Tuesday, January 18, 2011

the true spirit of Christmas

if there's one word to describe our December, that's it.
Our Christmas to-do list scrolled so long
I wondered how we'd find the time to tackle the tasks in the double digits
when, as of December 17, I hadn't given thought to anything upwards of 7.

The closer we crept to the twenty-fifth, the more my attitude toward our countdown to Christmas turned from eager anticipation to an anxiety-induced apprehension.
Each night I'd lie awake in hopes that I might puzzle out the perfect way to do it all.
I had parties to plan.
Appearances to make.
Presents to buy, to wrap, and to take
in carry-ons much too small for my taste.
I had finals to finish and papers to write
and deadlines that all seemed just a little too tight.
And speaking of tight, let's take a look at my jeans.
Too bad time at the gym had become a thing of my dreams.
And in the midst of our biggest YW's event of the year--
when I needed, more than ever, to kick it into gear--
I got sick! so sick I couldn't even speak.
Try directing 90-plus kids when you can't make a peep,
and taking on a last minute Christmas lesson the same week.
I'd end each day at the bank with a sigh.
You'd never believe the lines in lobby and drive
or the many, many harsh and thankless replies
from those who'd had to wait maybe a minute's time.

This is what crossed my mind each night I'd tuck into bed.
Falling asleep soon felt like the luxury of a long-remembered dream.
And as much as I hate to admit it, it took its toll on me.
That's what I got for pairing long days with short sleep cycles.
And by golly!  
Let me tell you.
When bad news finds you while you're in that place
you'll feel like your world's fallen to pieces,
and that there's not a soul on earth who can help you put it back together.

Which takes me to Thursday night.
The eve of Christmas Eve.
It'd been one of those days.
Nonstop work
on little-to-no sleep,
and a million-and-one errands to run before the following day's flight.

Initially I'd planned to take a break from it all with a quick visit to the temple.
We'd gone every night that week as Parker's Christmas gift to his parents.
(Their Christmas wish for the last two years has simply been that we kids give the gift of selfless service.  We each write a letter detailing what we did and send it their way in lieu of gifts.  
That's the plan at least.  
We're still working out the kinks
a.k.a. trying to convince the parentals to let us do both.
We love that Christmas is the one time of year we can really spoil you).

But of course, that night, work ran late.
Parker waited patiently for me like the good husband he is,
but by the time I made it home, I knew, if he didn't leave just then, he'd miss it altogether.
So I told him to go
and I watched him leave.
And bid goodbye to the brief moment of solace I'd looked forward to the whole day long.
My eyes welled up just a little as he walked out the door.
I so wished we could be going together.
But I knew, 
deep down, 
that my mind would have been elsewhere the entire time had I gone.

I had too much to do.
And to little time to do it.
"If I can just make it through tomorrow,"
I thought.
"I'll be home."

Home sweet home!
Less than twelve hours 'til I'd be there.
Less than twelve hours 'til I'd be footloose and fancy free,
laughing with family around our big bushy tree.
I could. not. wait.

And that's when it happened.
My Dad called to remind me to check-in.
My Mom and I talked over the itinerary.
"I swear the email I saw today said 3:15 Chels.  
Are you certain you booked the later flight?"

"I work until 3:15
 I've known I'd be working Christmas Eve since September.  
I'm certain Dad and I booked the 5:15."

"Huh...I must be losing my mind."

"Oh Mom. It's been gone for awhile.  
Not to worry.
Look how well you've managed life without it!"

Har. Har. Har.
I know...just read on and be grateful I'm not your child.

We chatted for a bit longer before I signed off to start focusing on my pack.
I had loads of laundry to work through
and 6 bags worth of presents and necessities to consolidate into just 2.
Leave it to Delta to charge you $25 per checked bag.
(Yes, I realize this is not just a Delta policy. 
I'm just a little bitter.
Justifiably so.)

In the midst of my wrestling match with bag #1's zipper, I hear my phone.
"Daddy! I am officially halfway packed!  You'd be so proud of my UPS-packing skills.  It's in the blood!"

"We doubled checked your flight Chels.  I guess they're consolidating flights because there's so few fliers this season. The 5:15 flight's nowhere to be found."

Blood boiling. Heart racing.  
That I'm precariously close to a complete state of panic is evident by my emphasis on that last "t."
"I can't believe it...
I can't fix this.
Who switches your flight less than 12 hours before take-off?
There has to be something they can do."

