December 25th, 2022
There's a fire going under the mantle, the tree lights are on, and time-honored anecdotes are being shared over the low lull of Adeste Fideles. It is a nice traditional Christmas, exactly what the author of my family's 1906 Victorian Holiday Etiquette booklet prescribes, except that I'm sitting eight feet away from the dinner table with a mask on.
In the last day, I starched the napkins, went to the midnight Mass, and tested positive for Covid-19 bright and early in the morning. That does not make today a tragedy, but it is my favorite holiday of the year lived behind a veil. When we finished trotting out the jokes or puns stuffed in our crackers, I piled my plate with food, took a set of freshly polished silverware, and carried it all down to a card table in the basement. My mother told me just 12 hours ago that every year she appreciates more and more how today is a day spent with other people. Sitting alone, 20 feet below my family and friends, I felt her sentiment exactly.
Christmas really has always been my favorite, and not because of the candy or toys (although the time my mother got in a giant inflatable hamster ball has to rate high among my reasons), but because it was the only time I got to see my extended family. It was the one time of year we held through a two-day road trip to visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who entertained me and my brothers with tiny rockets, houses with secret doors, and the fascinating pleasure of coating my finger in the hot wax dripping off the candles we received in the Church service. We haven't celebrated Christmas with those family members in many years now, but I still think of the holiday as a time to hole up with people you love, and stress over the extensive and arcane rules for proper hosting.
With a paper crown on my head and a napkin in my lap, it seemed to me I was pantomiming a scene of a lonely child's birthday party. It's been a mantra of mine recently that I'm becoming a misanthrope, a comforting thought for an extrovert who has lost her social bearings. But this feels like a sign to retire my friendships, obligations, interests, and affections, to tuck them into a closet with the ornaments and nutcrackers. I am one of those heretofore lucky few who had never caught Covid before. Meaning I've never been the debby downer to show the family a bad result, or had to text this kind of news to close friends I was glad to have seen or looking forward to seeing. Maybe it was inevitable after the year and a half I spent in my windowless bedroom. Not that I would get sick, but that I would become alienated. At 1:45 this morning, I was singing 'Little Town of Bethlehem' and speaking German with choristers and parishioners from my church. Tonight the words of a different hymn are filling my head like a thick blanket of snow:
In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
I stepped outside on the back deck to eat a little cake in the pleasantly seasonal 26 degree weather. To stop the chill from leaking in, my loving mother closed the door on me. Perhaps to make up for that I was allowed to join in the important annual tradition of winning Celebrity, a charades-esque game, and shooting my brother in the face with a nerf gun—so long as it was from a distance.
I write now far from the long dead fire, in a cold park where I can, for the time being, feel the night air on my face. If New York is the city that never sleeps, on Christmas it at least gets under the covers. But if there is one type of New Yorker who will defy all conventions of rest, it is the indefatigable, spandex-clad joggers. They have lapped me walking over the Manhattan bridge in a thunderstorm, and they have apparently decided to digest their holiday meals by running circles around a dog park rather than sitting with their loved ones. In all fairness, who but their peer in asininity could have observed these occasions. Since my fingers are numbing into a permanent cage around my pen I am driven to find a concluding point: Covid did not ruin my Christmas. What blemished my Christmas was a bit of self-pity, ingratitude, and tiredness, but the day was more than salvageable. I still saw people I loved. If I could only cough, I could still hear them laugh; if I could not show my face, I could still see them smile; and if I could not dine with them, I could at least set the table.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Years, and Enjoy the Bleak Midwinter