The Burnt Offering is where Stu Horvath thinks too much in public so he can live a quieter life in private.
I was walking up Broadway on my way to join the dregs of a Christmas party that had gathered in a grungy Nolita dive bar. Multi-colored lights shone through darkened store windows. Small clusters of disheveled people in Santa hats gathered at corners in an attempt to hail near-mythological cabs. It was 2:30 in the morning and uncomfortably warm, but the drizzle was cold.
A man, a little younger than me, stopped me as I walked past.
“Excuse me, sir. I don’t want any money. I just want some encouragement.”
[pullquote]“Excuse me, sir. I don’t want any money. I just want some encouragement.”[/pullquote]
I looked him up and down. He didn’t have any of the obvious signs of substance abuse or dereliction that usually come with random strangers trying to talk to you on the street in Manhattan. His clothes were neat, his speech clear. He didn’t even look like he’d had a drink, though at that hour I could hardly have begrudged him. It was entirely baffling. Confusion was plain on my face as I silently stared at him.
“I am going to the Staten Island Ferry,” he continued, “but I don’t know if I should get on. My family is in Staten Island and I don’t know if I deserve to see them. I guess I am just looking for someone to tell me that I do. Deserve to see them.”
“It is the holidays, man,” I replied. “Everyone deserves at least that much.”
He thanked me, patted me on the shoulder, and walked off into the night.
Christmas never means one thing for very long. When I was a kid, it meant presents, the memories of each year tangled up with the toys under the tree. When I was a teenager into college, it meant family (and presents), fueled by the holiday’s dinners and gatherings. As an adult, Christmas has mostly been defined by working in a newsroom and struggling to eke out even a sliver of time for festivities.
[pullquote]The house still gets decorated, but mostly out of stubborn tradition than any kind of holiday spirit.[/pullquote]
These days, I don’t know what Christmas is about. The years have been marked by a steady erosion of the family and friends who previously defined the holiday. My paternal grandfather, a steady source of cheer in the cheerless house where our family gathered for Christmas dinner, died when I was in seventh grade. The Cobb family, who we visited every Christmas Eve, whose home spilled over with decoration, is practically extinct.
Walter, the church organist; my maternal grandfather; Aunt Donna; the Lambertsons – year after year, more people went missing. When my father died a few years ago, he left a tiny immediate family: my mother, her mother and I. The house still gets decorated, but mostly out of stubborn tradition than any kind of holiday spirit.
For other people, at least judging from the news, Christmas means a whole lot of other things. There’s the folks who swarm into stores at unholy hours to gobble up “deals” and the shrill religious minority indignant at the trampling of their most sacred of holidays and the party people who are storing up a year’s worth of bad behavior for the excesses of the office party.
[pullquote]It all combines into an unbearable red and green cacophony of jingling bells.[/pullquote]
It all combines into an unbearable red and green cacophony of jingling bells. There are so many competing meanings of Christmas, it had no meaning at all. Everyone, from the noblest altruist to the crassest materialist is competing to win you over, to out-cheer everyone else. They trot out their chosen Meaning of Christmas like tinsel clad pimps with grit-teethed grins and warrior hearts.
I hate the din of it all.
I’ve been thinking about the man on the street, about what he might have been going through. I wonder if he was thinking about throwing himself in the river. Maybe my puzzled encouragement convinced him not to. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe he was just drunk and melancholy and simply needed to hear another person’s voice.
More than anything, though, I was disappointed in my initial cynicism. I don’t know which is worse: that my first thought was that this man was a junkie who wanted something from me or that my instinctive reaction to that was wary annoyance. Granted, this is learned behavior on my part, a sensible manifestation of street smarts, but it also represents a kind of hardening of the spirit with which I am uncomfortable.
[pullquote]Christmas is about putting that stranger in our path and challenging the pessimism that gets caked on us all year.[/pullquote]
While pondering that in the days since, I think I’ve realized something about Christmas. Maybe this is obvious, maybe I am late to the party, but even if that is the case, it bears repeating.
It is unavoidable that the end of the year should inspire a certain amount of reflection. It is a liminal time, neither of the old nor yet of the new. We look backward and forward. We take stock. We celebrate our victories and resolve to change our failures. All of the traditions, the faith, the gifts sprang from this seasonal preoccupation.
Christmas is about putting that stranger in our path and challenging all the pessimism that gets caked on us over the course of a year.
Christmas isn’t about being good, it is about trying to be better.
Stu Horvath finished this piece, had a glass of eggnog and fell asleep on his couch while staring at the Christmas tree. Merry Christmas, you wonderful people.