First written December 29, 2012, published to my private writing blog March 21, 2013.
A satire I've been mulling over for years. Finally written out December 29, 2012.
"Esther, why are we here?" Ruth was a plump, grandmotherly woman in a gray blouse and black skirt. She wore a brown shawl against the evening's chill, though November in Louisiana was a bit warmer than she had anticipated. She was one of three women seated at the small conference table. Ruth and Martha had barely had time to drop their suitcases in their rooms and refresh themselves from the long bus ride before Elder Esther had summoned them to the hotel's first floor meeting room.
"I no longer need to keep this a secret from the two of you," the tiny woman in the big chair said. She was dressed in a simple blue dress and a green sweater buttoned at the throat. Her silver-white hair was freshly permed, and every rhinestone in her glasses shone like a diamond. Even as she sat, she leaned heavily on her jade-handled cane. "We are here to meet Mr. Max Lawtram, the founder of the Lawtram's chain of department stores."
Martha, a tall, humorless-looking sort in a lavender pant suit, gasped. "Max Lawtram himself? Why would he want to meet with us?"
Elder Esther opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly the door to the conference room swung open. A burly, balding man in his early seventies dressed in a business suit entered. The three women stood up.
"Sister Ruth, Sister Martha, Elder Esther, welcome. I have read so much about you and all of your good works. It is so wonderful to finally meet you in person. Please be seated."
He smiled and shook each of their hands, thanking them by name. After some pleasantries regarding their twelve-hour bus ride and the quality of their accommodations, he got down to business.
"Sisters, Elder Esther, as you no doubt know Lawtram's is the number one retailer in the United States. For the last three years our nearest competitor has realized less than half of our annual profits. And we have done it all while remaining a Godly and righteous company, refusing to cater to consumers of smutty entertainment and other negative elements of our society.
"Yet I have come to realize that we have fallen short in our faithfulness every year. You of the South Central Evangelical Church have been quite active on God's side in the War on Christmas, and your campaign to Keep Christ in Christmas has been far more effective than any other. Your call to action made clear that we at Lawtram's have failed in this regard. We, like every other retailer, have embraced the Godless commercial aspects of the season, with Santa and reindeer and 'Happy Holidays.' So beginning this year, beginning this weekend, we will be making a major change. We will be keeping Christ in Christmas as no other retailer has done.
"I apologize for the secrecy in this matter. We have taken the steps necessary to keep this campaign under wraps until we are ready to unveil it this Friday, on the traditional start of the Christmas season. A media embargo has been declared until that date so none of our competitors might know what we are up to. I have not even disclosed to Esther all that I might have, and I have asked her to keep what she knows secret until tonight. But soon, all will be revealed. Come with me to the Flagship Lawtram's in Bayouville!"
Max Lawtram escorted them out of the room and down the hall into the lobby. Just outside the doors a van from Lawtram Limo Services was waiting.
Once they were on the road Max asked the three ladies about their trip and about their ministry with the South Central Evangelical Church. Ruth and Martha eagerly shared their stories of mission trips into the Godless areas of the east and west coasts. Elder Esther sat straight and silent in her seat, her eyes hidden behind the glare of the dashboard lights on her glasses.
Soon Max Lawtram directed the driver to turn on the radio. "As we approach the store, you will notice the first of our innovations. You will hear it before you see it!"
The radio filled the van with the baby-baby-baby-ooh of the latest pop pap that was filling the airways this week. But soon the song faded and was gradually replaced by Christmas music.
"Not just any music, mind you," Max Lawtram pointed out. "So many popular Christmas songs make no mention of Jesus, or even Christmas. All of these songs, which are being broadcast from short-range towers along the highway, have been specially selected and approved."
The song came to an end, and Arabic-sounding music picked up.
"I'm Caspar!" came a voice.
"I'm Melchior!" said another.
"And I'm Balthazar!" declared a third. "And we are..."
"The THREE KINGS!" they announced in unison.
"We're following the star to savings at Lawtram's!" Caspar announced. "Won't you join us to see what you might discover there?"
The Lawtram's jingle played, followed by another selected and approved Christmas song.
