The Summer of the Soul in December: Musings on Christmas According to the Muppets

As a child, Christmas was always my favorite time of year. It was pure, absolute magic. My family is Catholic, and I remember the first time I was allowed to go to Midnight mass instead of the children’s service, remember looking up at the stars in complete excitement before we walked into the church, because on Christmas Eve they seemed to sparkle against the wonderful chill in the air. I’ll never forget the year I got my first American Girl doll, Molly, or the year my mom set up new beanie babies to ride in the cars of my train set. One year I lived the dream of children everywhere when my parents literally got me a pony for Christmas. Well, it was actually a rather massive horse, but the point stands. I loved watching my parents smile as they watched me open my presents, their eyes glimmering with happiness at my unadulterated joy, loved sitting around the tree with them, still in our pajamas as we ate dessert after Christmas dinner, carols playing softly in the background.  But as the years passed, with the loss of my parents, of my grandmother, though I still loved Christmas, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite grasp that old giddiness as the season grew closer. I tried; I baked sugar cookies, I helped decorate the tree (the years I was home when the tree was bought, anyhow),  I listened to Christmas music non-stop, I sang in the choir at church, and though it made me smile, and though I still looked forward to it, that same feeling wasn’t there.

This year though, that changed, and most suddenly. I suppose it started a couple of weekends ago when my roommates and I procured an artificial tree, hanging our small collection of ornaments on the branches while watching A Muppet Christmas Carol and watching the snow fall outside. For the first time since moving away, I felt that I could start my Christmas celebrations before I made my way down to see my family in Florida. I looked around the apartment, glancing at the colored lights hanging on our 11th floor balcony, and it felt like home, and that made me indescribably happy, filling me up to the brim. My spirit dampened a bit when I went out shopping on Saturday; I knew exactly what I wanted to get for several of the people on my list and headed strategically for those stores, but that didn’t stop me from nearly getting knocked over as people passed, or barely missing getting run over by cars in the Costco parking lot as I took the shortcut walking home. I’d made a promise to myself this year that I wouldn’t worry over presents, that I would get people things I thought they’d like without worrying about if I spent more on one person or another. Gift-giving is about buying something for someone you love, something you think they might appreciate, no matter how big or small, and I think in the rush of massive materialism surrounding us, we all forget that sometimes.

As I walked through the parking lot, seeing cars waiting in the street to pull in, I only grew more frustrated.  I’ve been reading the recent plethora of articles on the growing problem of income inequality in America, which spurred me to pick up a book on it (Robert Reich’s “Supercapitalism.” It’s great so far). I recalled the statistics I’d just read in the paper from Unicef’s report on child poverty in developed nations, which told me that 30 million children in the world’s 35 richest nations live in poverty. In America, that’s 1 in 5.  America, arguably the wealthiest country in the world, a country whose economy affects the rest, has the second highest rate of child poverty of all developed nations, below only Romania. That’s 23.1%. In one of the richest countries in the entire world, and when I read that staggering statistic, I could scarcely believe my eyes.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/us-child-poverty-report-unicef_n_1555533.html

And yet there I was, surrounded by people frantically trying to buy presents because somehow, we have equated presents with a symbol of how much we love each other, and while presents are nice tokens, that simply isn’t true. I stalked onward, thinking how much I despised the fact that the time up to Christmas is measured in shopping days, of the stories I’d heard about shoppers on Black Friday fighting each other for televisions . I thought of the homeless people I’d seen sleeping on the freezing DC streets, sadness dropping down into the pit of my stomach. The next day, though, I felt my spirit lift again, felt a sense of purpose. I was Skyping with two friends, one in England and one in New Zealand, and all three of us share an immense love of A Muppet Christmas Carol. We talked about the movie, laughed about our crushes on Scrooge’s nephew, Fred (whose infectious Christmas spirit is a truly wonderful thing), and talked about our Christmas plans. Later, I listened to the soundtrack again, and felt happiness, that old childhood giddiness over Christmas burst through me like someone had drenched me in a water balloon. I went to sleep and woke up on a Monday morning of all things, even happier than I was when I went to sleep, biting my lip against my smile as I listened to the music on the train to work once more. I’m pretty sure it’s thanks to Kermit:

