The Christmas/Advent season is upon us at last, complete with the culture war over replacing a Christian holiday with a secuarlist/pagan one. It’s sad that it has come to that, especially since this isn’t the first time that we have different religions celebrating something at the same time of year.
So let’s really brighten up things by thinking of another season: the Palm Beach social season. This season has its roots in the climate: northerners come to South Florida in the winter to escape the climate and return to their origin when the weather gets hot again in the Florida spring. During this time those who want to be seen spend a lot of time going from one ball (and sometimes a golf benefit) to another. Between all of these flashy events is daily life, and part of that daily life is going to the grocery store (or sending the help there.)
When my family moved to Palm Beach, there were no chain food stores in town. There were only two private markets: Herbert’s Lafayette and Southampton. Both of these offered a fine (if limited) selection and both delivered (a service my grandmother appreciated,) but both were dreadfully expensive. My mother would use these from the time time but generally preferred to cross the lake and shop in West Palm Beach, where the prices came down from the stratosphere.
It occurred to the Publix people that there might be an opportunity here, so they applied for a permit to build a Publix market down the street from St. Edward’s Catholic Church. Needless to say, the Town, in its usual fashion, was appalled at the idea. How can we have such a plebeian establishment like a supermarket in Palm Beach? How tacky will it look? Who who would lower themselves here to go there? And what kind of riff raff would come over to shop here? (After all, Bethesda-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church just successfully booted them off the island by canning the ladies’ rummage sale!)
But Publix didn’t get where it was then or now by taking no for an answer easily, so they persisted. They invented a Spanish style front for the store, and lowered its profile. They promised to both appoint and stock the store to fit the market (they would have been stupid to do otherwise.) Finally the Town permitted this edifice to be built, many secretly expecting it to flop in an elite place like Palm Beach.
It didn’t. Opening in 1971, its first day was, literally, the event of the season. The Shiny Sheet carried pictures of society figures with their butlers and maids crowding the parking lot and coming to fill their limousines with the reasonably priced groceries Publix carried. Even the rich and famous were sick of being ripped off. Ever since Palm Beach has found that “shopping is a pleasure” at Publix. The chain even adopted the Spanish style architecture for the rest of their stores for the next twenty years.
The first lesson from this is that, no matter how much money you have, saving it is important. In a nation which loves to “flash the cash” or worse the credit, this bears repeating. If people in Palm Beach like to save money, you should too.
Second, some of the most important things in life are the most ordinary. Amidst the ritzy charity balls and celebrity events that mark the season in Palm Beach, the opening of a grocery store made an enormous impact.
That’s the way it is with Christmas and the Incarnation. Jesus Christ came in very ordinary circumstances, born of a mother whose family had come down a long way from the time when they were kings of Judah and Israel. After escaping Herod’s attempt to eliminate him as a power challenger, he grew up in Nazareth, than and now not a place associated with the elites of this world. “‘Foxes have holes,’ answered Jesus, ‘and wild birds their roosting-places, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,'” (Matthew 8:20) characterised his life, and after being executed between criminals he was laid to rest in a borrowed tomb.
But the ordinary became the extraordinary when he ended his rest and rose from the dead, making it possible for us to do the same and to have eternal life. Like the opening of the Publix in Palm Beach, the whole history of Jesus Christ–his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return–is the “event of the season,” but in this case the season is human history. We are a part of that history and can be a part of its greatest event by not being ripped off by the Devil and by accepting the free gift of eternal life which only Jesus Christ can give.