No matter what your religious affiliation, your relationship status, your age, gender, creed, or color, go to a Christmas mass this December. I mean it.
A few years ago, I was out in San Francisco and was buried in a new job. I had to work Christmas Eve day and the day after Christmas, making it impossible for me to get home for the holidays. So, I spent my first (and as far as I can remember, my only) Christmas alone.
I didn't really know what to do with myself, to be honest. So, I went to Hollywood Video, rented the entire Christmas section of flicks, got a pizza and some candy canes on the way home, and nestled myself, snug, on my warm winter's couch and ate cheese-covered dough while watching the Grinch's heart grow and Randy Quaid empty his RV's toilet contents into Chevy Chase's streetside sewer.
Round about the third movie or so, however, I got restless; maybe it was the peppermint kicking in, maybe it was the second or third rum-laden glass of egg nog. Whatever the case, I started staring out the window of my apartment (which had a great view of the Marina district of town and the Golden Gate bridge) and I couldn't stay inside any longer.
So, I tossed on a red sweater and a Santa hat and went for a stroll up and down the calf-cramping streets of Russian Hill. The best I can remember, it was a cool San Francisco evening, the kind where the breeze and the fog meld perfectly with the sweat that gathers on your forehead as you trudge along the slanting streets, and leaves you at a kind of perfect temperature equilibrium.
It was about ten at night, so the restaurants were still sporadically populated with couples and families laughing and imbibing just behind the bay windows, backlit by candles and brick ovens and lights meant to mimic icicles.
As I walked along, 3000+ miles away from my family, I was overcome with gratitude, which was an odd, unexpected sensation. For all I knew, I was supposed to lamenting my lonely plight, feeling sorry for myself and drowning my sorrows in figgy pudding and hot toddys.
But, instead, I was wildly happy to be the voyeur on Christmas Eve. I have trouble describing what a luxury it was to gaze from hilltops, past clinquant Christmas trees, and into living rooms and storefronts where people were clearly immersed in the rapture of the holiday.
Being alone on Christmas is a funny thing. Watching a night unfold that is so profoundly meant to be shared, and doing so by yourself, engenders an immense sense of how important other people are. I felt close to every tourist that rumbled by on the cable car, snapping pictures in burst mode. My heart ached for every cab driver that sped by searching for those elusive fares in their yellow sleighs. I wanted to stop and carol with every last-minute shopper searching frantically for an open convience store that sold the least-wilted poinsettias.
My aimless walking carried me over the top of Russian Hill (from which I had an immense view of the glistening bay and the shimmering lights of Marin County and Berkeley, lit up like so many New England hedges) and down into North Beach, which was oddly deserted, as it never is during the daytime.
Walking past Washington Square Park, I noticed St. Peter and Paul's large facade lit up and its doors agape, and carols wafting out from the penumbral interior, beckoning me in. So I heeded the call. As it turned out, I was just in time for midnight mass, a crowded but still moving ceremony held every year and preceded by a vast number of people caroling and swaying in the Christmas spirit.
As a disclaimer, I try to go to church most Sundays because I find that mass is a great time to focus on one's blessings, if only for an hour or so, and because I find a great deal of joy in turning to strangers, looking them in the eye and shaking their hands, and saying "Peace be with you."
But this midnight mass was more than that. The pomp and circumstance of Catholic mass aside, the serenity that pervaded every aspect of that scene, from families and vagrants all stuffed into pews together to the glowing Advent wreath under the cupola, was overwhelming and for the first time in my moderately young life, I felt the full strength of the Christmas spirit.
You see, and as I wrote down later that night, my solitude shut down all the holiday din that is usually so distracting, and left me alone to see what a magnificent and transformative power Christmas really has. It compels strangers to smile at each other. It urges cabbies to let pedestrians and other drivers actually have the right of way at stop signs, for once. It makes it okay to whistle carols loudly right into someone else's ear, especially if they're being crabby, so that their head will ring for the rest of the night with terribly joyous renditions of Jingle Bells.
Christmas takes the weirdness out of being nice and joyful, a reservation and a practice that we probably all harbor too much on a daily basis. In a way, Christmas is a free pass to display your happiness in any absurdly overdecorated, mind-numbingly bright way you wish. It encourages painfully ugly sweaters to be drawn from the mothballs and paraded around for everyone to see. It commands you to eat extra calories. It requires that at least four times a day, starting on Dec. 1 and lasting the rest of the month, some small part of you is secretly wishing it will snow, no matter where you are and no matter how sensitive your grandfather's arthritic joints are to cold weather.
Yup. Christmas is the excuse we all need to lighten up a little bit and have some fun with life. It is, also, a very sacred holiday in the Christian faith, a fact that shouldn't be completely ignored for its importance. But, for all those who don't ascribe to Christianity and to Christmas in its Biblical importance, and even for those who do, Christmas is one of the greatest opportunities to ignore your inhibitions and laugh and smile and rejoice just for the heck of it.
So, please take time this year to thank whoever it is you pray to for the great blessing of life that we all enjoy. And, while you're at it, thank Him/Her/It for Christmas, too. I know, I know…you're not necessarily Christian. But, you don't have to be.
Hopefully anyone can appreciate Christmas trees that look so beautiful lit up in the windows and the little pyramids that spin in circles when you light candles on them, only to either fizzle out two minutes later or catch on fire and threaten the security of your entire house. Be thankful for the real candy canes that are minty and delicious, and also for the faux candy canes that taste like nutra-sweet and low quality taffy, with no minty sensibility to them whatsoever. Be thankful for the hideousness that is reindeer-horned headbands, and over-priced Starbucks peppermint lattes (that are all too easy to give into "because it's Christmas!"), and for the ability to raise limits on credit cards at a moment's notice.
Because, friends, the truth really is that Christmas only comes once a year and that isn't nearly often enough. So, while it's here, let's take every opportunity we can to make it magical. Spend that extra fifty bucks on little Billy's video game. Grit your teeth and bear it when Great Aunt Pattie feels compelled to give you a kiss on the lips and smear her 79-year-old, holly-colored lipstick all over your face.
And most of all? Don't be afraid to say "Merry Christmas!" In fact, say it loudly. Shout it, if you want. Just don't let the night pass in silence because you're too scared of the political and social ramifications of wishing someone well in the name of a religion-specific holiday.
I know I, for one, am immensely thankful for so much, including coming to a town like Wilton that has been, on the whole, so welcoming and interesting. I am thankful for the chance to try and cover as much of it as I can and to capture and render so many instances as best I can for others to share in.
I know, for me, that the full power of Christmas first became visible when I stumbled into a midnight mass unwittingly and saw just how closely knit and joyous people can be when given the excuse. So go to a mass, or go caroling, or even just swing by the Menorah lighting or the Holiday Walk in Wilton Center one of these years and see if it doesn't just help put the holiday crush in a little better perspective.
And, in the meantime, enjoy a few pictures of the Christmas spirit in Wilton and have the happiest of holidays.