Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Family Matter. People Matter: When the Holidays Become Something More

Three years ago my holidays looked different. A lot different.

For several years I worked in retail at our local mall. I worked to help pay my way through college while raising our young family. It wasn't particularly hard work or labor. I actually really loved my job most of the time. I worked primarily in children's clothing stores. As a parent I found it to be fun and rewarding to help other families shop for their kid. Sure there was the occasional bad day, but mostly it was a good job. That is, it was a good job for most of the year.

My job always became stressful and overwhelming around the holidays. It wasn't just that my hours doubled. It wasn't that I couldn't ever get weekends off because my employer didn't let anyone request time off. It wasn't the lack of parking spaces. It wasn't the crowded mall. It wasn't that our customers were suddenly grouchy, agitated and unfriendly. It wasn't the stress and the strain of the holidays. It wasn't all the frenzied preparation and never enough time to get it all done. It was how people didn't matter.

I remember one December morning with vividness. It was December 19th, 2009. My son's 1st birthday. It was also the day of my college graduation. I would get to finally walk with my class with my family watching. However, I had to work that day.  I had been assured I would have special permission to have the day off but no I had to work. Two things to celebrate, and I was working. What should have been a joyful day for our family turned into extra stress as I rushed from graduation ceremony to birthday party to my job. It was a hard. All this family to celebrate with us and I had to leave. I headed to work and as soon as I pulled out of the driveway I was in tears. I went to work, having to smile my way through it even when customers were rude (because of course it was my fault that we didn't have what they needed for their perfect Christmas gift). All I wanted to do was tuck my sweet boy in bed that night. To rock him to sleep to sweet dreams and kiss his forehead and stroke his soft cheek. To spend time with those people that mattered the most and had traveled just to be with me. To share stories, a moment with them. My parents, my siblings, my husband's family. Close family friends. The ones that mattered.

Time passed. I swore never again it would happen. My boss assured me it was a mistake, it wouldn't happen again.

The following year it was November. My husband's grandma was dying and we knew her time was close. As she was the last living grandparent, his family wanted to gather with her one last time. We wanted to be together for one last moment. Thanksgiving weekend was that time. Being a part time manager in retail I found myself unable to leave because of Black Friday. I fought with my company to be there with our family. One of the compromises they offered to me was that I could work in a store where I was going out of state instead. I ended up leaving the company over it. It was the single biggest factor in my leaving my job. The only regret I have is that I didn't leave sooner.

Today, my holidays look different. I have made a choice to spend my holidays with family. We gather every Turkey Day to be together. My husband's family are all Detroit Lions fans. That pretty much guarantees we will be watching football together. I come from a family of Green Bay Packers fans. This year we play each other on Thanksgiving Day. Lord have mercy on us all! In all seriousness though this is what we gather around and do. We play cards and board games. We get caught up in good conversation. We catch up with relatives over good food and drinks. We love on the kids and babies. We laugh at grandpa's goofy jokes and devour grandma's delicious pie. Oh how I love my grandma's banana cream pie and raspberry pie. Her cheesecake isn't too bad either.

Christmas is when we vacation with family. We retreat to the family condo in Colorado. It is our getaway. A place we escape to. We have snowball fights. We go sledding. We go skiing. We spend hours chatting at the hot tub with people from all over the globe. We have moonlit walks through the mountains and we admire how the lights sparkle and dance on the reflection of ice and snow. The smell of pine needles. The smell of fresh baked cookies. The mess of frosting and sprinkles everywhere. We attend the candlelit Christmas service up at the chapel. We sing Silent Night outside the church doors with strangers we have never met before. We eat pizza for dinner. We share laughs and drink hot spiced wine. More laughter. Someone decides it is great idea to sing Christmas songs. We laugh some more. The ice sculptures delight and the ice skaters dance round and round. The kids break out the nerf guns and the living room is transformed into a war zone of sofa cushions as cover and plush pillows as our shield. We build forts. We take long naps after a late big breakfast.

