“Christmas is o-vah!” he shouted, in his thick New England accent.
Those words, in that accent, and the whole story that followed, have become a yearly Christmas tale in my house. I told it first that night, dubbing that man “the Christmas guy” even before the story got a much better ending the next day.
It all started the Saturday after Christmas, when my parents and I pulled into the parking lot of the hardware superstore near our home when we lived in Connecticut. As I pulled into an empty spot a guy facing me in his work-grade pickup truck in the spot straight ahead scowled.
“I think that guy was starting to drive through,” said my mom. And that, indeed, was what it looked like. So, ever the courteous driver, I backed up out of my spot to let him pull through.
But he didn’t pull through. He pulled into the spot I vacated — my spot, I like to call it — got out of his truck and headed into the store.
I was baffled — more startled by what he had done than angry. I rolled down my window.
“Hey!” I said. “I thought you were just pulling through. I didn’t know you were going to take my spot!”
He shrugged his shoulders and kept walking. So, with more passive-aggression than holiday generosity, I called out “Merry Christmas!”
That got him. He locked eyes with me and spoke the immortal words: “Christmas is o-vah!”
Of course, Christmas was very much not over. In the Catholic Church, the Christmas season lasts until the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord — and that was weeks away.
I saw the Christmas Guy several more times in the store, and I confess that I went into little-brother mode. Little brothers are weak and small, so we compensate by identifying the weak spots of others and using them to be as annoying as possible.
I guessed that, as a man who shares in our common American parking-conscious humanity, somewhere deep in the Christmas guy there was a sore spot on his conscience. I decided to dance on that spot. I saw him twice in two different aisles, and once in the front of the store. Each time, I paused, smiled, and waved. Each time he scowled and looked away.
Yes, I was pathetic. But the next day, redemption entered in.
That Sunday was the Feast of the Holy Family, at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, a day and place that emphasized in major ways that Christmas was so not over yet. Our girls wore green velvet dresses with white ribbons. Our boys had new red-and-white plaid vests. Directly across from our typical seat, a giant Bavarian crèche in a glass case was set up between the baptismal font and the ambo. To our left, in the seats in front of the baptismal font, giant wreaths hung over each pew.
When Mass ended, April and the kids stayed put while my mom and I headed out a side pew to see if there were donuts in the Parish Hall.
We found no donuts. Instead, we found the Christmas Guy.
There he was, the man who took my parking spot, wearing a green sweater. He and his wife were Catholic, and they were coming to our church after our Mass for a baptism.
My mom and I both waved, and got the familiar scowl — touched by surprise this time.
Then, when I headed back to the pew, I discovered another irony: He was choosing a seat right next to my family. Here was the man whose last words to me were “Christmas is o-vah!” sitting in Christmas attire in a church that looked like it has been decorated by Hollywood for a Christmas special.
My wife April was still there, sorting out six kids’ jackets. “No donuts,” I whispered. “And guess what? That guy who just sat down — that’s the Christmas guy from the parking lot!”
April looked over, astonished, and the kids, reading her body-language, all turned to stare at the man. Then, as they stepped out of the pew to head home, they all smiled and waved to the Christmas guy. I was the last one out.
I wasn’t sure what to say to him. The day before I had fancied myself keeper of his conscience. Today, as he waited to see a baptism, I was aware that Christmas celebrated a far greater keeper of the world’s conscience.
I wanted to say “I forgive you.” I wanted to say “I feel stupid for being petty.” I wanted to get something other than a scowl from him, for once.
But I couldn’t say all that. So I simply said, “Hey, Merry Christmas. For real.”
He didn’t smile, but he didn’t scowl either. Instead, the Christmas Guy quietly said “Merry Christmas.”