My mother, Kris Kringle, and the spirit of Christmas

(This piece was originally published by The Daily Memphian. Please support local journalism and consider subscribing.)

Once upon a time, before the prevalence of cable television, WREG Channel 3 used to broadcast old movies in the afternoons and at night, after the 10 p.m. news.

And long before there were jokes and memes about binge-watching Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, the nightly line-up in the weeks around Christmas featured classic holiday films, shown only once each year: “White Christmas,” “Holiday Inn,” “The Bishop’s Wife” and my favorite, “Christmas in Connecticut.”

New Year’s Eve, the endcap, was always the same: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” 

Christmas Eve, the mid-point, was also the same every year: my mother’s favorite, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

As soon as the opening credits appeared, my mother would tell the story of seeing the film for the first time when she was 10, turning 11. A relative who had the means (and a car) whisked my mother away from the farm in rural West Tennessee, away from her young siblings, to go into town, all dressed up, to the movie theater.

By the time we watched together in our den, sitting close to the tiny television that we thought fancy because it had push buttons for channel changing, I was in my early teens. During the days of the holiday break I worked at the children’s clothing store, Apron Strings, that my mother had opened when I was 10 turning 11. Through “Miracle on 34th Street,” I came to understand my mother’s deep love for retail sales, fancy clothes, merchandising and Manhattan, all seeded from this one favorite film.

I also understood the shorthand phrase she used repeatedly when explaining the Apron Strings philosophy: “Macy’s and Gimbels.”

If a shopper (invariably a fellow mother) came into the shop looking for a particular brand of clothing or accessory that Apron Strings didn’t carry, my mother would direct her to a store that did. If unsure of where an item might be found, my mother would pick up the phone and keep calling until she located it.

“Why don’t you try to sell them something else instead, something you sell?” I asked (others asked as well), only to hear the same response: “Macy’s and Gimbels. Helping people means helping them find what they actually need or want, not making them want something different.”

The reference, for anyone who hasn’t (yet) seen “Miracle on 34th Street” or who might not recognize both store names, was this: Macy’s and Gimbels were bitter rivals in the department store business, for most of the 20th century. In the film, a Macy’s PR staffer hires a man who calls himself Kris Kringle to play Santa in the store’s Christmas display. When one of the children asks Kringle for a particular gift, he whispers to the child’s mother that the toy is cheaper at Gimbels. The mother is initially confused but then, inspired by the honesty and helpfulness, tells the Macy’s toy department manager that she will be a loyal Macy’s customer for life.

This trip down a cheerful memory lane, in the context of 2020, might seem quaint at best, completely out of touch at worst. In a year marked by tragedy, loss and great suffering, the rosy nostalgia of Christmases past has a hollow ring to it.

Buried in the murk, though, perhaps we can find seeds for a different and better future. Perhaps one lesson from 2020 is that helping other people requires thoughtful consideration for what someone else actually needs and wants. It’s a deeper kind of call and response, and it might require breaking established habits.

One chorus we’ve heard often this year, from mental wellness advocates in particular, is to try sticking to basic, normal patterns that feel stable when the world feels unsettled. From that perspective, traditional holiday gift-giving and charity support might seem like the right answer. If Christmas 2020 finds you unfulfilled, however, by “doing what you always do,” then pause for a minute to consider where the greatest need might be, even if it’s not where you typically give your time, talent, attention or money.

You might be surprised by the response, not from the gift’s recipient but from your own heart.

A few weeks ago, one of my Kindred Place board members and trusted friend asked how, during the holidays, to help the families who come to us for counseling. He asked both for himself and on behalf of the Greater Memphis Exchange Club, the group that established Kindred Place 35 years ago and that continues to support our work in many ways, including financial.

When I asked that he, and they, contribute to the Mid-South Food Bank instead of giving to us (which they did, and very generously), he was initially puzzled. Did we not need financial support, too? Did some of our families not need holiday help?

“Counseling is an out-of-reach luxury if basic needs aren’t met,” one of our therapists said to me, months ago now. “Our work doesn’t matter if families don’t have enough food to eat.”

My mother’s words echoed in my head: Helping people means helping with the actual need, not giving what we may want to give.

It’s what Kris Kringle would have done, what my mother would have wanted, and what felt most right and normal at Christmas in this often-unsettling year.


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