"I'm sorry sweetie.  I've talked to three customer service reps on the phone now.  The 3:15's the only flight that will get you home to us tomorrow."

"I can't take it."

"There's no way?"

"There's no way. 
None I can see at least.
Half our teller line's already off for the holiday.
The other half's scheduled to work.
There's no one to take my place..."

"That's fine sweetie.  You need to do what's best for you.
We'll still get to see you over Christmas."

But we both know it won't be the same.
My family's Christmas Eve is our Christmas Day.
We open everything outside of our stockings
and love. every. minute.
I know that's a bit different than most homes.
It's a White tradition that just seemed to evolve and gain strength as the magic of Santa dearest diminished.
I chalk it up to having a UPS Dad.
We'd call him a million-and-one times on Christmas Eve night to see just when he'd be home.
He knew we hated guesstimates, so he complied with our pleas for a specific time,
and answered patiently when we'd call to inquire about his whereabouts if he went even a minute past his anticipated arrival.
And, of course, this all took place on his most stressful and hectic workday of the year.
He's a saint, I tell you.
And he's the reason Christmas Eve always felt like Christmas to me.
When Dad came home, it felt like Santa'd come too.
And I wouldn't trade those memories of him walking through the door for the world.
We know what it means to wait, dear friends,
even if it isn't overnight.

In addition to our unique tradition, we had another special event to look forward to this Christmas Eve...
a very white Christmas in the lovely Lake Tahoe!
I'd been looking forward to it since the November night my Mom & I spent a solid 5-hours trying to coordinate a cabin rental over the phone.
Not only would it be an adventure and the picture of a wintry white Christmas,
it'd also be the first time all my extended family'd gathered to spend Christmas day together in years.

My Mom & Dad planned to take our little family up there Christmas Eve night to spend some time together before the crowds came
and, I assume, to take care of logistics.
It'd be the first time anyone'd set foot inside the rental.
And oh boy, were we in for a surprise!
Details on that to come...

Needless to say, with the swift click of the mouse, Delta'd deftly destroyed any hope of my spending the holidays at home.
Coming home Christmas day changed everything.
It meant a lonely Christmas Eve in our teeny tiny apartment,
a split Christmas for my family
(as someone would have to stay behind to await our Reno arrival),
and a pathetic and potentially hectic Christmas morning spent in the SLC airport.
Because, let's be honest.
By the time we touched down on the Tarmac Christmas would be long over.

It just didn't seem fair.

I quickly called my boss to explain the situation.
I'd convinced myself that he'd give me that last hour-and-a-half off when he heard my sob story.
What sort of Grinch would let 90 minutes be the difference between my making and missing the Christmas at home I'd blathered on about for the last three weeks?
My boss.
My boss the Grinch.
I understood why he said no.
I'd known he shouldn't make an exception.
I guess I just didn't understand why he wouldn't
He had two capable tellers,
a traffic forecast that indicated it'd be a very slow day,
and two-plus years of tellering experience.
He could very well jump in if the forecast failed us and lines started to snake out the front door.
But again,
he couldn't-wouldn't-shouldn't.
Whatever the reason.
And that left me with just two options.

1.  Convince a teller to come back from their vacation to cover.
2. Skip Christmas.

My boss wished me luck before saying goodbye.
I could hear the skepticism in his voice.
We both knew I faced an impossible task.
And as soon as the line had gone dead, 
a Fantasia of tears and the saddest of sobs broke the silence.

We have 6 tellers, including me.
Tellers 1 & 2 were set to work right alongside me.
Teller 3'd already left town.
Teller 4 seemed to be screening any and all work-related calls.
And Teller 5, well, she's the reason I'm even writing this post.
Her name is Shauna.

She's the top teller in the Mountain West Region,
a sales machine,
and one of the sweetest and most genuine people you'll ever meet.
Seems like a paradoxical personality right?
It kind of is.
But she pulls it off just perfectly.
She's the country bumpkin in the Christmas sweater whose just killing it at the black suit-and-tie, corporate Wells Fargo.
It's the neatest thing.

I often tell Shauna she's superwoman.
In addition to being a phenomenal teller,
she manages a WeightWatchers clinic,
oversees a rental property where the renters never pay,
makes dinner every night for her husband and three grown kids living at home,
and, for the last 6-plus months, has taken on the role of primary caretaker to a mother who's battling MERSA in a fight for her life.

She does it all well,
does it all willingly,
here's the kicker,
does it all with a smile.

