As ashamed as I am to do so, I must admit it. Confession is the first step to redemption after all; so here goes. If for only the briefest of moments, I became the bane and torment of every department store clerks existence - the stereotypically inconsiderate, self-centered, disgruntled, mindless Christmas shopping zombie. I didnt tear out the spleen of one of Santas ill-mannered teenage elves, mind you. But I did regrettably journey knowingly and willingly into the dark side of the annual Christmas gift quest. With web printouts in hand and baby in tow, I headed out on what would prove to be a vane, yet enlightening shopping adventure. Finding the shelves bear of the camcorder/camera/MP3 player I intended to get for my oldest niece, I flagged down a hapless looking clerk with my printout that not 20 minutes earlier assured me the object of my quest was indeed in-stock. The clerk looked at my printout, then at the shelf and gave me the only hint of awareness he could muster with the look of a dog that had heard an off-key hypersonic whistle that is beyond human perception. He wandered off to his terminal and returned to assure me that the supply system listed five copies of my perspective present in-stock. Hed be right back and I glanced around to catch my bearings on where the next item on my list might be. As he approached from a distance, I saw the only thing in his hands were my printouts. Sorry, but apparently the multifunctional electro-digital-do-dad was a special order in-store pick up item. Well, since I was in-store already, Id be more than happy to pick one up. No, it had to be ordered on-line and then picked up in-store, I was told. Alrighty, then how about you go ahead and order me one and Ill go to the pick up counter and be off on my merry way? No, I had to order it from home and it wouldnt ship till after Christmas. But the stores website assured me they were available in-store and then told the clerk there were indeed five somewhere back in the cavernous confines of the storeroom. Apparently those were for people who had ordered on-line and were awaiting said in-store pick up. It was at that point that I crossed over. In that instant, my heart shrunk three times its normal size. At that moment my happy Who holiday demeanor melted, leaving in its stead a visage both bitter and brooding. While the computer system was failing the hapless clerk and his fellow employees just as much as it was failing me and my fellow shopping zombies, something, anything, had to be done! Knowing I would gain instant satisfaction and set the wheels of consumer service in motion, I launched into an enlightening and instructive, though admittedly maligned diatribe about customer service, corporate responsibility and how their computer system and website basically sucked. The clerk, having heard dozens of such rants by that time of the day, dutifully stood there, glassy-eyed and impervious, as my vitriol ricocheted off him as bullets do Superman. Gaining neither satisfaction nor service, I turned on heel; baby-laden stroller cutting a path through the throngs of my fellow poorly served and perpetually frustrated shopping zombie brethren. In my wake, another lost soul shuffled up to the clerk, printout in hand and a spark of hope in his eyes. I trekked on, saddened by the thought it wouldnt be long before the spark was extinguished and hope was a fading memory for him as well. Arriving at the MP3 players, I took my place in line waiting for assistance from the lone, clearly swamped clerk. After working his way through a number of zombies in search of Ipods and Zunes, he approached me dutifully ..even eagerly. I waved this off as a fatigued hallucination and pulled out my printouts. Sorry, but they were out of what I was looking for - imagine that -, but hed be happy to show me something in a similar price range. Excuse me? Was that the light of customer service I saw cutting through the darkness?! Indeed, it was! In the midst of showing me what was available, the clerk shared that what I was looking for was his personal preference and a hot seller. Clearly, much to my chagrin. I dont know what it was, my haggard appearance or the awe-inspiring bliss of my slumbering son in his stroller, an island of peace and hope amidst a sea of chaos, but looking around cautiously, the clerk gave me his name and told me a shipment was due this coming Friday morning. If I didnt find one somewhere else, I could call him and hed set one aside for me. Better yet, he took my name and number, just in case. At that moment, my heart grew three times, back to its normal size. And maybe, just maybe, a touch bigger. It was that small bit of commiseration and compassion that brought me back from the darkness. Forgive me for being sappy and sentimental about good customer service, but in these trying times in which we live, sometimes it is literally the little things that mean the most. Thanking him sincerely, I turned towards the checkout with the few items they actually had in-stock. Looking about, I saw my fellow shopping zombies; belligerent, disheveled and disgruntled, grumbling and cursing and in one case yelling at each other as they fought over the last copy of a new video game. Meanwhile, in the background, Andy Williams insisted it was the most wonderful time of the year. Clearly Andy had someone else do his shopping for him as he sipped eggnog and merrily crooned Christmas carols by the fireside. This was enough to turn the three Magi into bitter, whiskey-swilling Grinches. And then and there, in the midst of the tumultuous shopping hurricane, it hit me. Why did we endure the snakes and arrows of holiday shopping misfortune, suffering endless torment, frustration and disappointment? Why were the bangles and baubles so important, compared to the spirit of the season? It is because sadly, but with the best of intentions, we have equated material objects with meaning. Style is substance. Intent, sincerity and sentiment are lost, a fading, quaint bygone thing of simpler days that live only in the memory of our grandparents. In short, merchandizing has triumphed, materialism matters. It is all around us. Its why we care enough to send the very best. Its the fact that a diamond is forever. Its what drives otherwise reasonable adults to turn into a frenzied mob, clawing and fighting over the latest video-ka-banga-gizmo-tron game to prove to their children just how precious they are to them as copies are tossed into the throng like raw meat to wild, ravenous animals. In todays label-obsessed, keep-up-with-the-Jones world, weve substituted the goods for good intentions. Its not the thought that counts, as much as the price and brand name. Contrary to the eloquence of Linus, the sublime beauty of Charlie Browns humble tree and the revelation given to the Grinch on Christmas morning, Christmas really is all glitter and glitz and must come wrapped in boxes and bows these days. Take a minute and think about last Christmas. What gifts do you use today? What gifts do you even remember? What about your children? Have you ever spent hours standing in line in the cold and fighting with other shopping zombies for the latest must have toy only to find that the box and packaging maintains their interest longer than the toy does? As far back as one cold night two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, it is the giving and the thought behind the gift that matters. The baby whose birth changed the world was no prince of wealth or power, but was the Prince of Peace. He didnt enter this world with the opulence and trappings of royalty, but rather the simplicity and humility of a commoner. He wasnt adorned in the finest silks and furs, but wrapped in swaddling clothes. His grandeur was in his coming, for HE was the gift. Remember, for God so loved the world, He GAVE His only begotten son. So, while you make your way through the maddening throngs of zombies, fretting over spending as much, if not more than someone spent on you last year and you think what on earth were they thinking as you open up another meaningless blinking and beeping gizmo on Christmas morning, remember, materialism matters; but only to those who have nothing else in their lives and ultimately their hearts. For over two thousand years, its been the giving of the gift and not its glitz that counts. So save your time and money, put away your boxes and bows. After all, its not the gift, but the thought that counts, you know.