These are the memories I cherish. It is these experiences with my loved ones that bring me joy. This is what is important! The time that I share with people I love.

I don't expect everyone to have a holiday that looks like mine. I know everyone has their own traditions. But there is one thing I am thankful that working in retail taught me. I cannot share it enough. Family matter. People matter. When our lives get so bent and stretched thin that what matters is no longer in focus, people suffer. Our relationships suffer when we choose to not put people first.

Last year it hit me hard seeing these banners placed up high in the sanctuary of our church. The holidays are a time to share love, peace, and hope with others. These are the things that show people that they matter. This is what all relationships need. What all people need.

Sometimes our lives get so tangled up in the busyness of the holidays that we forget this. We forget what is important. Time blurs and it becomes a holidaze. It is really easy in this world. I saw it before working in retail. People chasing after things. Thanksgiving overshadowed by Christmas. Maybe it is the buy buy buy attitude surrounding Christmas. Maybe it is the pressure to prepare everything perfectly. Maybe it is the chase to give the perfect gift. Maybe it is the rush to get the best deal at midnight on Black Friday. Maybe we think we can buy our happiness with a credit card. Maybe going into debt for Christmas presents makes us feel like we can have it all.

Buying things. Buying items. Having stuff. A full shopping cart at Target or Wal-mart or anywhere else. Those things will never leave us fulfilled. Paychecks even will not make us happy.

It makes me wonder. Are we really buying gifts? Or are we buying into the idea that these gifts are what matter?

Are we consumers are we the ones being consumed?

These are questions that changed me.

Something changed in me when I started making an effort to put people first. I stopped looking at Christmas as something to give and receive. It changed how we celebrate Thanksgiving. It changed how we celebrate Christmas. It changed how we live. There are seven things that I do different.
  1. I don't shop on Thanksgiving or on Black Friday. My conscience won't let me do it. I can't do it. Not knowing that there are other people out there who want to be with family. No matter what the deal is it is not worth the time away from family. I don't want to be a part of that.
  2. When I do shop during the holidays I make a special effort to be extra kind. I smile. I say please and thank you. I wish them well, I make conversation. I tip extra. I forgive mistakes. I go out of my way to be polite not just to staff but even other shoppers. I always show this kind of respect but during the holidays when things get busy I feel it is even more important to remember that people matter.
  3. I try to be very conscientious about my gift giving, especially with my kids. I don't want for them to grow up thinking that Christmas is about presents. It is about presence. My kids do receive gifts from us but we plan out their gifts so it is simple and it doesn't take away from the real meaning of Christmas. We want for them understand that Christmas is about God's love and Christ in our lives. We want for them to cherish time with family. Not just during the holidays. All year long.
  4. We give to charities locally. Our favorite thing is to support a child through an Angel Tree. I actually get more excited shopping for a child in our community than my own kids! This year I also helped give through Operation Christmas Child and my children will be giving used toys to Families Helping Families. We give at offerings in our church to help with missions around the world that we believe in.
  5. We countdown the days to Christmas with several family activities. We donate hats and gloves. We go caroling. We set up our nativity. We read Christmas stories together. We make hot cocoa and have a Christmas movie party. We make ornaments and homemade gifts. We want to experience things with our kids.
  6. We try to shop locally and support people in our hometown whenever possible. I started my Christmas shopping this year by shopping at a craft fair. I bought the cutest handmade gifts from people that attend my church and live in my community. When the boys had a book fair at school I picked some books they really wanted. It is the little things like these that I feel are important.
The 7th and single biggest change is just spending time together. Life has taught me to value, to celebrate, this time with others. I choose to spend my holidays in this way because it shows people that they matter. This is how I share love, hope, and peace with others. This is the message we all need. We all deserve these blessings. Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Agnostic or Athiest. Whatever you are. We all need to to share love, peace, and hope a little bit more.

We have been so blessed these last years. I can't explain why these changes are so rewarding. When you show people that they matter, you realize it all matters. Every day. Every kind act. Every person is important. The holidays are not about gifts. They are about something more.

"What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” -Dr. Seuss

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