I've never once heard her complain.
She's an angel.
I knew that.
I just never thought she'd be my Christmas angel as well.

I called her before I'd talked to the rest of the team.
I tried to camouflage my tears as I told the story,
 but because she's a mom I'm nearly certain she saw right through my attempt at an unnaturally optimistic facade.

She decried Delta for their lack of notice and professionalism and asked that I please keep her posted on the other tellers' replies.
If no one else could cover me, she'd do it.
She just had to see if her sister could leave work early to take her mom to the ER for her blood test.

I pleaded with Shauna to disregard my request.
From what I understood, the week her sister took her first and final shift at the hospital she'd requested compensation to make up for the hours she'd be missing at work.
"Your mom comes first Shauna.  
If I'd known that visit was on the agenda I never, ever would have asked."

Despite my pleas, she still insisted I call her with an update.
I said I would.
But the update I planned to give was that I'd already switched my flight.
I couldn't-shouldn't-and wouldn't let Shauna do this for me.

I blew through the call tree in five minutes time.
No answer.
Wish I could.

Looks like we'll be spending Christmas alone,
I surmised as I tried to plink out my Dad's cell number through bleary eyes.
I pushed what looked like a green button, then raised the phone to my tear-stained cheek.

But it wasn't my dad.
"Chelsey!  I've been trying to get a hold of you.  My husband Rob's going to take mom to the hospital.  We're gettin' you home!"

Oh Shauna!
The person with the best reason to say no said yes...
said yes without even waiting to see if she was my last available option.

I protested, but she wouldn't have it.
"I'm staying whether you go or not.  And let's be honest, it'd make a heck of a lot more sense if I didn't stay for nothing!  
You're not missing Christmas Miss Chelsey.  I won't have it!"

And this time the tears came freely.
I couldn't tell her what it meant to me.
Couldn't tell her just what she'd done.

She shoo-shooed my compliments, side-stepped my thank yous, and skipped right by my promises to return the favor.
"All you need to do to make this worth my while is have a fantastic time with your family  and a very, Merry Christmas."

Parker walked through the door just a few minutes later and rushed over to hug his weepy mess of wife.
I could tell he thought I'd just reached my breaking point,
that the packing had sent me over the edge.
So I relayed the story.
Every detail.
And when I'd finished he pulled me back and said.
"Wow, that makes sense."
I pulled back and stared up at him with a quizzical look and asked that he explain.

"I didn't want to leave you home alone tonight.  
I wished I could stay here and help you.  
But every time I thought of changing my plans, I felt more strongly that I needed to go.  Nothing special happened there.  
It was just like any other night.
Except for a one thing.

As we waited to enter the small sealing room, a temple worker came to my side, squeezed my arm, and said,
'You'll be blessed for being here tonight.
And your wife...she'll be blessed too.
I just wanted you to know that.'

It's nothing special, I know.
But what once seemed so random now makes perfect sense."

He held me closer then, apologizing again for not having been there to help me puzzle it all out. 
But we both knew he'd done his part.
And I marveled, again, at how blessed I'd been to have found him.
My life's so much happier for having him in it.
As, I'm discovering, my holidays are too.

I learned a valuable lesson from the uncertainty of my Christmas that night.
I couldn't have cared less about the piles of gifts,
the twinkling tree,
or the cozy cabin nestled away in Lake Tahoe.
All I wanted that Christmas was my family.
And the only way I'd be able to find my way to them was through the willing sacrifice of another.
A gift they'd give freely, without any expectation of debts of be paid or favors to be gained.
A gift for which words of gratitude would never be enough.
A gift which would be treasured by the giver simply because of the joy it'd bring to another heart.
Does this sound like a gift given by one who has the true spirit of Christmas?
the true spirit of Christ?
I'd say so.
Because He gave us all an eternal gift that's very much the same.

The next day, after sneaking a little thank you gift into Shauna's teller station, I learned again the meaning of the spirit of Christmas and how it translates so perfectly into the 
spirit of Christ.

We work in a very affluent community.
I see accounts with balances 5, 6, and 7 digits long each and every day.
From what I'd heard of Christmas at the bank, it sounded to me like we'd be buried in holiday treats, sweets, and all sorts of fun eats from those loyal customers in our community.
I soon learned these were unrealistic expectations.
Tellers and bankers who'd worked in other areas were shocked to see that, as of Christmas Eve, we still had no candies, no cards, nor anything even remotely close to what they'd seen in their other areas.
Poorer areas, mind you.
Our branch manager even went so far as to try and pass off a box of homemade chocolates he'd bought from a fundraiser as a customer's sweet treat to the bank.
Yes, it was that sad.

