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Comfort and joy

A diorama hangs on the author's Christmas tree.
Ralph Gardner Jr.
A diorama hangs on the author's Christmas tree.

The dirty little secret of holiday journalism is that it’s written days, weeks even months in advance. Journalists, like everybody else, would prefer to be doing something else Christmas Day than sitting at a keyboard pounding out a story or chasing down leads.

Christmas has many virtues but one of them should be that it allows you to take a deep breath. If there were any doubt that the conceits and constructs on which civilization turns – such as days and weeks, hours and minutes – is a human invention witness Christmas Day in New York City. Doesn’t matter what day of the week it is. Monday or Wednesday. Tuesday or Thursday. It all feels like Sunday. Life comes to a virtual standstill. The streets are almost empty. The normal cacophony of traffic and construction that blends into a whir of white noise is replaced by a hush that true believers and even heathens could mistake for the presence of a higher power.

In the country it’s different. Perhaps that’s why God, or whatever your term for the life force happens to be, feels more present. The sun rises over the horizon unobstructed by skyscrapers. A winter breeze rattles bare branches. Birds visit the feeders, chose a sunflower seed, and then retire to a nearby tree to savor it.

The tranquility restricted to major holidays in a city is an everyday occurrence, the typical state of play in nature. Silence is a form of reverence. It stuns you into listening. And what you might hear, if you’re especially lucky, and undistracted, is the underrated miracle of existence.

Covid is altering the way we celebrate the holiday for the second Christmas in a row. One of its disappointments is that I don’t get to go to church and sing Silent Night at the end of the service. And I’m not even Christian. But there’s something about the power of that song, the way it starts quietly, tentatively as one parishioner lights the next’s candle, building to a full uninhibited chorus that makes you feel in the presence of holiness, no matter your belief system or even if you subscribe to none. Beauty has a way of filling the gaps in our logic, of turning fear into enchantment, of making us okay with life’s insoluble mystery.

So it’s a bummer I didn’t get to sing Silent Night last night, or that absent some unanticipated turn of events, I won’t have been able to sing it since I’m writing this several days in advance of the occasion. Congregating indoors and singing that song or Angels We Have Heard On High in full throat, vaccinated or not, doesn’t seem the smart choice at the moment.

That doesn’t mean we’re forsaking all traditions. I will be, or rather did by now, read my two grown daughters The Night Before Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas as I do every Christmas Eve. The Night Before Christmas because it builds anticipation for Santa’s arrival; How the Grinch Stole Christmas because it’s a skeptical take on the whole Santa story that culminates in this unexpectedly credulous insight that never fails to leave a lump in my throat:

“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Our daughter Gracie – fair warning here comes the holiday family newsletter portion of the story that my wife may include with our cards – returned for a full month from British Columbia where she and her boyfriend Henry established a thriving food business over the past year. If you can’t afford a personal chef it helps to have one in the family. Gracie made fresh ravioli, filled with homemade ricotta and sauted in butter and sage for dinner one night this week, chicken and dumpling the next, and is probably at this very moment roasting prime rib with béarnaise sauce for Christmas lunch. I probably shouldn’t admit this but it took me well into middle age before I realized that all the Who’s down in Whoville, with the expanded-hearted Grinch now their honored guest, weren’t eating roast beef. They feasted on roast beast!

Gracie’s older sister Lucy and her husband Malcolm, having somehow managed to avoid getting Covid last week even though they live in the heart of Brooklyn, and after multiple rapid and PCR tests, made it upstate where the holiday season is off to a rousing start. Members of Malcom’s family have rented an AirBnB nearby and we look forward to spending time with them, outdoors if necessary.

Our patio heater was pressed into service for the first time in months for visiting friends. The device was apparently under the mistaken impression that the pandemic was over. Joined by the warmth of our aging copper firepit, the spectacle of our Christmas tree and the fragrance of excellent food, the holidays promise a reasonable facsimile of joy.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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