It should have been the worst Christmas of my life. An only child from New Jersey, who had not been farther west than Pennsylvania, I made a quantum leap when I took a job decades ago in San Francisco. But the lure of the position in television, coupled with determination to ensnare a certain Stanford medical student (mission eventually accomplished), led me to cross the continent from the home which, aside from college, I’d never left.
Thanksgiving passed without trauma, surrounded as I was by other uprooted singles. Looming ahead, of course, was Christmas. Initially, things did not look grim. Then came the one-two punch: my med student nailed an interview for an internship on December 26, in New York, and my roommate’s spine turned to jello when she heard crooners counsel, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” In short order, she was Alabammy bound. Impecunious, my fate was solitude for Christmas, a circumstance reported in the annals of psychiatry as triggering melancholia, depression, and not infrequent suicide.
As darkness fell on Christmas Eve, I switched on the lights of a tree recently inherited after a party whose hostess was departing for Vermont. Guests dropped the fir through the sunroof of my Volkswagen. It caused a major commotion, tinsel and ornaments flying, as I traversed heavily trafficked Van Ness Avenue. The giddy scene was in sharp contrast to the tree’s somber isolation in my apartment, and the simile flashed uncomfortably through my mind that, like the tree, I, too, had severed roots.
The phone rang, delivering the voices of my mother and father, who sounded forcibly chipper. We exchanged phrases meant to persuade one another that all was well. Meanwhile, my image of the vast United States, from sea to shining sea, accentuated our polarized locations. Aside from cutting the umbilical cord, no parental disconnection brought greater severance than the click of the phone as they hung up. With determination I turned to the things one has to do, including the trash trip down the hall to a disposal chute. Tenants gone, normal emanations of sounds and aromas from various apartments were conspicuously absent. Indeed, it was a silent night.
For a while I sat by the tree and its Woolworth crèche, wondering why I was here when everyone I loved was not. Unexpectedly the doorbell rang, disclosing the arrival of a TV director with whom I worked. An attractive man with a disastrous marriage, he gradually made a suggestion inappropriate for Christmas Eve or, in my case, any eve at all. He saw us as two lonely souls and offered a temporary cure. He was so forlorn I almost wished I could oblige, but he accepted the rejection, expressed an apology, and left.
I returned to the tree and focused on the crèche, its gaudy figurines locked into a pose of monumental import. My sense of solitude was total. But I began to perceive something else. Peace. Peace? Mesmerized by this mystery, I rambled in prayer, far afield from formal structure. At some point I stopped, empty even of thoughts and words. Yet unaccountably full. I noticed a gift from my roommate, but decided against opening it. Inexplicably, I regarded the act and its object as intrusive. I wanted nothing more than what I had. Fearing fragility of the sensation, and hedging against pain, I went to bed. When I awoke, Christmas Eve would be over.
Not so. Carousing drunks, lurching past my window, routed me before midnight. Sleep would not return as a montage of Christmases past crowded memory. Restless, I went into the living room, dark except for the street light’s beam, which theatrically lit the diminutive crèche. I curled up on the couch hugging my knees, confronting again stark isolation. My only companion was a dime store Jesus. Wrapped in the silence of the apartment, the larger silence of the building, the greater silence of the city, I waited for tears. What came instead was wrenching joy, and the raw sensation of being loved. Geared for misery, I encountered euphoria. In solitude, amplitude. Exhausted by paradox, I fell asleep.
Christmas dawned as a beautiful day in a city where beauty is routine. No snow, which my provincial nature assumed requisite to set the mood. Just blinding sunlight, bringing into sharp relief the waters of the bay lapping the hills of Marin. The architect of this splendor had become man.
A parish shopper who sampled every Catholic Church in town, I chose for Christmas the one which most simulated my own back home. When I arrived for Mass, the sidewalk was jammed with friends greeting one another, and children flushed with the excitement of recent acquisitions, often clutching representative samples. Familiar carols pealed from the organ, and a final qualm emerged that I would be overcome by nostalgia. It was yet another dread that never materialized. I entered a pew halfway down, swiftly flanked by families surging in on both sides. I seemed to be the only person by herself. The role as an oddity, however, was fleeting. Surrounded by strangers, I felt thoroughly integrated. After all, I had belonged to this family since baptism. Sharing one faith, we were an effortless community long before self-conscious promotion made it a trendy buzzword.
The priest entered, and we stood to hear the sonorous, familiar Latin, transcending all our ethnic diversity but unaware we were soon to lose it: Introibo ad altare Dei, “I will go in to the altar of God.” Then the sweet soprano voices of the altar boys who responded, Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam—”To God, who gives joy to my youth.”
There was the word, bold in missal. Joy. The acknowledgment of what it is, why it is, and from whom it comes. The perfect gift. In the absence of everyone and everything I treasured, the Incarnation, that ineffable manifestation of God’s love which obliterates pain. Put to the challenge, dry dogma metamorphosed into viable sustenance. Against all odds, circumstances which conspired to defeat me became, instead, catalysts for affirmation.
We see now the occasional bumper sticker imploring us to Keep Christ in Christmas. Considering the distractions which attend the season, it’s no surprise Jesus gets lost in the shuffle. I remember a particular Christmas when this did not happen, and the lasting impact of its unique epiphany. Perhaps no greater exhilaration exists than the definitive encounter which proves that love for God, and from God, is sufficient beyond all reckoning.
Ad Deum, qui laetificat juventutem meam. Youth is gone, but joy remains.