Just around the time we'd uncovered the chocolate cover-up, a customer named Seth came into the bank.
Seth is a sweetheart.
He is absolutely kind.
He always goes out of his way to thank us
for things as simple as smiling
or printing a balance on his receipt.
"I hate to put you through all this trouble,"
he tells me that anytime I help him look up his account,
before depositing $20 cash here and $20 cash there
into accounts creeping precariously close to zero.
And then, you know what he does?
He thanks me again.
Do you know how many people never say thank you?
Do you know how many people expect me to look up their accounts, fill out their deposit slips, and decipher just exactly what they're looking to do from the pile of checks they've chucked in the drive-thru tube before rolling up their window and proceeding to glare at me every-other-second as if to indicate that waiting more than one minute's time for me to finish is just absolutely unsatisfactory customer service?
Seth is a breath of fresh air at the bank.
And he gave me reason to believe, once again, that the Spirit of Christ was still alive this Christmas.

Seth walked into the bank that Christmas Eve carrying a box of a dozen-plus Einstein's bagels,
plus two tubs of cream cheese,
napkins, knives, and all the odds and ends.
And said simply, 
"I only wish I could do more."

He didn't have any transactions he needed run,
didn't have any reason at all to be in the area.
He made a special trip to the bench to say hi, thank you, and Merry Christmas.

The spirit hit me so strong in that moment, it took all my strength to keep my composure and steer clear of the tears.
But as I returned from delivering a message to our branch manager, I caught a full glimpse of Seth's ensemble.
And I lost it.

From what I knew of Seth's background, he'd moved here from Los Angeles to be with family, and, 
more specifically, 
to help take care of a family member who'd fallen ill.
Like all good tellers, we'd comment on the weather and we discovered,
on an especially cold December day, 
that Seth did not own a pair of pants.
At first we were shocked.
How on earth could someone survive the seasons in just shorts?
And that's when Seth politely reminded us that,
up to this point,
he'd lived in L.A.
We nodded our understanding and expressed our concern until he assured us that, when he'd saved enough, he'd invest in a good pair of pants to get him through the winter.
We talked that day of playing Secret Santa and creating a "pants fund" for our beloved Seth.
But that was all just talk.
An idea that, within minutes, was long forgotten.

I desperately wished that Christmas Eve, that I'd been the one to follow through.
As I walked back to my teller station to see the spoils he'd brought us, I saw Seth's pants.
But they weren't pants.
Not real pants at least.
They were make-shift pants;
a pair of shorts layered over a thin pair of dark grey sweats that barely covered his ankles.

I'm no expert on men's pants,
I can confidently say that the money Seth used to buy us our breakfast of bagels could easily have covered the cost of a pair of pants.
I'm certain of it.
And it spoke volumes to me that this is the man who brought our branch a thank you.
Our branch's only thank you.

The posts to come will cover all our holiday adventures.
You'll see our families, our favorite gifts, our Christmas-card covered fridge,
and all those things that just scream Christmas.
But I wanted to make sure you saw this first
because outside of time spent with friends and family,
these are the experiences that made my Christmas.

I love this Gospel.
I love what it teaches me.
And I love my Savior
and those people who help me know Him.
Shauna and Seth helped me know Him this year.
I hope you'll make it a goal to help someone you know, know Him too.
"Giving, not getting, brings to full bloom the Christmas spirit.  Friends are remembered and God obeyed.  The spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world's busy life and become more interested in people than things.  To catch the real meaning of the spirit of Christmas, we need only to drop the last syllable and it becomes the Spirit of Christ."
--President Thomas S. Monson

Merry Christmas 2010


  1. Um...Thanks for making me cry at work! :-) What great Christmas stories, how amazing Shauna is! It was also so good to see you guys I miss you already!

  2. Don't you just love people like Shauna. I wish I could be like her. I am so glad you made it home for Christmas! It was fun to talk for a second yesterday. We miss you guys

  3. Chels...
    Loved your post...I've missed you! Your sweet story tugged at my heart and I've decided that next Christmas I want you to send Shauna AND Seth here to spend it with us! What great people you rub shoulders with there at the bank. Isn't that the way...without fail...those most humble are the first to give. Hope you're doing great. Love you, Mom