“There’s magic in the air this evening, magic in the air. The world is at her best, ya know, when people love and care” Kermit (as Bob Crachit) says as he walks through the snowy streets of Muppet London, where people of all stations and class sing and dance in the street, wishing each other a Merry Christmas before the camera pans to Benjamin Bunny, sleeping out in the cold.  Listening to the music, really listening, reminded me what a formative effect this movie had on me as a child, and clearly the effect it still has on me and so many other people who love it. Even as a child, though the presents were certainly exciting, that wasn’t even the best part of Christmas. The best part was sitting in the eerily quiet church, just waiting for the candles to light the darkness, waiting for the organ to fill the marble hall with a glorious “O Come all Ye Faithful.” The best part was that sense that at least for one night, humanity was connected by something mysterious in the air, by love and by friendship and family and hope and charity. As I thought about Christmas through the day, I wanted so badly to find a way to carry that wonderful feeling, that essence of human empathy, throughout the year. I wanted everyone to stop in the midst of their shopping, their baking, their worrying over visiting relatives and whether or not the house was clean, and just look at the person beside them, whether friend or stranger, rich or poor, Catholic or Jewish, Protestant or Atheist, Muslim or Hindu, and see each other for what we are; full, complex human beings deserving of love, of food, of shelter, of safety. Of the smell of the pine of a Christmas tree.

I walked home once again, a Christmas present for my aunt in hand (I’m quite proud of what I found, something she’ll love, no matter the price tag on it) along with some sugar cookie mix and some icing, the finale song of A Muppet Christmas Carol rushing through my headphones, singing under my breath and half-dancing at the crosswalks, thinking on Charles Dickens and his famous Christmas tale, feeling very much like Scrooge himself when he wakes up on Christmas morning. I thought of Scrooge flinging open his window, calling to Benjamin Bunny to go and buy the prize turkey, the little Muppet then leading the way with Scrooge to the Cratchit’s house. I thought of the scene with the Marley brothers coming to visit Scrooge that so haunted me as a child, a scene that Dickens no doubt intended to make an effect on those who read his novel, and hopefully on people who might have behaved as the Marley brothers did. Horrible chained afterlife aside (to be honest the scene still sends shivers down my spine), what the Marley brothers left in their wake was the misery and suffering of others, and that, more than anything, is what changed Scrooge, not just the threat of his own terrible demise. He wanted Tiny Tim to live, saw the true pain he’d inflicted on others, and wanted to reverse it, to fix it, and woke up a changed man.

I thought perhaps, of playing “Marley and Marley” or “Scrooge” through the halls of Wall Street in Manhattan, where a studio apartment can cost $2,000 a month, and the gap between rich and poor grows wider every day. To play it through the halls of Congress, where SNAP benefits are being reduced and some people’s unemployment cut off and not renewed, where corporations are suddenly people. Just across the river from the Capitol in DC’s Anacostia neighborhood, too many people clamor for too few jobs at the new Walmart, who refused to raise their minimum wage to anything that might mean “living wage” here in DC. I thought of sending down copies of Pope Francis’ recent publication on how tyrannous our form of Capitalism has become, stepping in the way of our democratic process and trying to make it a farce, when the poor are getting poorer and the middle class slips further and further down, the swathes of my generation going unemployed or underemployed, not due to lack of effort, but because the system and those who run it need a change. That we the people must start by electing the right people into office and taking a stand rather than by standing idly by and saying nothing can ever change.

But more immediately, I wanted to find a way to help the people who need it most, to find ways to donate responsibly, to research and locate the organizations that actually get the money where it needs to go, rather than into the CEO’s pocket, to find and support ethical companies who treat their employees well and pay them a living wage. (I don’t care how low your prices are, Wal-Mart, I’m not buying from you). I wanted to find a way to spread the overwhelming love and joy I felt in my heart this Christmas to everyone I came across, to make them feel an inch of the happiness I suddenly find myself feeling. To remind people that, in the end, we are all a part of the same human race no matter what our differences, and that we ought to love each other, that we ought to have compassion and empathy. That we should want everyone to have their basic needs met, not only at Christmas, but always. And I don’t think that’s naive in the slightest. I think its’ the most worthy goal in the world, and something we should all strive toward as one human family.

Take an hour and watch some Muppets and remember that magic you felt as a child, remember that night every year when all of humanity felt as if they were holding hands across the globe, connected together.

As Scrooge proclaims at the end of the film, “Stop and look around you/the glory that you see/is born again each day/don’t let it slip away/how precious life can be.”

Words to live by.

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