The expectation of an epiphany this time of year is as overpowering for some as the urge to spend and consume is for others. The problem is that by the time New Year arrives many people are left with a sense of inadequacy. They have again failed to live up to the hope and the hype. I'm one of those people.My holiday issues stem back to being a spoiled only child whose seasonal joy was shattered with the sudden death of my beloved father and grandmother. The following year my usual pile of gifts grew to mountainous proportions thanks to the sympathy of family and friends. Ironically, the presents only served to remind me of my loss and every December since I've fought the anti-social bah-humbug impulse that comes with an early realization of how fleeting it all can be.
The march of time and the arrival of my own children mitigated the yearly bout of Scroogitis, but it wasn't until I was given the most bespoke Santa hat south of the North Pole that I began to stand-up to the personal challenges that all the seasonal jocularity seemed to pose. After all, the best defense is a good offense.
It was amazing how much better I felt when I put on my stocking cap of rich red velvet and plush white trim. Big enough to fit my block head and jaunty enough to elicit compliments from cynical New Yorkers. Even I couldn't play the Grinch when I looked like Claus the Cool.
Despite the restorative powers of my Santa garb there comes a point in every holiday season when my festival lights are dimmed. That point arrived the Saturday of SantaCon - a pub crawl tradition for Kris Kringle wannabees with a need to drink themselves stupid. I had planned to take to the streets myself; if only to do my Christmas shopping. But by early afternoon hundreds of people in Santa drag had found their way to our pub-infested downtown neighborhood. My mercantile excursion was put on hold the moment I spotted the vomit on our doorstep.
A day later when I finally set out, the magic of the Santa hat was as cold as the frost that embraced the city. Still, I had shopping to do. With eyes down, bald head shielded in red velvet and credit card forward, I headed for the uptown subway.
The humbling realty of the season came into clear focus as I walked towards two men outside St Agnes church on East 43rd. The first, an old drunk in sagging pants sat on the frozen sidewalk oblivious to the bare ass hypothermia he courted waiting for the soup kitchen to open. I didn't stop. The second fellow looked vaguely familiar. He was well dressed, albeit a bit dishevelled but standing tall. I made no attempt at eye contact and wouldn't have if he hadn't surprised me with his plea, "Help me. I'm homeless". I slowed down, my hand started for my wallet but Scrooge chocked my grip.
Less than a block later the bleak Ghost of Christmas Future appeared to me in a cloud of guilt. A generous donation to the Salvation Army kettle at Grand Central station helped keep the Dickensian ghouls at bay; at least temporarily.
By the time the gifts were bought and I had made it back downtown the need to flee the pre-Christmas madness was so strong I was running for the subway exit. No time to feel the least bit guilty about the homeless couple camped out at the quiet end of the pedestrian tunnel. However, there was no escaping the out-of-key singing of a woman whose voice crackled through this lonely stretch of transit territory.
I recognized her immediately as one of the neighborhoods forgotten. Probably in her 50's but looking decades older. Her broken down version of Auld Lang Syne hit me in my Scottish gene pool. I stood. I smiled. I teared up.
I rewarded her for the song. She rewarded me with "Nice hat!" and an encore. As she toothlessly croaked Santa Claus is Coming to Town my seasonal spirit revived to the clichéd messages of the songs. Forgive. Forget. Do good.
I know that if you’re like me and you struggle with these seasonal directives for goodwill, it will always be easier said than done. Still, I’d recommend donning a red velvet stocking cap. It can definitely help you discover the hope and joy of the holiday – as long as you remember to spread the hat and your humanity around.