Finding the meaning to the season

So, Black Friday is now behind us. As is Cyber Monday. Still before us? About-to-Close Wednesday and Liquidation Sunday. There is now but a week until Hanukkah and a week and a half until Christmas. Time is running out to discover the real meaning of the season: Preventing every storefront on Church Street from becoming vacant and the University Mall parking lot from becoming a prairie dog colony.

Ah, to think it was only two generations ago that we feared they were going to pave paradise and put up a parking lot. For all we know, six months from now the parking lots of a great many shopping malls and auto dealers will have plenty of grass.

That is, of course, an exaggeration. There are still people shopping. A parking space within walking distance of the University Mall on a Saturday in December can still go for serious money on the black market. Let’s face it: Nothing embodies the true spirit of Christmas or Hanukkah more than a pair of Lindsay Lohan brand Mr. President footless tights ($132 and selling well according to the New York Daily News).

Nevertheless, I did take time out from shopping earlier this month so I could spend a night on the phone dialing for dollars for COTS. The Committee on Temporary Shelter just completed its end-of-the-year fundraising phone-a-thon.

I should note in the interest of full disclosure that this was not a particularly onerous form of volunteerism and that there were people there who dial for dollars a lot more often than I do and are a lot better at the job than I am. They are the real heroes. For instance, Tony Hall, a financial planner, raised a thousand more dollars for COTS than I did that night. He gets to make his calls from an office that actually has a window and is a lot closer to the bowl with the free candy. (No, I’m not jealous.)

In any case, I was reminded again of why I love this state and why — despite the time we spend watching such reality TV staples as “Project Runway” and Ashley Olson’s “Next Top Bodyguard” — the human condition is salvageable. Everyone I spoke with on the telephone that evening wanted to help COTS. In this economy, not everyone could. But everyone wanted to. And many people gave money even though it will represent sacrifice for them in the coming weeks. One less present under the tree, perhaps. Foregoing a trip to the movies. But they understood that their sacrifice was small given what it must be like for a single mother to discover one morning that there is simply no money left for the rent and there will be no more stays of execution from the landlord: You and your children have bottomed out in a way you never expected.

But it wasn’t just the people I phoned who opened their hearts (and their checkbooks). It was the volunteers who gave up that incredibly precious commodity called time. In addition to Hall, I phoned that evening with Donna Lee. Both Lee and Hall are members of the First Congregational Church of Burlington.

“I volunteer to do the calling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the wonderful, generous response I receive from the community on the other end of the phone line. Most are sympathetic and supportive to the cause,” she said. Then she added, “I volunteer because my family grew up living on the margins most of the time and I know just how easily one can fall over the edge during the tough times. I am grateful now to live in a community which gives me the opportunity to be thankful and to live out my faith in tangible ways. It is what each of us is called to do.”

Now that is the spirit of the season.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 14, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.