In 2002, I sat down and posted some random thoughts on Christmas morning at my long-neglected humor site, Monkey Spit. About six months later, the company for which I worked suddenly went out of business (I have a $21,000 judgment against the owners from the Labor Board, but I’ve never been able to collect on it), and the intervening decade was marked by bouts of unemployment and other difficulties. The years 2009-2011 in particular were very trying; the economy was down, our income was severely reduced, and it was not a good time. The past year has been a dramatic improvement, so this Christmas has been a welcome change. I recently had occasion to look back on what I had written, and found that I made some pretty good points. Here’s what I wrote:
Christmas Day 2002
I heard an old recording of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” yesterday. It sounded like Judy Garland, and it was a rather melancholy version of the song, and I really liked it a lot. Naturally, I looked it up. (Thank God for Google.) As I thought, there were some differences in the song. Here’s the story: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was written for the 1944 Judy Garland movie Meet Me in St. Louis (but you probably knew that), and the lyrics were a bit different than the way it’s currently done by most singers; instead of “from now on,” the song originally said “next year, all our troubles will be out of sight.” All mention of happy times are either in the past or future, except the one line “have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
The biggest change, the one that jumped out at me, was the fact that “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” wasn’t in the original version; Frank Sinatra inserted that when he recorded the song. The way Judy sang it, it went Someday soon we all will be together, if the Fates allow. Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
My point, and I do have one, is that it’s easy to have a “Merry Christmas” when everything is going well. The traditional perfect Dickensian Currier & Ives Christmas, as portrayed in Sinatra’s rose-colored version, is a lovely vision of how things ought to be, and if that’s your Christmas experience, then you’re very blessed. But I think the original version of this song captures something much more valuable, the notion of guts. It takes guts to decide by sheer force of will to have a “merry little Christmas” when things are lousy. When you’re broke, when one of your loved ones is halfway around the world fighting in some war, or somebody has gone missing, or something is just generally screwed up, then gritting your teeth and pushing for happiness in spite of the circumstances is heroic. I love the notion of the heroic. Judy Garland’s quiet determination to “muddle through somehow” is a much more emotionally satisfying moment than Sinatra’s shiny happy holiday. Maybe it’s me.
While we’re on the subject of Christmas songs, have you heard Jack Johnson’s version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”? Finally somebody has corrected the glaring flaw in that song. For fifty years now, everybody has sung that thing, gliding right on past the disgusting hypocrisy and phony glad-handing on the part of the other reindeer. Rudolph is harassed, insulted and abused by the rest of the herd, but then when he turns out to be useful they all want to be his best pal, and the outrage of the song is that Rudolph lets them get away with it. Johnson sets that injustice to rights.
Those of us who had the experience of being unpopular usually found the Rudolph song annoying. Johnson’s version adds a couple of new verses to the end, where Rudy lets the other reindeer have it but good for their sudden turnaround. I was driving down the road when I heard it for the first time, and the new ending took me by surprise. I cheered when I heard it. “It’s about time!” sez I. Go find it. It’s on one of those collections of “alternative” Christmas songs.
Now, to other matters. One of the popular notions of late is the idea that the Spirit of Christmas is giving and sharing and caring and all those nice-sounding words. We’ll ignore for a moment the fact that the story of the Nativity is really not about caring and sharing, but about duty and sacrifice, and run with the popular notion for a minute. I stumbled upon this website recently, and I think it’s an extremely worthwhile project, and I’m going to talk about it for a minute.
A little background: In Great Britain and other areas, December 26 is Boxing Day. That’s the day when you’re supposed to give little gifts to the service people that keep your life running smoothly; the newspaper carrier, the postman, the trash collector, the doorman, delivery person, hairdresser, whoever it is that does the things you need done on a regular basis. It’s the day to acknowledge the working stiffs. I think that’s a good idea. Of course, nowadays we don’t have such a clear distinction between the working stiffs and the upper crust. Some working people make pretty good money and some high-status people make surprisingly less than we might expect, a lot fewer of us have servants, a lot of formerly snooty jobs have become ordinary, and vice versa. In any case, a lot of us working stiffs are living precariously close to the ragged edge of disaster; some of us are living paycheck to paycheck, and one good emergency can push us over the edge into catastrophe. December 26 is also known as the Feast of St. Stephen. You remember him from Sunday School, right? He was the Disciple who was responsible for supervising the distribution of charity to the poor and needy. The feast day in his honor is supposed to be celebrated by giving to those in need.