"And now, if you look out of the window towards the glow in the distance..." Max Lawtram began.
"The names are non-canonical," Elder Esther stated sternly.
"I beg your pardon?"
She tapped her cane on the floor of the van for emphasis. "The names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar do not appear in scripture, nor are they ever stated to be kings. Matthew only refers to them as Magi, wise men from the East."
Max Lawtram pressed a button on his wristwatch. "You hear that, J.F.? Names non-canonical. No three kings, either. Fix it."
"You got it, boss," crackled a voice from the watch.
"Thank you so much for sharing you knowledge and correcting our error, Elder Esther," Max said sweetly. "Now, if you look ahead, you'll notice a representation of the Star of Bethlehem rising over the Flagship Lawtram's. One will shine over every Lawtram's across the nation this weekend."
The van turned into the parking lot of the Flagship Lawtram's, past the oversized inflated figures of three men in Persian garb riding camels.
"This is called a 'soft opening'," Max said. "Family, friends, and invited guests only. No media, no corporate spies. Oh, the media knows all about this already, but they also know that if anyone says anything without authorization they'll be punished severely. No more exclusives, no more packages, no more official leaks. And the competition knows about it, too, I'm sure, but they don't know what to make of it."
The van stopped at the main entrance to the store.
"This is where we get off, ladies!" Max Lawtram stepped out of the van and helped each of the women out. He was older than any of them by about ten years - well, probably older than Elder Esther, it was hard to say - but he had the physique of a man twenty years his junior.
They entered through the automatic doors and immediately heard the strains of a country song, as a man sang about a little boy trying to buy shoes for his momma for Christmas, so she would have something nice to wear when she went to meet Jesus. Sister Martha nodded approvingly.
"Thank you for coming to celebrate my son's birthday!" boomed a large man dressed in white robes at the front of the store.
"This is Chuck," Max said in an aside to his three companions. "He was our Santa Claus last year. As you can see, we found a new role for him this season."
Chuck stood over six and a half feet tall and had long, white flowing hair and a full white beard and moustache. He wore long white robes, sandals on his feet, and what appeared to be a triangular halo on his head. He was holding about a dozen balloons that said "KEEP CHRIST IN CHRISTMAS".
"Would you young ladies care for a balloon?" he asked.
"Yes, please!" piped Sister Ruth.
Elder Esther remained stern-faced and silent as they passed through the store. Max was speaking enthusiastically as they walked along.
"The problem with the secular commercialization of Christmas - well, one of the problems with it - is that it has become so deeply entangled with the idea of Christmas that it is nearly impossible to cut out he secular commercial aspects of it without removing, in the view of the public, the very 'specialness' of Christmas itself. Santa and reindeer and elves are not truly part of the Christmas story - not as you and I know it - but if you remove them you leave a gaping hole in the public perception of Christmas. So the trick is - the thing that makes the most business sense - is to substitute religious elements for the secular elements that are being removed, secular elements which, in fact, replaced the religious elements in the first place!"
Arabic-sounding music played over the PA system. "Attention Lawtram's shoppers," came a female voice. "The Star of Bethlehem is now shining in our sporting goods department! Follow it for extra-special savings on all rifles and handguns, and ammunition of all sorts, too! Remember, there's no waiting period for Lawtram's Club Card holders, so be sure to stock up and save on all your Christmas guns and ammo today! But hurry - the Star will be shining in sporting goods for only the next ten minutes!"
Max looked up. "Ah, that reminds me, I'll have to pick up some .22 long rifle rounds for my grandson Bobby! He's only five and he's getting to be a crack shot!" He spoke into his watch again. "J.F., see to it."
"Got it, boss. Five hundred box or the thousand?"
"You have to ask? And better hurry, the sale ends in less than eight minutes."
They continued through the store. Ruth noticed signs over the security cameras that said GOD IS WATCHING YOU. Martha was the first to spot ground level signs that stated SHOPLIFTERS MAKE THE BABY JESUS CRY.
