Christmas Eve

December 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

everett shinn
Painting by Everett Shinn, 1952

We went to the Washington Square Park Christmas Eve carol sing-along, led by the Rob Susman Brass Quartet, set up under the arch. It was just dark, the tree was lit, children in Santa hats sat on the ground in the front, and the rest of probably a thousand people crowded around. We got there too late for one of the complimentary songbooks from the Washington Square Park Conservancy, but I know these songs. Of course Charles started laughing as soon as I opened my mouth.

It was just as cold as it should have been, and there was only one person talking on a cell phone, and only for a few minutes. The old man in front of us had a lovely, deep voice that reminded me of childhood; I’m not sure why because none of the (very few) men in my family sang like that and we didn’t go to church. But that gravelly baritone made me happy, and Charles too. We told the man how good he was, how much we were enjoying him, and he was far more delighted than one would expect. He kept smiling and patting my shoulder. “I’ve been singing in choirs all my life,” he said, so maybe that was what I heard: the decades.

People were singing carols in this same spot a hundred years ago, probably two hundred years ago. I could almost see them—the women in their long dresses, cloaks and boots, the children wrapped in scarves and mittens. You know the scene: it’s in black and white, snow is falling, there’s a tree in one brownstone window, with a star on top; and beside the well-dressed folk is the little match girl. I don’t usually feel the past in places. I adore the remnants, landmarks and ruins, old houses and cobblestones, churches, but the living past, what I find in books and enter seamlessly, is rarely present to me geographically. But tonight it was. I felt like a New Yorker who could commune with any generation, past or to come, though in truth communing with my peers is often a struggle.

I hope New York lasts another two hundred years and more, that the sea doesn’t rise, or bombs fall, or ancient gods rise to tear us apart. I would like to know there will be singing under the arch for another dozen generations; and that I can be one of the ghosts, in a down coat trimmed in fake fur and down-at-the-heel black boots, whispering of how I once lived with a guarded flame of joy in my heart; how I loved my neighbor and so, for a while, could love or at least be cordial with myself; of how I sang of riding in a one horse open sleigh, but never did.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy


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