, spewing belligerence, animosity, and arrogant legalism into the world around them. I don’t know if any of those people ever stop to ask themselves whether their “waging war” is ever going to actually *draw* people *toward* Christ, or if they notice that instead it’s more likely to actively drive people *away* — but regardless, that’s the effect it has on others. If they really wanted to “put Christ back in Christmas”, they’d be showing that he’s alive in their hearts by loving others, especially in the nerve-jangling or aggressive environment that a mall at holiday time can be.

      Anyone who’s ever tried just being pleasant and decent to people in malls at the holidays (especially the poor mall workers — some of my first jobs were in mall retail, and Christmastime was always our deepest dread) will find themselves being given a really surprising, genuine appreciation in return; it will humble you because you’ll realize you were witness to a deep mystery, God himself touching someone’s heart through (what, to you, was just) your simple act of kindness or decency. To them, though, it’s like a cup of cold water in the Sahara, and you and I can never quite know how much it meant to them.

      Those are the kinds of Christmas gifts I wish people (especially those who claim loudest to be Christian) would give, all year round — and they can. All you have to do is genuinely love people.

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