"The centerpiece of many traditional retail Christmas displays is the department store Santa," Max continued. "Santa in his workshop, aided by his elves. Santa on a throne, listening to the wish lists of children sitting on his lap. Parents paying twenty bucks a pop for photos with Santa. These are all things people have come to expect. Removing them would be...disorienting." The moved toward a crowd of people near the back of the store. "This is where we have had our most effective substitution."
Children and their parents were lined up in front of a young, bearded man in robes and sandals who sat on a gilded throne. A banner stretched over him that said SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN TO COME UNTO ME.
Sister Martha stopped abruptly. "You have replaced Santa with...Jesus?"
"Not just replaced Santa with Jesus," Max said, beaming. "We've replaced the elves with Apostles!"
And sure enough, several other men in robes and sandals moved around the crowd, each one wearing a name tag. The one who stood next to Jesus and introduced each child had a tag that said PETER. Another walked by, loudly conversing with a fellow Apostle. "You might be able to find better prices somewhere else this Christmas, but I DOUBT it!"
"See, that one is..."
"...Thomas," Ruth stated. "We noticed."
"And, see, Jesus was a carpenter," Max continued. "So Santa's Workshop has become Jesus's Woodshop. Each kid gets a little wooden toy to take home, very traditional, and we've tested this latest batch right off the boat to be sure they weren't loaded with arsenic." He grinned. "All of Jesus's Apostles help him in the Woodshop, which has the latest power tools and workstations for kids and dads alike, and..."
"Jesus was a carpenter," Martha said coldly, "but the Apostles were not. Many of them were fishermen."
Max's eyes bugged slightly. "Fishermen?" He turned purple for a moment, then repeated "Fishermen?" He pulled up his watch again. "J.F., did you get that? The Apostles weren't carpenters! They were fishermen! Why the hell do we have them in a wood shop? Why the hell aren't they pushing fishing gear? Whose idea was this?"
"Well, boss..." the voice over the watch paused. "It was Johnson. Johnson had the idea for the Apostles in the Woodshop. Said it would move the power tools."
"It was a crap idea! Have Johnson fired. And pull our fishing stuff out of the warehouse! I want boats! Motors! Clothing and gear! I want every one of these Apostles in hip waders and a hat covered with lures for Black Friday!"
Max lowered his wristwatch and took a few deep breaths. Regaining his composure, he turned back to his three guests.
"You see now why I wanted, why I need you here?" he said. "We have a lot of the broad outlines taken care of. We've done a lot of the basic work for our Keep Christ in Christmas campaign. But, as they say, God is in the details, and you ladies are the experts in these details. That's why I want to sign you on as consultants to Lawtram's. With your assistance, we can be certain that Keep Christ in Christmas isn't just successful from a retail point of view, but is also theologically correct. In exchange, or course, each of you ladies will receive a generous stipend, and the South Central Evangelical Church will receive funds that will help it to spread the word about the importance of this campaign. What do you say?"
Sister Ruth and Sister Martha had brightened considerably as Max Lawtram made his final pitch. But they turned deferentially to Elder Esther, who stood off to one side, stern-faced and silent, leaning on her jade-handled cane.
"Well, Elder Esther," said Max. "What do you think?"
The little old lady considered her words carefully, then looked up at the multi-billionare across from her. "What do I think, Mr. Lawtram?" she said. "What do I think of removing the secular commercial elements of Christmas from your store and replacing them with religious commercial elements? What do I think of removing Santa and reindeer and elves and replacing them with Jesus and camels and Apostles? And what do I think of your very generous offer to take the three of us on as consultants and to provide funding to the South Central Evangelical Church, in exchange for our support of your efforts? Is that what you are asking me, Mr. Lawtram?"
"Well..." he said, fighting an urge to tug at his collar,"...well, yes."
One corner of her mouth turned up slightly. "I think it's a good start, Mr. Lawtram. Where do we draw up the agreements?"
"We have a room in the back," he said, escorting the three women past the line of children waiting to sit on Jesus's lap. "And once we're done, I'll be happy to outline for you Phase II of our plan, addressing the issue of the weekly competition between Sunday religious services and the attraction of retail outlets. Now, see, if we were to incorporate religious services directly into the retail experience..."