40. Christmas Presence

40. Christmas Presence

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

Christmas Presence

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

~Lin Yutang

It was 4:30 on Christmas Eve and we had no presents, no decorations, and no food for a proper Christmas dinner. It was the best Christmas ever.

Until that particular year in my early forties, all my adult life I worked hard at “doing” Christmas. Weeks of planning, baking, shopping, crafting, and decorating. Christmas music was the soundtrack to my Decembers, because that’s what I remembered. I wanted desperately to recreate the magic of my childhood.

To be honest, I never succeeded. No matter how lovely the decorations, how scrumptious the treats, how perfect the gifts, the magic never arrived.

This time, I couldn’t do it. I was overwhelmed by my graduate studies. It was a busy time of year at work for my husband, too. We had little money to spare and our families were a thousand miles away. By that late afternoon, I was exhausted, blinking back tears at the prospect of having no Christmas at all, when my husband said, “We’re in New York. It’s Christmas Eve. Let’s go see what the city is doing.”

We took a crosstown bus to Fifth Avenue and then walked the avenue south from Central Park. I was astonished at the crowds and the cameras. We must be extras in dozens of home videos of people all over the world. The store windows dazzled. The scent of sweet roasting nuts from street vendors’ carts spiced the frigid air, and it was lightly snowing. We played like children with the toys at FAO Schwarz. At Rockefeller Center, trumpeting angels made of white lights guided the way to the iconic Christmas tree. Carols played for the ice skaters below. We sang along out loud.

These classic Christmas scenes cheered me, but they were not what made that Christmas so special. It was the unexpected things.

Who would have expected a bongo-playing busker in Times Square on Christmas Eve? Or the two rotund elves who turned a doughnut shop, where we took refuge from the freezing weather, into a party?

We decided to get turkey sandwiches as our “Christmas dinner.” Through the pass-through window into the kitchen I could see the older gentleman who was preparing them. It made me grateful that at least I didn’t have to work on Christmas Eve. I wanted to cheer him, so I got his attention. “Merry Christmas!” I said, smiled and waved to him. He came out to where we were sitting, shook our hands and wished us the same with great enthusiasm. I’ve never seen sandwiches so enormous. My cheeks hurt from chewing.

By ten o’clock we had walked all the way down to Chelsea and across to Ninth Avenue, to a church we had recently discovered. As we entered I inhaled the familiar resin scents of pine and balsam fir. I let the gentle candlelight and the music of the string quartet soothe me. The sermon? “No one is ever ready for Christmas. Grace comes when we let our expectations go, and allow ourselves to be present to the moment. That’s how the wonder gets in.”

The moment the service ended, people brought out tables and loaded them with a feast. There was lamb stew, ham, roast beef, salads, sweet potatoes and noodle kugel. For dessert there were brownies, cakes, doughnuts, and of course, cookies. It was an extension of the everyday mission of this congregation, which hosts New York’s largest soup kitchen each weekday. They knew that not everyone has a Christmas dinner to go home to. Still stuffed with sandwiches, we could only nibble at the delicious bounty.

If we had known this was going to happen, we probably wouldn’t have eaten an earlier meal. But then, we would have missed that moment of human warmth with the cook. So all was well.

I still “do” Christmas. I’ll bake the special Swedish Christmas bread my mother-in-law used to make, and maybe a couple of batches of cookies. If we’re not travelling to see family I’ll decorate a little around the house; for several years this meant hauling in a scruffy pine tree from our field. I keep gift giving deliberately simple. I do what I can enjoy rather than trying to live up to some ideal of perfection. I try to stay open to the unexpected, the opportunities to share a moment, especially with those who might be lonely or hungry or lost.

Because, to this day, I remember a man with a megaphone who stood on a New York street corner that cold Christmas Eve, challenging harried and mostly oblivious shoppers with the words, “Go home! Your children need your presence, not your presents!”

Our eyes met, and from that moment Christmas became magical again.

~Nancie Erhard

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