Thursday, December 10, 2009

Getting the holiday spirit -- Dec. 10, 2009 column


A doo-wop quartet sang in Washington’s Metro Center subway station the other day, enlivening the daily commute and picking up a little extra cash.

“Why do fools fall in love?” the men sang, slapping their chests and clapping to the beat. Most of the passengers, accustomed to such performers, kept their distance and averted their eyes. Some even turned their backs as they waited for the train.

But a man in a wheelchair rolled close to enjoy the show. He nodded in time to the music.

A man in a good wool coat and polished shoes strode up, dropped some coins for the singers and handed the man in the wheelchair a dollar bill. The recipient frowned and shrugged as if to say no, he wasn’t asking. Then he pocketed the stranger’s gift and smiled.

It was a warm moment in a city that’s not known for its heart.

The holiday season is its own gift, a reminder of what’s important in life. Most of the year, especially in tough times like these, we tend to get wrapped up in our own struggles. Then, suddenly, something happens to remind us that individual acts of kindness do count. Little things can make a difference.

At the White House, the holiday theme is “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew.” Some 800 ornaments from previous administrations went to community groups around the country to be redecorated with favorite local landmarks and returned to adorn the Christmas trees. The 18-foot Douglas fir in the Blue Room has LED lights.

If the theme and decorations are low key, though, the Obamas are hardly stinting on holiday cheer. This year’s gingerbread White House is a 56-inch by 29-inch behemoth, reportedly weighing in at 390 pounds. That’s 140 pounds of cake and 250 pounds of white chocolate icing.

The president and first lady sent a couple of hundred thousand cards that read “Season’s Greetings” and “May your family have a joyous holiday season and a new year blessed with hope and happiness.” There was no mention of Christmas and no Bible verse, as was the practice of George W. Bush.

The Obamas are welcoming 50,000 guests at holiday parties, which White House aides say is about the same number as in previous years. First lady Michelle Obama announced that White House employees are supporting local food banks and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program.

Last year, Toys for Tots distributed shiny, new toys to 7.6 million children in 650 communities nationwide. I was surprised to learn that the Marines won’t accept military- or firearm-themed toys. No toy guns, not even ones that squirt water. The Toys for Tots Web site notes that gifts of books, games and sports equipment “make a significant contribution to the educational, social and recreational interests of these children.”

The White House has launched a “Feed a Neighbor” program on, which includes information on how to participate locally and a downloadable anti-hunger tool kit.

These measures come as charitable giving is down. Two-thirds of public charities reported decreases in donations last year, according to the Giving USA report released in June. The overall decline was small, however, about 2 percent less than in 2007. Charities report greater demand for food, housing and other help.

The recession, swine flu and concerns about drunk driving and sexual harassment have dampened corporate holiday spirits around the country. Many companies are cutting back on holiday parties this year. Still, about 62 percent of companies plan holiday parties, according to a survey by the Challenger, Gray & Christmas consulting firm. That’s down from 77 percent of companies having parties last year and 90 percent in 2007.

In the nation’s capital, some companies and associations are saving money with holiday pot luck dinners or going for happy hour instead of a restaurant lunch or dinner. Some have switched from Secret Santa presents in the office to Toys for Tots donations.

The Wall Street Journal’s reported on creative ways some companies are rewarding employees in the post-bonus world. Executives at the Proforma Support Center in Cleveland have promised to clean the snow off all 100 employees’ vehicles at least once a month this winter. The executives also treating employees to breakfast weekly.

At Metro Center, I got on the train and turned back to see the quartet still singing. The man in the wheelchair lingered, enjoying the music.

(c)2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment: