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Do You See What I See?

Ah, the holidays.  The most wonderful time of the year. Who, in their childhood, didn’t spend the entire month of December brimming over with excitement at the thought of what was to come? The arrival of Christmas meant toys were on the way. Our tree went up right after Thanksgiving, and my two brothers and I spent the days leading up to the 25th the same way many other kids did: poring over every box under the tree, shaking each trying to guess if what we’d wished for was in one of them. Soon we would lie awake half the night hoping to catch Santa Claus, and then, finally, it would be here. A day filled with the sound of wrapping paper tearing and being thrown aside or wadded into a ball, with toys and dolls and matchbox cars and Leggos we had wished for all year long. Then our aunt and grandmother arrived for dinner, but we barely noticed anyone after we’d opened all of our presents (and scarfed down mounds of cookies). Christmas was the day we got stuff. All kinds of cool stuff.  People took a back seat.  Presents took the front.

But, alas, we all must grow up (though some of us put up fierce resistance).

As we got older the holidays took on a different meaning. Most of us still lived in or around the Akron area, but I had moved away, too far for the occasional drive home. My parents were no longer together, but they always remained close and saw each other regularly. Every Christmas I flew home, stayed with my mom and stepdad, and spent a week seeing the family. My grandmother and aunt still came to Christmas dinner, and my father often joined us too. The holidays were our family reunion.  There were gifts, to be sure, but they were more practical now.  Useful presents, and, sometimes, the little luxuries we deny ourselves when money is scarce, like the massage my mother knew would help my fibromyalgia. ( 🙂 Thanks Mom!) And we all enjoyed watching my niece’s eyes light up while tearing the wrapping paper off to discover an Easy-Bake Oven inside. Simple pleasures.

But then my niece grew up, the economy went down the toilet, and when, two years ago, we lost Dad just three days before Thanksgiving, our enthusiasm for the season faded, and the decision not to exchange gifts (well, okay, maybe one) seemed natural for all of us. Still, most of us get together over the holidays, have dinner, reminisce, do what families do. Our religious beliefs may not be clearly defined, and some of our ideals differ, but we all believe in family and, particularly since losing my father, we make an effort to put our work or our issues aside and simply take time for each other. Gifts haven’t been the focus since we were young; people moved to the front seat years ago.

Evidently they still rank high for a lot of people though. Too high, even.

A few years ago I was at Lowe’s and was dismayed to see, in mid-September, the first display of Christmas trees and decorations already available for sale.  Yep. Mid-September. Wasn’t it enough when radio stations began playing Christmas music in October, forcing the Christmas season on us even before Halloween? A couple local radio stations stop playing anything but Christmas songs on Thanksgiving. This year one of them switched to only Christmas music earlier in the month.

It isn’t Christmas’s fault though. Many stores launch their Halloween campaigns at the beginning of August. Just after New Years Day you’ll find Valentine’s Day cards in any store – even the grocery – and the ads for flowers and candy launch into full bombardment.  Spend! Get your gifts now! Flags and other patriotic items show up a couple of months before Independence Day. I wonder how many people give any thought to the freedom the day represents as they put on their new red, white, and blue t-shirts or bathing suits, or get their fireworks ready.

I try to figure out when this phenomena began, this insistence on dishing out dollars for Christmas as soon as possible, don’t even wait until the leaves fall.  But I can’t.  I only know that I have no recollection of witnessing such crazed consumerism when we grew up. Thanksgiving signaled the holidays were coming; soon we would watch the Heat Miser and Snow Miser on TV and bake cookies with Mom after an afternoon of sled-riding. Despite a few feet of snow on the ground, the season felt warm. Calming, like comfort food. The day after Thanksgiving (as it was previously called) was a day to eat leftovers and relax with family or friends. There weren’t the inevitable stories of violent shoppers on the news. Black Friday?  Was that term even used fifteen years ago? Today the words conjure images of people camped out in front of stores for two and three days in tents, heating Thanksgiving dinner on little camping stoves.

‘Twas the season to be jolly. Now ‘tis the season to be the first in line, to beat everyone else to the bargain bin, and to be the one with the most toys.

It is sadly ironic that immediately following the day designated for reflection on all for which we should be grateful, the idea of gratitude is readily abandoned by so many, replaced by a frenzied quest to get, to consume, to take whatever stuff one wants (*George Carlin spoke very effectively about our penchant for acquiring stuff) – no matter what the cost, or who might suffer so that others may gain. On Thanksgiving, 2008, it came upon the midnight clear: it was every man for himself, every year worse than the last. I remember that someone made a horrible joke that year, something about it not being Grandma who got run over by a reindeer, after the first casualty of Black Friday. But there was nothing at all funny about a young man doing his job who, quite literally, fell victim to a herd of individuals oblivious to anything outside of their pursuit of things.  When Walmart opened the doors for the mob of eager shoppers that Black Friday, a temporary employee who was trying to control the crowd was knocked to the ground and, literally, trampled to death.

