Funny thing. You may not know this about me, but I've never really been so into Christmas. I mean, we all know it's the height of commercialism and a bastardization of what may have once been a very graceful celebration of birth and winter and all that good stuff, but I've always been particularly turned off by it - the ubiquitous, meaningless ritual of gift-buying and impromptu "togetherness", the semblance of religion in suddenly crowded church pews and even more crowded shopping malls.
So tonight I was a bit out of sorts; getting off the subway, walking down the stairs, about to go home. But what was that sound coming up the stairs? Was it...could that actually be Christmas carols?
I walked out of the station with a bit of a grin on my face, and there, at the bottom of the stairs, was a van pulled up underneath the train platform, with about two dozen Asian kids grouped up in front of it. Crisp white shirts, shiny black pant, singing their hearts out to Queens Boulevard. An extension cord stretched across the sidewalk from the van to the little band on the side - glasses and neat haircut on guitar, long hair never-saw-his-face on a little keyboard set to "Christmas synth strings" or some such. Their conductor looking just as sharp, his back to the passing traffic, proud to be at the helm of this kind of out-of-tune, kind of out-of-place, but ultimately wonderful operation.
Enter plot twist, stage left. He strolls by, captivated by the music; he is clearly drunk. He stops, he grins, he sways back and forth, his arms start to move up and down as his body rocks to the rhythm of "Noel, Noel."
And before anyone in our little audience of about a dozen knows what's going on, this man is conducting. Full-on up on his toes, arms swooping, whirling and raising to the sky, conducting this choir. The girls are giggling at each other. He is grinning from ear-to-ear. I am laughing hysterically. The "real" conductor, from whom he is standing about two feet away, is doing none of these things.
After two minutes or so, our drunken friend decides his conducting career has gone on long enough, and he crosses in front of the choir to head home, tripping on the extension cord as he does so. He turns around, and walking away, shouts a very heartfelt, very toothless "Merry Christmas." He is engulfed by the moment, by the power of shared experience, by the unexpected emergence of whatever it is that Christmas is supposed to be all about, and for one brief moment, I am too.
So before that moment fades away, let me say this. Christmas itself means nothing. Presents, trees, Santa, reindeer, sugarplums, nothing. The ritual is all we need. Any one will do. Any imposition of time where we step out of ourselves and into the sacred space of the collective, into patterns of interaction that remind us that we share this world and this life with those around us, not just physically, but spiritually. And when we get there, that's when we find the so-called "meaning of Christmas." Or of anything else.
That's all I got. Merry Christmas. Happy Festivus. Et cetera, et cetera.