Last Saturday evening I rang the bell for an hour for the Salvation Army, stationed in front of WalMart. Our church had volunteered to staff this post. It was a cold night. My first surprise of the evening was how many people said “God Bless You,” as they passed, some raising their hand in genuflection. I felt rather guilty being addressed like Mother Theresa, and wanted to say that being good for one hour a year was hardly praiseworthy. Also, I noted that none of these individuals dropped any money in the kettle. Another surprise was the woman dressed in a nightgown and robe emerging from WalMart. She did drop coins in the kettle and murmured “Merry Christmas.” I wanted to ask her why she was wearing her nightgown, because this was no trendy loungewear, but the full, moth-eaten regalia of chenille bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, and nightgown, of someone going beddy-byes. Her husband was wearing sweatpants and fuzzy slippers. Was this an emergency trip for sleeping pills? Or perhaps they were sleepwalking. I had no time to ponder this because just then a small car vibrating with loud music screeched to a halt in front of the store, and young teenage boys dressed in black erupted from it and began dancing wildly. I was transfixed. Did this happen every evening? They were dancing around their car in some kind of tribal dance, legs up in the air, and arms windmilling. After a few minutes, they jumped back into the car and, with a screech, sped off. It was quiet for a few minutes, and then I saw a posse of gang members approaching. How did I know they were gang members? Just guessed, but maybe it was their identical parkas, hoods pulled down over their faces, which were in shadow. It was kind of like a gang of Ghosts of Christmas Future. Seeing me, they began sarcastically singing “Jingle Bells,” but fell silent as they walked past, one fellow loudly belching.
That was pretty much the excitement for the evening. Mostly people looked tired, with strained faces and blank eyes. Emerging from WalMart, they pushed heavily-laden carts with the exhausted effort of a Sisyphus pushing his boulder uphill, the carts laden with electronics, wrapping paper, and booze. Little kids looked at me like I was a cross between Santa and the Wicked Witch of the East, and shyly approached to drop coins in the kettle, taking a quick peek into the kettle itself to see what mysteries it might contain. So, we were just the human race, and as my feet and bell-ringing wrist turned numb, for some reason I thought of Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” and silently wished a blessing on us all–the man and wife sleepwalkers, the dancing boys, the exhausted parents, the gang members, and all of us just passing through. I thought, “God bless us. God bless us, one and all.”
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