About the time I thought the vein on my neck was going to explode from the stress of the holidays, I was suddenly struck with an unexpected heartwarming feeling. Oddly enough, this happened as I wrote the words “Pick-up ham” on my Christmas week to-do list.
It was strange that I felt sentimental about my annual trip to the ham store. Frankly, I don’t even care that much for the sugary-coated variety. I prefer the canned ham of my youth, even with the memory of its disturbing layer of gelatinous goo firmly etched in my mind. Some years back however, my parents switched us to this glazed type claiming it tasted better. I suspect the truth was that my father liked that it was already sliced. So why was I suddenly looking forward to picking up the holiday ham?
Then I remembered. I always do this chore on the 23rd, arriving about an hour before the store opens. In the long line with me are about seventy-five other ham seekers, bundled up in their coats with coupons in hand, who patiently wait together for that moment when the ham store employees open their doors. But it isn’t that moment that I remember fondly, rather it’s the hour spent in line with total strangers.
For one thing, that time standing outside the ham store is like a forced moment of calm between the hectic pace of the previous three weeks and the even more hectic pace of the upcoming three days, a nice breather from the exhausting holiday shopping, cleaning, wrapping, cooking, and hosting duties.
But mostly I enjoy talking with my fellow ham shopper. It starts with the offer of an extra coupon. Then, once the ice has been broken, we are emboldened to move on to other ham-related topics like, “Have you ever tried their spicy mustard?” or fishing for special intelligence on the pies, “How’s the French apple?”
The conversation often segues from the Christmas menu to anticipation over holiday plans. Last year, I chatted with a woman behind me who excitedly introduced a young girl at her side, “This is my granddaughter visiting all the way from South Carolina. It’s her first time here and she’s all mine for two weeks!”
The woman in front of me volunteered, “I can’t even eat this ham. My doctor has me on low-salt diet, but my son loves it. He’s flying in from college later today.”
Then I met an older gentleman who apparently lived fairly close to me in the foothill area. We started talking about a previous year’s fire and mudslides. Soon we were one-upping each other with our tales of woe. “That fire came right to the top of our street,” he said.
“Ours too, and we were evacuated from the mud four times,” I bragged.
“Well we had the mud pour into our basement. It ruined everything there!”
Okay mister, fine. You win.
I guess it might seem odd that I look forward to this time with strangers. After all, there’s plenty of holiday cheer around my own home between school performances, a fortunate bounty of gifts under the tree, and the pending arrival of our large extended family. Heck, the excitement level from my eight-year-old alone could get even the most committed Grinch into a festive spirit.
But there’s something about the camaraderie of waiting in that cold long line, sharing both a common purpose and anticipation over holiday plans, that puts me in a festive mood and reminds me of the true joy of Christmas. It’s easy to lose track of that between the shopping, cleaning, wrapping, cooking, and hosting duties, so it’s nice to give pause for a reminder, whether that reminder comes at church or at the local ham store.
When the doors do finally open, my fellow shoppers and I offer up our holiday good wishes and then rush inside to quickly grab our hams and pay. I always leave that store with more than just a main course for Christmas dinner, I leave with my holiday spirit rejuvenated, fueled up and ready for the days to come.
*note: published originally in the CS Monitor, 12/23/11