A Christmas Stroll in Manhattan
In the years to come, I have been given these things. My relationship with God has changed, dramatically, since that first Christmas Eve when I got down on my knees. It is stronger, though less conventional; I no longer pray on Christmas Eve because every moment of every day, I am in prayer – my life is a conversation with God (to steal a wonderful turn of phrase from a wonderful and famous book). If I think it, if I feel it, my God, my OB1, hears and responds. I was not given an easy life, in response to the prayer in 1983 but I was given a life better than some, a life with enough happiness and enough pain to make sure that I know what this life is really about. I don’t know, absolutely, which is a good thing because that means I will always have more to learn.
In spite of the fact that my life, my personality, my relationship with God and my form of prayer have all changed, I still spend a little time alone in the dark on Christmas. It is, usually, no longer on Christmas Eve but on Christmas morn. My habit of rising at four thirty each day allows me the luxury of solitude for a few hours on Christmas Day. Today I rose at five am (for Christmas I gave myself an extra half hour of sleep). I did some housework, some last minute Santa Clausing, some email answering and I had a couple of Christmas cookies for breakfast (this is an important part of the holiday, one that even this health and fitness fanatic insists upon: the Christmas cookie breakfast). At six am, I put on my pea coat (one of my favourite Christmas presents past) and went out into the streets of New York. I wandered midtown Manhattan, empty and barren, listening to a very particular playlist of Christmas music. For the record:
Nancy LaMott I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Judy Garland Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Harry Connick Jr. Christmas Dreaming
Movie Soundtrack SCROOGE A Christmas Carol
Nancy LaMott A Child Is Born
OBC MAME We Need a Little Christmas
The Carpenters Merry Christmas Darling
Amy Grant Christmas Can’t Be Very Far Away
Christine Ebersole Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Michael Buble I’ll Be Home For Christmas
The Carpenters Little Altar Boy
Megan Mullally Silent Night
Anne Murray No Room at the Inn
Robert Downey Jr River
Ann Hampton Callaway/Liz Callaway God Bless My Family
Marie Osmond O Holy Night
Vanessa Williams Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Reba McEntire The Christmas Guest
KT Sullivan Merry Christmas to Me/Hard Candy Christmas
Ann Hampton Callaway A Christmas Love Song
As I walked the streets, empty of most people, I looked into the sky, I gazed around at my city, I looked, really LOOKED at the people I passed. I communed with OB1 and asked myself and my God that question I have been asking for the last fifteen years – what is Christmas all about? I didn’t have this problem when I was younger. As a child, a teenager, as a young man I was able to throw myself into the holiday season like all those crazed Martha Stewart wannabes. When I moved to New York, though, I began to really ponder the season. I went round and round, weighing the religious aspects of the December holidays, the commercial drawbacks, the merriment of the season, the familial communing.. I left no stone unturned in my quest to answer Charlie Brown’s age old question: what is Christmas all about?
I never really found any concrete answers.
I’ve asked people to their faces what the holiday season is about. I have so many friends who are not Christians and who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are all the other holidays of this month, all shoehorned together so that nobody in the world feels left out during this month, a month that is ALL about one day – a day meant to celebrate the birth of a saviour who may or not be each person’s personal saviour; a man who was not even born on the day chosen for the celebration. There are, now, so many different greetings that people are confused about what to say. Merry Christmas. Happy Chanukah. Happy Kwanza. Happy Winter’s Solstice. Are there any others? I was told by someone that the people in their office wore buttons that said “You can say Merry Christmas to me”. Frankly, I am so stymied by the season and its’ meaning that I have made the conscious choice to only say Merry Christmas when it feels absolutely right. Instead I have wished everyone the wish I wish them every day. I hold up two fingers and I say, quite earnestly,
I asked Pat the other day “What is Christmas to you?”
He replied, “Being Kind.”
He wanted to know what it was to me and my answer came out before he finished asking.
“There should always be an open door on Christmas Eve.”
That is a line from a little known movie from the 80s. It was called CHRISTMAS EVE and it starred the inimitable Loretta Young. In the film she said to her butler “Leave the door open, Maitland. There should always be an open door on Christmas Eve!”
Of all the philosophies, all the lessons, all the lines from movies, all the quotes from books, for some reason, that odd little line from a forgotten little movie has never, ever, left my consciousness. There should always be an open door on Christmas Eve. Amen to that.
I love that Pat said what he said about being kind. Years ago, somebody asked me what it was that made me fall in love with Pat and I said “he’s kind.” Kindness is a heady thing; perhaps not to everyone but it is to me. People fall in love for all different kinds of reasons. My Pat is handsome, smart, funny, talented and some things that I won’t mention here, because discretion is a blessing. He is so kind, though, that I would defy anyone to not be drawn to him for that kindness. The thing is, he is kind all the time. So for him to say Christmas is about being kind seems kind of redundant. Yet, it is interesting to consider the famous lines from A Christmas Carol: Scrooge says he will honour Christmas in his heart all the year round. If we are meant to keep the true spirit of Christmas all year round, then Pat is doing it – he is kind all year.
