Back in October, stores around the nation sneakily started displaying Christmas decor. By November, our ears bled with the sound of “Here comes Santa Claus” and now that it’s December we all know what’s right around the corner. My neighbors have a light show that includes a daily countdown down to the very last second for Christmas.
Whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or something else entirely (or nothing at all) doesn’t matter to me. There’s a lot about this particular holiday I think we get wrong but the idea to be generous and kind to your fellow human being is an idea I can get behind. I’m not going to go into a tirade of how we celebrate the holidays and how my way is the best way (there are already a lot of blogs out there that cover this) because I don’t know if it’s the best way and honestly, we’re still figuring it out.
Discussing how we celebrate and what traditions we have as a family (think minimal) isn’t something I’m interested in. Today I want to tell a true short story that shaped the way I saw this time of year since it happened. It’s actually shaped many of my interactions with strangers over the years and I believe it helps when I teach a yoga class.
It taught me empathy.
When I was 17 I worked in a popular retail store and got a base hourly pay and commission. The hourly pay was a joke but the commission more than made up for it. I was good at selling expensive jeans. I was damn good at it. For a teenager, my checks were stacked! The holiday season rolled around and was a time to make pretty big bucks. Sales associates were supposed to greet every customer that walked in. The goal was to help them find what they needed… and then upsale to them when possible. You know, make them feel important so they want to return.
One Saturday in December, a woman walks in carrying a few bags and I’m the first to greet her. She’s wearing a big diamond ring, has that put together look many strive for, and just looks classy. She is instantly one of my favorite customers of the day because of how nice she is. She responds back kindly and right away tells me that she is shopping for her daughter, who she tells me looks about my size and age. She even tells me she wears clothes like I’m wearing at the time. Easy, I think.
We start shopping. And y’all. I mean shopping. She is having me assemble outfits and she is liking it all. We soon start a pile near the register. I’m thinking about how huge this sale is going to be and am excited. My manager looks over at me and smiles and mouths “good job.” We continue shopping around. I’m helping her and maybe 2 or 3 other customers (we were packed!). However, a lot of my attention was on her because she wanted my opinion on everything.
As we were looking at sweaters, I start to ask her more questions about her daughter. Basic questions, like ‘what does she like to do’ and stuff like that. She answers excitedly and seems thrilled to be talking about her daughter. Absolutely thrilled.
And suddenly something changes. The mood shifts. I can feel it but can’t explain it. It may not even be discernable to anyone looking our way. I’m pulling a sweater down and as I hand it to the woman, I notice tears in her eyes. “You remind me of her so much.” I started to feel really uncomfortable. The store wasn’t big but we were in this little pocket that isn’t easily seen from other areas in the store. It was an area we often had to watch for shoplifting. I start to wonder if this woman is going to steal me. I’m 17 and dumb y’all.
She mumbles, “I’m so sorry” and as she says this, the tears she was holding back flow freely down her face. And I’m speechless. I have no clue what is happening. She keeps apologizing so I start to say “it’s okay” and then she tells me through sobs, “I don’t know why I came here. I should not have walked in here. She loved this store. And you remind me of her. She died and I just wanted to get her some things to open for Christmas. She loved Christmas. But she’s gone.” My eyes tear up. This woman is in so much pain. I no longer see a big sale. I see a mother who lost her child. I still don’t know what to say or how to respond so I do what I feel I would want. I hug her. She hugs back. After a short while she let’s go and says “I’m so sorry.” And rushes out of the store.
I took a break after she walked out. My manager handled the other customers I was helping because I needed a moment. My boss felt bad that I lost a big sale and wasted my time. I didn’t see it like that at all. It was the most uncomfortable experience I had at work (at the time) but it taught me something incredible: we need to always be kind because we never know what battle someone is going through. That mother showed me something powerful. Before my encounter with her, I didn’t realize that holidays can be painful for people. I didn’t realize that people may be experiencing their first holiday without their favorite person. It’s a lesson I still carry with me.
So “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays “? Elf on the Shelf? I don’t care. Just be kind. Empathetic. And hug someone having a tough time. And perhaps most important, when December ends just remember there isn’t an expiration date on being a decent person.