This year several demanded their employees come to work and open the doors to the madness even before midnight on Thanksgiving. Thousands signed a petition asking Target to leave the holiday alone, enough is enough, stop shoving it down our throats, but their efforts were in vain. A cashier and I were recently talking about this while she rang me up.  She told me about a friend of hers who works at one of those stores.  “They have to go to mandatory stampede training,” she explained.

Tell me, please – where is the holiday spirit in a session of stampede training?

What, on the endless shelves of Walmart, was so incredible that those shoppers deemed it more valuable than the life of the man the stepped on so they could get it first?

“When we were children, we used to think that when we grew up, we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.”

-Madeline L’Engle

This year, a “wave of violence” on Black Friday, including a woman who pepper-sprayed some twenty people at Walmart.  Elsewhere a man, Walter Vance, became ill while shopping at Target, and collapsed. Not to be deterred from their quest for the best bargain, shoppers continued on, walking around, and even over his collapsed body. That’s what witnesses told police.  But wait a minute. If they witnessed this, why didn’t they stop to help?

I read this and, of course, am shaken, disturbed, upset.  What were they thinking when they saw a man on the floor, ill, or unconscious?  Did they see another human being, in dire need of help?  Were they so intent on getting a half-price plasma TV that their eyes and minds hadn’t the time to register anything else, let alone a man in need of immediate medical attention?  Or did they see Vance, have a split-second realization of what was happening to him – (only to be called back to their ultimate purpose by the number of frenzied consumers passing them and thus jeopardizing their own chances of being one of the oh-so-lucky few to be able to tell their friends and family that the gifts they just opened were the last few available at such a fabulous discount on the Walmart shelves, and that of the hundreds of others, they were the winners, their determination paid off (in the form of maybe a couple hundred dollar discount) – but tell themselves that somebody else would surely stop and help the sick man lying on the floor.  Someone would undoubtedly do something to save him.  Somebody else would sacrifice the Wii, the smart phone, the plasma TV, all the other Great Christmas Gifts! for the taking – and attempt to save someone’s life.  But not them.

Human nature speaks up in moments like these, saying things like, he’ll be okay, nothing serious is going to happen, nobody’s going to die here tonight, in front of me, because that shit happens to other people. That happens to people I don’t know, when someone who knows what to do is around to do so – not when I’m there.

Maybe they saw what the other tenants in Kitty Genovese’s apartment building saw – a person desperate for help, in danger, someone that they themselves could, in fact help, and someone who would also suffer a horrible death, and die alone, surrounded by a number of people, any single one of whom, even if they knew no way to save a life, could have at least demonstrated concern that extended beyond that of the common gawker – but didn’t.  Did they see Vance, then imagine the same thing the others might have: surely someone will stop and help this unconscious man.  This. Dying. Man.  If nobody else does and he’s still there when I get through this line with my stuff, I’ll stop.  I swear. Nothing’s gonna happen in the time it takes to get through this line. But too often when we adopt this wait-and-see strategy, there are consequences. C. Northcote Parkinson wrote that “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.”  It certainly was for Vance.

I don’t believe anyone was trampled to death this year, thankfully.  But we are continually pushed to shop earlier, spend more, and companies use the notion of “the Christmas spirit” and the “giving season” in order to get.  Shoppers show up in droves, something of a mob mentality develops, and the end result is something very far from what the Christmas spirit is supposed to mean.

Christmas Day means something different to everyone, depending on their religious or spiritual beliefs.  The holiday season itself though is still when we talk about “the spirit of giving.”  So what does that mean? To me it is about giving, and hey, I’m human, I like gifts too – but gifts come in a variety of forms, and not all of them involve wrapping paper and return receipts.  To me it means giving your time to someone, even if you don’t particularly think they deserve.  And probably especially when you don’t feel like giving it, even if that’s just because you’re busy.  It means sharing – not your cash, not your presents, but maybe a little piece of yourself, opening yourself up to others.  It means holding the door open for the person coming out of the store with screaming kids in tow and their hands full of bags, and it means stopping to help someone pick up the groceries that just fell out of their bags, even if that person was just bitching and moaning on their cell to someone and didn’t sound like the most pleasant person around.  It means calling someone whose calls you’ve meant to return for a long time, while weeks and months slipped by because you were busy (which means I definitely have a few calls to make this month), and giving a long overdue apology.  Giving means listening when you don’t feel like it, catching yourself on the verge of judging and making an effort to understand instead.  And it means telling people things you always mean to, but don’t.  Because we never know when that might make a huge difference to that person.

Were you out there on Black Friday, braving the crowds?  How do you feel about the shopping beginning on Thanksgiving?  What does the Christmas season really mean to you?

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