Christmas Eve day came wrapped in a blue sky with a white cloudy bow, loosely trapping in the chilly sunshine that one imagines for Easter rather than Christmas. But we had a white Halloween, so it wasn't so hard to conceptualize that the holidays might be running ahead, at least weather wise. For me, it was less than a problem- I don't dream of white Christmas- I dream of bright Christmas.
I sat on the top bunk in a bedroom brimming with my childhood friend's, and her sister's too, where their parents had consolidated their young lives after both had relocated their residences to elsewhere, reading an essay that my friend had written in college to speak of who she was. (Sometime I will show it to you, but not today). As age packed the belongings she needed to bring to her current home, I breathed in the atmosphere - the familiarity of the house, and the understanding that I didn't know it anymore, and that in my adult life I likely would not know it at all. Growing up never seemed so bittersweet, sitting among someone else's memories, re-evaluating all the years that both she and I have endured.
Later, after she and I had parted ways, I met a few Christmas stragglers in the heart of New York city to have a small Havdallah service. Havdallah is the end of the Jewish Sabbath, the moment when the day of rest becomes the week. It is perhaps my favorite ritual- it is a blend of the special and the mundane, the point where we mark an end and beginning at the same time. It reminds me of my Savior, pouring His spirit into a body so that I may comprehend what He would mean to a lost world. In Havdallah, you extinguish a braided candle with a cup of wine, uniting the week and the Sabbath. In my life, I too have been extinguished- the old me was put out the minute I let my Messiah in, only it was the beginning, not the end, because in that moment the mundane fell away, and I became the special. So Christmas Eve seemed overly appropriate to hold a Havdallah. So we did.
I spent the rest of the evening with the stragglers- a California man making a brand new life in NYC, a Brooklyn resident following her heart in Grad school, and her friend from home, a North Carolinian visitor, taking in the city. I haven't known any of them long, but they have all impacted my life already, and their names are already in my heart, a spot difficult to disintegrate. As we traveled together through a comedic rendition of Christmas, a late night diner feast, a Christmas of service, and the obligatory traditional Chinese food, I was inspired by them and the stories we shared, the strength that a group of young people learning how to live can hold when bonded together. We are not friends of convenience, the kind whose location or occupation require connection- we are friends who choose to get to know another, to open up and share. It's these choices that bring us together.
I was inspired too, by Brenda, the waitress who brought out our diner delacacies. For 25 years, Brenda has served food to Brooklyn in a small location with many booths and happy owners. Day or night, she has been there to bring orders back and forth from the cooks to the tables. Brenda, in her white haired glory, has decided to go back to school. She doesn't know what she will do, but she knows she will go, because she is tired of serving food to strangers. She recommended a panini. The North Carolinian took it. I don't know if it tasted so good because of how it was prepared, or of how she sold it, painting the sandwich as if it were an American rarity. Maybe it is. Maybe good food is about the way that it's prepared and perceived, and who it is shared with. Maybe taste buds are easily tricked by anticipation. Maybe Brenda knows that. That's why she needs to go back to school. The world needs more people with experience to have a voice. We recommended she go in to communication.
Christmas day brought us to a Senior Center, where we served food, took coats, and got to know people whose stories need to be told. I met one man who lived in New York all his life. His eyes sparkled as he described the days when Chelsea hosted picture shows and sledding competitions. He spoke of the streets as they used to be, and then, with a special affection, how much he loved some of the changes in them as well. He and I clapped, side by side, to the strains of "Jingle Bells" and the other tunes that floated around the lunch. One woman from New Jersey asked me if I would come back to see them all again. I told her I didn't know that I would. She said she would look for me anyone. I wonder what kind of faith she must have to believe that someone will come back to see her even if that person doesn't share such faith. She left, her pink hat slightly lopsided, and said to me "Let's do this again next year." I nodded, smiled, and tried not cry.
The occupants of the Christmas brunch did not have families around them to spend their holiday with- I reflected on this as the bus took me back from New York to my small suburban street, where a small portion of my own family awaited my return for beef stew and my mother's shabbat soup- a food that consists of beans, noodles, a minestrone base, and tastes of rest itself. I sat with my father and mother, and my mother's mother, and laughed over the same stories I have heard time and time again. Sometimes they are old, but this time they were joyful- fun, easy, homely. A Christmas dinner to end a very full weekend it was indeed.
This Christmas, I found all the elements that I think the holiday should have- all the things that Jesus was born to teach us about. I found family and community. I found laughter and happiness. I found second chances and a chance to serve. I find that I love these things more than any gifts I've ever received.
It wasn't white. I didn't watch a parade or a sports game. I didn't even spend the whole day in my pajamas. But I'll never forget this Christmas as the start of my own life. We are not children anymore- we are starting our own traditions. And my traditions will be themed around these things that ignited my weekend. 2000 years ago, my Messiah came, and for the last 23, I've been trying to figure out what makes Christmas feel exceptional.
And this year, I found Christmas my own way. And it came wrapped in a blue sky, with a white cloudy bow.