First and foremost, this columnist’s honest hopes are that you had a Merry Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or whatever spiritually-oriented holiday you just finished celebrating. While playing a favorite Christmas mixtape, these lyrics from Pete Townshend popped into my head: “But Tommy doesn’t know what day it is/He doesn’t know who Jesus was or what praying is.” Fans of The Who will recognize the lyrics from “Christmas,” from their rock opera Tommy. Which (very tangentially) raises a very relevant question: what is Christmas like for the homeless?
Let’s start with the things we associate with Christmas and all such winter holidays: family gatherings (functional and dysfunctional), cold weather (sometimes with snow, sometimes not), presents (some appropriate, some treasured for a lifetime, and some unwanted) and seasonal appeals to our spirits and our pocketbooks, delivered through every form of media. The Christmases of our childhood, often idyllic and filled with warm, loving memories of Yuletide fires and Christmas choirs, are supplanted over time by more realistic appearances.
The homeless see Christmas with all the veils removed. They can see beyond the sham of commercially-induced happiness. In an environment where fights can start over trivialities like a loud radio, the peace and contentment people experience at this time of year is to the unhoused a fond memory, a bad joke, or just another meaningless Hallmark holiday movie.
But there are times, when those now-traditional Christmas songs and carols come on the radio, that those memories take over and we remember we have the same feelings, want the same things. For all that society has taken from us, or all that we have taken from ourselves, there is a core in us that responds to those words, as long practice has drilled into us.
And yes, some of us do go home for the holidays–if the fates, the Feds and the DA will allow. For the rest, it’s another Christmas dinner at the shelter or nearby church. But at least there’s warm food, and company. Far better than to sit alone in an apartment, with only old memories and a space heater to keep us warm.
There isn’t any one best way to celebrate in this holiday season, just as there’s lots of worse ways. But the worst are when the holidays summon nothing but indifference, when the songs leave us numb, when the Day of Days is just another day to get through. That’s what it became when my parents died. All the warmth went away, and the only decision left to make was whether to work an extra shift on Christmas Day to make more overtime.
I sit finishing this essay on my bunk in the shelter on Christmas Eve. The staff has at least made an attempt to decorate the halls so they are less dreary. Tonight’s offering of pasta salad, however, left us cold, especially when contrasted with the offerings displayed on the local news, with their cameras lingering on the grand feasts being proffered in Los Angeles. But as my mother, who grew up during the Great Depression in an orphanage, used to tell me, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” So I am, indeed, thankful. Thankful for the shelter, the meal, the company, and the bed to sleep on.
Another lyric, this one from Pete Sinfield via Greg Lake: “Hallelujah, Noel, either Heaven or Hell/We all get the Christmas we deserve.” Not the one we think we deserve. And there’s the rub: How to find solace at Christmas when everything in your life is at rock-bottom? When you’re cut off from family and friends? When the ones who loved you most all reside at the Happy Hunting Ground?
To answer that overwhelming question, I paraphrase a line from the Twelfth Doctor: “Christmas isn’t an emotion. Christmas is a promise.” The Bible tells us that the birth of Jesus Christ was intended to bring light to a dark world, forgiveness to sinners, and absolution of all sin to those who accept Jesus’ grace. Since we have free will, we have the option to accept or reject this grace.
For others, the answers lie in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and all the other religions humans have created to explain the universe to themselves. Or none. Long story short: If we all get the Christmas we deserve, it’s up to us to decide whether “it’s a good one, without any fear.”
Summing up: the holiday season is ours to make to order: good times, bad times, or work hours to get through. And if we have the power of choice, then why not choose the good? Consciously choose to accentuate the positives instead of the negatives. And whatever you do, don’t mess with Mister In-Between. I have, and it’s a non-starter.
Better times are coming …if we work for them.