A guy by the name of Keith Taylor noticed the needs of the working stiffs and decided to do something about it. His project is called Modest Needs. Go to his site, read all about what he’s doing and why, and then pony up some cash.
Okay, okay, I’ll give you a brief overview, since you asked so nicely. You might have heard about this on NPR or seen it in People Magazine or one of the newspapers or something, but here it is again anyway. Keith Taylor decided to start practicing the ancient idea of tithing, or giving 10% of his income to help others. He wanted to give it to people who needed it, instead of paying for the maintenance and payroll of a church or social-service organization, so he put up a website to find people who need help. His intent was to find ordinary working people like himself who had a sudden unplanned need for a small amount of money–a doctor bill or car repair or something that could be a real burden to somebody who couldn’t afford it. He had a total budget of $350 per month to give. In March of this year, he began sending out small checks, usually under $75, to people who asked for help through his site.
The word spread, and people began donating money for him to disburse. Currently, Modest Needs is providing about $10,000 a month to meet these little emergencies. $185 for new tires and a headlight for somebody’s car, $400 for the first month’s rent on an apartment for somebody else, some utility bills, college tuition payments, doctor and dental bills, stuff like that.
Listen, go to the website. Read about it. Click the button and make a donation. It’s Christmas. Make a difference for somebody. There are a bunch of organizations that provide for the truly indigent–homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, World Vision, Compassion International, and so on. They feed the hungry and clothe the naked. If you support them, good for you. Keep doing it. But if you have a few bucks to spare, help out the people who are just like you except they just got hit by an emergency that they can’t afford. Somebody else said it really well: you can’t change the world, but you can change one person’s world. So do it.
Since I wrote that piece, a few things have changed, but the points are still valid, I think. One thing that’s changed is Modest Needs; at the time I wrote this, the organization had been in existence for less than a year and was making grants of around $10,000 per month, mostly in small amounts. Today, Modest Needs has a full-time staff of twelve and distributes about $1.8 million annually, usually in grants of $750 to $1000. Their mission has not changed at all; they still give small amounts of money to working people facing emergency expenses that could otherwise push them down into poverty. Amazingly, they appear to be the only organization in the country doing this.
Here’s the thing that the comfortably well-off don’t understand; living paycheck-to-paycheck is like playing Jenga with your life as the prize. For a person with money in the bank, an unexpected expense is an inconvenience; your kid takes a tumble on the basketball court and comes home with a busted tooth, it’s not that big a deal; dental insurance picks up most of the bill and the balance puts a little dent in your savings. Maybe. For the working poor, it’s a different situation. First, there’s no dental insurance, so this is coming out of pocket. Second, the savings probably amounts to a few hundred bucks at most, if there hasn’t been a crisis in a while. Paying the dental bill means the lights get shut off. Taking time off from work to deal with the dentist means the next paycheck will be short, which means the rent is late, and the snowball effect continues, to the point that one big unexpected emergency can push a family into homelessness and poverty astonishingly quickly, unless there is somebody they can turn to for help. Sometimes that’s a friend or relative. Frequently there’s nobody to call.
The social services organizations do a pretty good job of assisting those who have found themselves living in poverty; they expend a lot of money dealing with the long-term ramifications of economic disaster, but there are a large number of their clients who could have avoided needing those services in the first place if somebody could have given them a well-timed gift of a few hundred dollars with which to cover the emergency that knocked over their whole world. There are a lot of people for whom a relatively small amount of money could be the difference between continuing to scrape by or living in a cardboard box.
Modest Needs exists to meet those expenses before they become major crises.
Take a look at Modest Needs‘ profiles at Guidestar.Org, Network For Good, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, all of whom have awarded Modest Needs their highest possible ratings for transparency, governance, and fiscal responsibility. An unusually high percentage of their donations go directly to assistance grants as compared to some other charitable organizations; in 2010, all administrative and managerial expenses were paid for by specific donations earmarked for that purpose. If you’re looking for a charity to support in this Season of Giving, you could do a lot worse than Modest Needs.