You have to understand that Big Kitty's plays a central role in the small town in which I live. It's not the quality of the merchandise: think Walmart, and then lower your sights a couple-three notches. It's certainly not the selection: think oversized general store, not big-box superstore. You never know what you're going to find at Big Kitty's. You're more apt to go there on a general trolling mission than you are to try to pick up something in particular.
It's hard to say what makes Big Kitty's such a central point in town. Partly it's the location, which is right across the parking lot from the old supermarket, almost downtown. But it's more than that. Big Kitty's is where we hang out. We spend hours quietly drifting around the joint, pricing cheap smoked oysters, looking for bargains on bedsheet seconds, picking up a package of bologna for the husband's sandwich next day. Even more, it's a local institution, lovingly mocked and mockingly loved. When local women get married, unless they're the poker-straight bouffant type, there's a sort of unstated local tradition: "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" may be optional, but some small accessory from the "BK Boutique" is almost _de rigeur_. (In my case, it was a small white purse.)
When it comes to cheap Christmas wrapping paper, Big Kitty's is the logical place to go. The Friday afternoon before Christmas, the joint was, of course, jumping: not quite wall-to-wall bodies, but lots of last-minute shoppers. I got myself an abundance of bottom-of-the-line giftwrap, did a quick troll around the store in case something last-minute wanted to jump me and say "take me! I'm yours", and then lined up at the cash, with all my patient neighbours.
If we have an upper crust, you won't find it at Big Kitty's. You won't see the new suburban types either. The people in that store were mostly plain-faced, overweight or, more rarely, too skinny, dressed drably, unbeautiful under the hard fluorescent lighting: housewives and garage mechanics, some teens, some retired farmers and their wives. There wasn't a decent hairdo anywhere, and those few women who wore makeup hadn't done a very good job of it. Salt of the earth, these people, but not the sort you'd find in a "quality" (ugh!) emporium.
It thunked me then, as it does so often when I look around town, that Christ chose to be born among the *poor*. At this season, we're all lushly indulging ourselves in gold foil and satin bows, tasteful music well-performed, rich food, fine drinks, the best and most carefully chosen things we can buy for the people we love. Even if we don't really believe in the reality of the Christ Child, we have a vaguely religious "soulful" pomp. We go in for chubby Renaissance angels and Victorian Santa-dolls, if we have good taste, and for cuteness if we don't. It is a season, supposedly, of elegance, comfort, cosiness, delight, abundance, the warmth of family and friends. This image is, of course, superbly mounted hype, calculated to scratch our love for grandeur and poetry--not to bring us closer to God, but to guide our worship towards the cash register.
What we forget, amidst the colour-coordinated ribbons and endless "Hallelujah" choruses, is that God chose to be born among the ordinary of this earth: those without privilege. He chose to live among those who had been written off as losers, people with no influence, people not worth regarding by the Martha Stewarts of his time. While we are drawn to success and beauty and the tasteful perfection laid out in the mail-order catelogs, we forget that that's not what God found so very fetching. What God wanted was something else entirely.
Human, humble, humanity, humane, humility: all words rooted in the Latin for "soil", _humus_. God chose to become *human*: to get God's toes into the dirt with us. Jesus chose to go hungry, to live poor, to walk dusty, to endure thirst, to suffer pain. Jesus took the same injustice that we hand out so casually to people worse off than ourselves, and he took it quiet as a lamb. God chose the humble and helpless--people like the folks lined up at the cash in Big Kitty's, standing there quietly or talking softly to a friend or spouse. People without pretense, because all pretense had long since been knocked right out of them, or they'd never had the chance for it in the first place.
This season I find myself turning away even more than usual from those things that "get you into the Christmas spirit". I find that the music--even the music I used to love--does nothing for me these days. Even Bach's Christmas music sounds stale and far-away. I want to turn my back on all prosperity that doesn't drop what it's doing to look after the less prosperous. I want to turn away from the beauty that seduces us away from looking with love on the faces of all who suffer. I want nothing to do with that "love" that revels in holiday warm-fuzzies and doesn't care about ordinary justice and care for others. Maybe it's just where I am these days.
My back is still sore from bending over the bedroom desk, folding wrapping paper and struggling with tape and ribbons. Tomorrow we'll put up the tree. Maybe that will make things different--but maybe not. Maybe this Christmas, God means me to spend my time lined up in Big Kitty's, with the people I belong with, on the most intimate and everyday level: "all poor folk and humble, all lame folk who stumble..."
Maybe this year, the Christ Child and his gentle mother wait for me out in the desert places, lit only by the stars and the moon: places of hardship and sometimes great loneliness, but also of simplicity and generosity--the companionable hospitality of the dispossessed. It wouldn't be the first time. It won't be the last.