There is, of course, the matter of children, Santa, all the decorations and parties that come with the holiday season. That is lovely, isn’t it? The season being about love is a beautiful thing, the season being about loved ones is a beautiful thing. Of course, not everyone has loved ones. There are people out there who are, actually, alone; people out there having trouble making their miracle happen.
So what is Christmas? It’s the night when we are the person we wish we were all year round. It’s the night that we tip our super and give the mailman a banana bread and the workers at Stiles a five dollar tip and the women at the bank some fresh baked brownies. It’s when we say what we forget to say all year round: I value you. I respect you. I love you. We flawed humans become insular and selfish and must take time for ourselves and ignore the humans around us, as we self protect. At this festive time of year, though, whether we are Christians or some other faction of belief, we acknowledge (because it is in the air due to the force of Christmas that is everywhere) that we should be a little nicer, a little kinder; we should leave our door open. It’s tough to maintain that kind of generosity of spirit all year round. It is a cold, cynical world and we are all treading water. We find ourselves backing away from kindness, out of shear necessity. It is a sad fact, a reality in the sea of humanity. As a matter of fact, if you consider that the holiday is born out of the story of Jesus Christ being born, if you consider the holiday is a time to be kind and generous, you can actually say that it is a time when people think of Jesus. You see, whether you buy into the idea that Jesus was the son of God, that Jesus was the saviour of the people, or whether you believe something else – it cannot be denied that Jesus was a real person. He was a man – he was a good man and a good teacher. It is indisputable: he lived. Even if all he did was live and teach and be a good man, the fact of the holiday created to honour his birth should be reason enough to be a good person. How about this? Christmas is the time of year when we behave like the kind of person Jesus would hang out with. That’s what I do at Christmastime. I honour Jesus’ birthday by being a better friend to him, simply by being a little more like him.
I walked this morning, as the dark blue of the sky, illuminated by thousands of Christmas lights, lightened up while I continued my conversation with God. I thought about the season of peace and hope, about the families that will be reveling in the joy of their children, about the new couple in love, about the devout, about all the different ways people would be celebrating Christmas. I traversed the streets on Manhattan, a ghost town this morning. I took off my headphones for a part of the journey so that I could listen to something I never hear in New York City: absolute silence. There was nobody, nobody, on the streets this morning. I was alone, walking up the middle of the road without fear of traffic, gazing up into the sky, as though I might find an answer there. I stopped in the Rite Aid to see if there was anything on sale that I needed – all of the employees there are from the far east and when I walked in they all wished me a Merry Christmas. I passed a restaurant that was decorated on the outside by enormous branches that had been spray painted white. In front of the restaurant stood a woman who may or may not have been homeless – I could, genuinely, not tell by her mode of dress. She had two bags on the ground at her feet and she was holding, in her arms, a part of that decoration that she had broken off. She was cradling the white twigs to her bosom and rocking, softly, back and forth as she gazed into the same sky as I. A garbage truck drove by. On the other side of the street was a man with a shopping cart searching for cans and bottles. He stopped at a restaurant that had had a bread delivery – as usual the bread delivery consisted of the baker dropping a huge bundle of baked goods on the doorstep, hours before the first employee would arrive. That man with the shopping cart helped himself to some, but not all, of that bread. A person slept under a quilt on the sidewalk and Christmas tree vendors were still at their posts, hoping for a last minute sale. I passed by the homes of friends and wished I could go in and hug them. I passed by delis and bodegas, looking in to see people hard at work.
Arriving home, I stood on my stoop, listening to Christine Ebersole, and gazing, once more, up into the heavens, from whence cometh my strength and my unending need to question.
What is Christmas? It’s a day. It’s a day that can be like any other day, or it can be a day that stands out from the rest. Since I am spiritual all year, I have spent this Christmas and many Christmases in recent years focused on what OB1 has taught me is important: life. I spend this month living, enjoying the companionship of my loved ones and of my city. I do focus on being a little nicer, with the hope that it will stretch over into January, then February, and on through the rest of the year, a tricky thing to do when you are a person with so much unresolved anger as I have. In 2008 I put myself into therapy, hoping to reconcile the good man that I want, so much, to be with the angry man that I am. It’s a dichotomy, all right, and it is mine to battle – but less so at Christmastime. As I stood on my stoop, listening to Christine Ebersole, gazing into the sky, I asked OB1 why we are all so mean to one another? Why do we all feel the need to strike out, why do we have so little consideration for the next guy over? I know some of my reasons – they are all baggage related and I’m trying to unpack those bags so I can be nicer, more loving, more Christmas-y all year long. What about the rest of the world? They can’t all be carrying the same bags as me; and if they are, I wish they would learn to unpack their bags, like I am working on. Because we truly are terrible to one another. We judge each other and we hurt each other; we disrespect one another and we mistrust one another. If we all just stopped and remembered that we’re all people – we’re all brothers and sisters—maybe then the true spirit of Christmas could come out and would hang out all year round.
What a great Christmas that would be.
Below, please see some of the photos I took around New York, this holiday season. And, everyone, may I please wish on all of you...