When you have baking potatoes the size of your head, it goes without saying that they need something more than just butter and, perhaps, sour cream. I’d normally slather the steaming footballs with a broccoli and cheese sauce and dot the top with chunks of smoky, seductively aromatic bacon. However, at the behest of my wife, I was to make chili, which was fine except that I had no beans in my limited pantry space. My shelves are full of sixteen ounce bags of pasta, cheese crackers, and paella rice.
You may ask, “Why chili?” Considering that the Christmas holiday is mere days away and this time of year is filled with all forms of Eastern European starch concoctions and Polish pork product, the days leading up tend to lean vegetarian. There’s also the fortunate cheese wheel incident in which I was given via not-so-secret Santa a three-year aged hunk of cheddar weighing in at an impressive three pounds. Of course this means grilled cheeses galore, or panini to the gourmand in your life, and thick soups like chili on which to mound fistfuls of the white dairy gold. Everyone knows that gooey chili is the best. There’s no argument there.
I approached the streetcar stop stepping through my exhaled patches of cold breath. It was easily twenty degrees colder that it was earlier in the morning when I’d ridden my reviled Magna to work during the pre-dawn hours. Avid cyclists with their multi-hundred or even multi-thousand dollar rides tend to dislike bikes that don’t shift well and have a hard time braking when traveling at a comfortable clip. Yes, my bike may be substandard and, indeed, cheap, but it was free and it gets me to work in less than fifteen minutes.
I looked at the LCD readout at the stop that, in the darkness of the Solstice, brightly advertised the next arrival in four minutes. There was a lone Asian woman sitting at the stop. I refrained from sitting next to her and chose to stand a good distance away. She seemed lost in thought and looked lonely. I may have looked the same standing there like an oafish goof, uncomfortably leaning to one side, burrowing my hands in my coat’s pockets. I felt a drop of rain on the tip of my nose and I realized I’d forgotten my umbrella.
The headlights of the box-like car approached, blazing the way through a silky evening mist. After a spark, a series of squeaks, and a whispering slide, the street car came to a full stop. The front of the tri-sectioned car was filled with moms and kids ranging in age from probably four to thirteen. There were no seats available. I chose to stand in the second of the three sections. My days are often spent sitting for ten hours at a time in front of computer screens, so standing is usually a distinct pleasure for me.
I counted the usual suspects that I see on my daily rides around the city. They normally drop off near the Safeway to get money for their recyclable cans. They sometimes head to the library stop to congregate with some of the other homeless or to hop on the commuter rail. Some even dare to head into the Pearl, eventually getting off where the ride is no longer free and the fare surveyors reign supreme with their mantra: “Taking a survey of the fares. Fares please.”
The streetcar slid down the avenue and from the front came the sound of children singing. I thought it was someone’s music player at first. After careful aural inspection, I realized that there seemed to be spontaneous caroling a-brewing. Taken aback, I inched closer to the front cabin holding on to the rail above me making sure I didn’t fall into the middle-aged woman parked next to me. She was gabbbing into her iPhone about shopping. I decided to keep staring into my Blackberry’s void.
The din of the carols became louder and the words broke the residual noise. “Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains…” floated gaily into our cabin. Despite the voices belonging to untrained children, the song seemed to flow nicely. Even the spazzy little boy sung with a certain level of expertise. I listened further and continued to stare into the void. Something, however, was amiss.
As the group segued into “Silent Night,” I realized that I felt strangely. Dissecting how this unsettled feeling came about, a soaring wave of dread overtook my emotions. What was this? Why was I feeling this way? Was there something visual that was cluing me in? Was something about to happen around me? I swept my gaze across the cabin and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The usuals had already gotten off a stop back to hock cans for cash. Everyone in the car seemed normal and looked like they were headed back from work. “Shepherds quake at the sight…” the children continued. As I sung along in my head, it became clear that I was reacting to this song that I loved as a child. This harmless song that I remember most distinctly from an episode of Benson when one of the characters, Gretchen, sung it in German. It truly is a beautiful representation from such a harshly-regarded language: “Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!”
I could not relieve myself of this feeling of dread, nonetheless. It was then that I became sad. I realized the root of why I wasn’t warmed by the carolers and why I felt no pangs to hum along. Both songs that this group of merry public transportation riders chose to sing revolve around Christ’s birth and this, honestly, put me off. In a country, and world, where the year-end winter holidays are dominated more and more by the sentiment of putting Christ back in Christmas as if Christmas is the only reason to celebrate. While the sentiment may be earnest, what it ends up being is exclusionary. Christ never left Christmas. Those that celebrate the Christmas holiday are Christian or are lapsed Christians that continue the holiday. The holiday may have in many ways been supplanted by the frenzy of commercialization required to bring so many retail outlets into the black, but the core remains.
Christmas, though, was not the first celebration of the dawn of a new day. The history of man is filled with celebrations related to the coming of the sun and the revelry behind lighting the darkest of days. So many of the stories told during these days are allegorical and it’s important to remember this. This time of year for the northern hemisphere is largely dark, cold, snowy, and wet. We need a day to turn on a bunch of pretty lights, eat a lot, and get drunk! This notion is not shoved aside by the addition of Christ to the picture, of course. It was adopted and transformed just as humans have done for time immemorial.
“Silent Night” made me sad, indeed. Should I feel that a cute group of kids, when singing Christ-centered carols, is proselytizing? And if I do, why has it even gotten to this point? Why has this time of year turned contentious instead of joyous? Was this my own paranoia?
The kids moved on to the next selection and loudly belted out “Jingle Bells.”
I hummed along and smiled.