December 21 - December 27, 1995

Season's Bleatings

B y  J e f f  S m i t h 


THIS IS A season of extremes. Wherever you look, whatever the context, opposites attract your attention by the very starkness of their contrast.

Buffalo, New York, is buried in snowdrifts bigger than Buicks while drug dealers cruise the streets of Dade County, Florida, with the top down.

Close-knit families snuggle by the hearth and gaze with joy at Christmas trees gathering material bounty, while single fathers and mothers, unemployed, homeless, divorced and broke ponder happier times past, perilous times future...and contemplate suicide.

In the midst of plenty there is heart-breaking poverty. In the midst of joy there is misery. In the season of generosity...well, there's always the odd Scrooge, but thanks be to whatever, there tends to be a pervasive spirit of giving, sharing, helping those who are down on their luck.

Probably has more to do with assuaging a guilty conscience than anything else, but hell, you shouldn't look a gift-horse in the mouth.

We here at The Weekly adopted a family for Christmas. Wonderful idea, makes us all feel like we're doing something sweet. I remember back in high school when my home room got the name of a poor family from some social service organization or another, and began stockpiling canned food and old clothes and blankets, cast-off toys and stuff.

Being a sentimentalist, I found the project appealing, but that same sentimentalist found it a bit of a wrench when I got volunteered to drive the delivery truck down to the southwest side and hand over the swag to the actual poor folks whose names we'd drawn.

It was pretty clear to me, stepping lightly across the dirt floor of their mud and tarpaper shack, that our high-school idealism wasn't going to cure this family's problems. The delight and excitement of the rug-rats stood in black-and-white relief against the melancholy on their parents' faces, and it was then that I guess I truly became a political liberal. No "thousand points of light" schtick was going to fix things for this household.

The tendency and temptation at that time of socio-political epiphany was to despise the seasonal spirit of charity for its supposed short-term nature and for its arguable purposes of justifying materialism and quieting a troublesome conscience. I avoided that trap by sticking to my ingrained sentimentality and continuing belief in Santa Claus. The years have made me slightly more pragmatic, but I still believe in the potency of symbolism, and in the substantive benefits of grand gestures, whether they last past New Year's Day or not.

Better, obviously, that we should sustain these charitable impulses into the new year, and toward a broader population of needy people than one family drawn from a Christmas pool of misery. There are ways to keep this seasonal spirit simmering. Unfortunately, simply relying on our better instincts isn't one of them:You need to institutionalize your charitable impulses or they'll go a-glimmering as soon as the Visa bill arrives in the bitter cold of mid-January.

Try this on for fit:

Make this year's Christmas family next year's happy ending. Stay with them for 365 days, with the goal of putting them out of the next Christmas drawing. Ultimately they might be pulling a name out of a hat themselves, and helping some other unlucky family preserve the spirit of Christmas. It works in a surprising percentage of cases: Poor folks tend to be much more generous with what little they have than people who can afford it far more easily.

The trick is to keep in touch. Don't just toss the sack of goodies out your car window and haul ass for fear that poverty is contagious; get to know the poor as people. Show a little interest in the kids and their schooling. Give mom and dad a chance to make a little money doing odd-jobs if you've got stuff you haven't been able to get around to doing. And make it your long-term goal to see the family with a stable income before next Christmas comes around.

This all may sound a trifle moony and maudlin, but it isn't really. I wouldn't put the chances of success above 50-50, but I wouldn't bet against being a winner either. It's surprising what a small office full of jolly old elves can accomplish over the span of a year, with nothing more than an occasional phone call to a well-connected friend in high places. Or low.

But first you've got to be willing to be the Christmas spirit...sometime on a Friday afternoon in the hottest day in August...when all you want to do is get the hell out of Dodge and find an air-conditioned motel room in San Diego for the weekend.

Remember this while you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, or whatever secular or spiritual holiday season suits you:

There is no sadder time for the lonely than the season that celebrates families getting together. There is no bleaker prospect for the poor than the picture of plenty that confronts them on every street corner and television screen. And there is no place on earth where it hurts more to be poor and alone than right here at home in America, where everybody seems to have more and enjoy it better, than anywhere else on earth. Especially at Christmas.

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December 21 - December 27, 1995

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