FROM CHRISTMAS 2003
A CHRISTMAS LESSON
Seeing the spirit of giving
from the other side
By JOYCE KIEFER
The big display windows of Macys San Francisco store featured Garfield the Cat in all his selfish glory. Surrounded by the debris of Christmas morning after Santas visit, his dialog box said, Gimme more.
A few blocks away and many years ago on Market Street there was a huge San Francisco-grown department store called The Emporium. Right at the stores entrance, standing next to an incredibly imaginative window display, stood a Salvation Army bell ringer. Dressed in a scrawny Santa outfit, he rang his bell for people to toss something into his black kettle. Hes collecting money for poor people who have nothing at Christmastime, my mom explained. Hes not really Santa Claus but one of his helpers.
That begged a question akin to the one adults ask: If God is good, why does he allow . . .? I wondered but didnt ask why Santa needed money to bring poor people presents.
The bell-ringing Santa had a sadness about him. He wore gloves to keep his hands from freezing in the bone-chilling cold that permeates the streets of San Francisco once our summer-in-fall has faded off. His nose was red as Rudolphs from the cold and runny, too. His bell had a forlorn but steady ring that echoed the determination of his last stand to save the bodies and souls of the down and out.
The fragile sound was a counterpoise to the honk of horns, rattle of street cars, the chug of constant traffic.
The bell ringer and those he was determined to save lived in a different world than I did in my comfortable Peninsula suburb. Once my mom and I took the escalator to Toyland and the rooftop carnival, I was back in the comfort zone of Christmas.
In college I read George Bernard Shaws Major Barbara and enjoyed Shaws sardonic approval of attempting to save souls through a highly organized military approach.
But just a few years later I seemed like a possible recipient of what the bell ringers of Christmas would collect in their pots on the streets of Salt Lake City. I was living in Utah--newly married, isolated from family and friends, and also the first-time mother of an infant daughter. The Deseret News, a newspaper run by the Mormon Church, requested contributions to a Letters to Santa column that would run during the Christmas season. A bit bored, I wrote them a letter in our daughters name and asked for a toilet seat because (I cant believe I did this), Mommy and Daddy say it will be such fun when I get one, although I dont know what its for.
The paper ran not only my daughters name but our address.
I got a call from the Salvation Army. They wanted to know if this was a case of need. Although there was no financial need, they had indeed contacted a bewildered. somewhat lonely persona lot like some of their clients. My opinion of the Salvation Army and its bell ringers changed to one of appreciative affection. I looked for reruns of Guys and Dolls on TV.
But it took a Christmas party in the comfortable Silicon Valley home of a friend for me to realize what the bell ringers accomplish for all of us, especially the well-off.
Cup of tea in hand, I sat down on the couch next to Sally, whom I am just getting to know. She is much like memiddle class, middle age, grown kids, well provided-for by a husband who is a professional. Seven years ago she and her family returned from a two-year posting to the south of France for her husbands work. That Christmas someone from her church in an affluent Silicon Valley suburb asked if she would like to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.
Sallys daughter thought it would be a great idea to do this together. She was home for the holidays from her first year away at college. Sally told her it would be fun if they could sing as well as ring the bell. I wanted to provide a testimony to remind people that Christmas carols are about Jesus who, after all, is the reason for the season. An enthusiastic Christian, Sally says that the conversations she enjoys most are about the Lord.
And so Sally and her daughter sang: Away in the Manger, Hark the Herald, O Come all Ye Faithful, even Feliz Navidad for the shoppers who hear Spanish best. They were posted outside a Target store in a town where Caucasians are a definite minority. No songs about Santa, Rudolph, or city sidewalks. Some shoppers stopped to sing along before plunging into the store to search through aisles and end caps for their must-have items.
Sally doesnt know how much they collected that night or during the nights over the next six years that she and her daughter have rung their bell in front of Target. Times have gone from fat to lean in the Valley. The needy are now professionals who have been unemployed for several years. This year a younger daughter replaced the one who started out with her. Like her sister, she and her mom sing as they ring.
They march to the same basic tune as the Salvation Army major who is their boss for the night: Christmas is about Christ and about the way He showed us how to give and to regard others.
Now when I hear that softly insistent bell as I dash about trying to fill out my list (will I have the nerve to ask for a CD by Death Cab for Cutie for my son-in-law?), Im conditioned to remember what it was that caused the angels to sing.
©2003 by Joyce Kiefer. The illustration is modified from one in IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA.
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