In stiletto heels, fishnet-covered midriff, and flashy accessories, she wasn’t dressed for grocery shopping, or even winter.
A big local grocery store hosts a matchbox-size bank branch, where I was standing in line. The store was dressed for Christmas. Christmas tunes floated in the air as if giving a non-stop benediction. Some customers had donned festive red and green or other Christmassy outfits. But not the woman ahead of me in line.
As soon as the woman had finished her business and was out of earshot, I greeted the female bank clerk with, “She’s not dressed for Christmas, is she?!”
I won’t quote exactly what the clerk said to me next, but it was a gentle, protective defense of the woman.
Uh-oh. The clerk was obviously a friendly acquaintance of the woman. I had just insulted her friend. Needlessly.
I can think fast sometimes. Like when I caught a glass of milk in midair that my 2-year-old had just backhanded off the kitchen table—without spilling a drop. Like when another child initiated an accidental backward tumble down the stairs and I lunged and just caught him by the ankle.
But now my mind moved as if lubricated with 30-weight motor oil on a subzero night.
I finished my bank business in a perfunctory and professional manner, but the clerk’s customary buoyant friendliness toward me was replaced by something austere and steely. I knew I had just stepped in it, big time.
As I left the store and got into my truck, with the bells of the Salvation Army guys by their kettle ringing in the background, the full repulsiveness of what I had just done swept over me.
Let’s just take a quick tally of exactly what I had done wrong.
I had gossiped (meaning saying something behind someone’s back that puts them in a negative light and which serves no authentic higher purpose).
I had been self-righteous and judgmental and I had damaged my relationship with the bank clerk.
And possibly the worst of all, I had violated the Christmas spirit. In this time of generosity and giving, of gifts and rejoicing, of universal acceptance, merriment and laughter, I had inserted something ugly and unwelcome.
My snide remark, putatively in defense of Christmas, was instead its precise antithesis. I was embarrassed, humiliated, and ashamed of myself.
To the unholy trinity of Christmas villains—Scrooge, Grinch, and Mr. Potter—another name must be appended: my own.
I did not enjoy living with myself the next day or two. I did not even enjoy BEING myself. I wished I would be someone one else—the kind of guy who would not criticize needlessly a fellow creature of God at the precise time of year when God is reminding us what He did to reconcile all men to Himself. Reconciliation. It’s a beautiful word.
I wanted reconciliation. I made a promise to myself to apologize.
I inquired about the clerk’s schedule and returned on a day when I knew she would be there. Seated at her desk, she greeted me in a friendly manner, as if nothing had happened. With my 5-year-old flanking me, I sat down and reminded the clerk of what I had said a few days earlier—in the highly unlikely event that it had not been burnt indelibly into her memory. I told her I was ashamed of myself and I apologized.
I finished, and watched as an unexpected, unidentifiable expression swiftly crossed her face. For a moment, I did not know what would come next. And then she began defending me. “Everyone has a bad day sometimes.”
Said I: “There was no justification for what I did.”
Said she: “Everyone has a day when they are not at their best.”
Said I: “There was no justification.”
After a few further pleasant similar exchanges, we parted.
The harpy that had been taunting me was gone.
I had violated the spirit of Christmas. But in the final analysis, Christmas is not about perfection; it’s about forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. This Christmas will be just a little bit different for me because I who violated greatly was also forgiven greatly.
Photo credit: Graphic design by Anna Soltis.