12/25/2013 03:38 pm ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

Whipping Cream, False Eyelashes, and Great-Great-Grandma's House: Searching for the Meaning of Christmas

Like some wanderer following a random star, I ventured out in dawn's early light (mixing my metaphors, like a grammatical fruitcake), searching for meaning. Actually, I was going to the grocery store because we were running low on cat food and fat-free half-n-half. Whatever the quest, I arrived at the same destination: a fresh understanding of what this crazy, commercialized, chaotic, and emotionally cataclysmic Christmas season is all about.

No matter that it was -1 on the thermometer and the wind chill in suburban Chicago threatened to cease all molecular activity, early on the 24th I pulled on my electric purple 1980s parachute pants (ugly, but warm) and joined a troupe of blurry-eyed, shuffle-paced folks who looked like extras from the Walking Dead--people who had clearly been up all night putting together dollhouses and drum sets, and trying to perfect the family recipe for candied kiwi au gratin. At the dairy case, I met a man wearing a Fargo hat with earflaps, his pale eyes misting as he scanned the nearly empty shelves. His lips trembled, and he seemed so distraught I thought his wife had left him for his ne'er-do-well brother after emptying the offshore bank accounts.

"They're out of whipping cream," he said.

I joined the search party, discovering every artificial flavor of coffee creamer, but no whipping cream. I thought my new heavy-hatted and heavy-hearted friend would cry. I suggested two other stores to try, and off he trudged in his North Face gear, vowing not to go home empty handed.

Whipping cream should carry the surgeon general's warning: Consume too much, and you'll be dead from clogged arteries before the Christmas tree needles fall. In other words, it's the kind of thing you buy to make that once-a-year dessert because company is coming.

And that, my friend, is the first hint to the real meaning of the season. Confused? Read on.

In the days leading up to Christmas, I've endured the shopping hordes, far less naughty and surprisingly nice. Like the fellow shopper who gave me unsolicited, helpful advice on a dress I was buying (as opposed to rolling on the floor and laughing at me). Or the makeup artist who, overhearing my question, gave me the insider's tip on how to apply false eyelashes (let the glue sit for a minute and then press them into place). I was grateful, since the last time I attempted this, I looked like Quasimodo with one eye glued shut, which did nothing for the swanky dress I had bought. Why had he helped me? I wasn't spending any more money that day. Surely he had richer faces to adorn with light refracting concealer cream.

It was kindness, another hint about the reason for the season.

The biggest clue of all was the family I met on the 23rd in the downtown Chicago train station -- a mom and three children. The littlest one was wide-eyed with excitement, and held up two fingers when I asked how many days until Christmas. She was quiet and well-behaved, but emitted enough energy to supercharge the downtown power grid.

They were on their way home, the soft-spoken, droopy-eyed mother told me, and explained that they'd been on a bus for the past 417 hours, from rural Alabama to Chicago, and now were waiting for the train to take them home in the suburbs. She and the children hadn't been back to Alabama for five years, and the whole extended family had gotten together. She displayed a five-generation photo on her iPhone, the center of which was the children's 100-year-old great-great-grandmother.

Here is the last piece of my meaning mosaic. All the over-the-top things we do at Christmas may seem as trivial as whipping cream and false eyelashes, but the reason is as potent as an interminable bus ride from Alabama. The man in the Fargo hat was a hero when he walked in his back door with the whipping cream, as if he had bagged the Christmas goose with his bare hands. I'm as giddy as a teenager with my new lashes and glue, and grateful for that Lancôme elf who shared the secret of their adhesion. And some great-great-grandma in Alabama is still smiling because her Chicago-based family came all that way to see her.

We do what we do to make the day special for ourselves and for others. Tis the season -- make it merry.