Last Saturday I sat half-contentedly on a bench outside Wal-Mart, while my brave wife chased down rock salt and mirrors in the back aisle. Close to 55, I am not much for shopping, especially the souped-up variety nowadays, and I let my mind drift back to the Christmas of my boyhood in the 1950s.
It was a time in New York City when the bus was a nickel, a taxi ride to anywhere in Manhattan cost a dollar, the average salary was $2,000 a year and both Fifth and Madison avenues were two-way streets. On Saturdays, my father took me with him to the office, where I sat on the floor making collages out of pictures from American Heritage magazine, while he worked overtime to support his family.
My favorite day of the year, absent April Fool’s Day, was Christmas Eve, which, even by the age of four, when I first walked to school by myself, had become a ritual bordering on art and drenched with spirit. First was the trip downtown, below the Brooklyn Bridge, where my father haggled the cost of a tree down from ten to seven dollars. Then, it was a short drive to St. George's Church, where I later interned in my seminary days, to experience the live crèche outside the church in Stuyvesant Park. For a month before Christmas, in those days, actors playing Mary and Joseph, with a toy baby Jesus in the manger, herded real live sheep in lower Manhattan. It always amazed me.
The best Christmas store back then, by far, was B. Altman's on 34th Street, with its animated windows depicting some children's Yuletide fable, its tasteful wraparound decorations and the long trip up the escalator, scented with pine and perfume to see Santa. My mother had probably secreted herself in another part of the store to rest her feet, sip some cider and satisfy her kids with one last present.
There was just time to make it home, with multiple yawns, to put on the blazer and tie and attend the most magical event of all: Candlelight Christmas Eve Carols at St. James' Church on 71st Street and Madison. For years, my grandfather Henry, who died in 1960, was Senior Warden there, and he always stood straight in the Narthex with a New York City fireman, just in case the Holy Spirit let the flames go astray in a burst of cosmic joy. Greeting friends on the way home, often in the snow, singing Away in the Manger, was a prelude to happiness no libation can match. They are all ghosts now, but their warmth abides.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).