It began to snow. In the dark, empty house, I couldn't see the flakes falling outside. There was no light to light their swirling descent, but when I stepped outside, I felt the snow on my face.
Each snow flake swirled in the dark and softly crashed to the ground. They were turning the street cold and wet that Christmas eve.
I put my hands in my pockets, hunched my shoulders, and walked down the street. The houses were lit with strings of white lights and strings of multi-colored, big bulbs, blinking around windows. Or else, the houses were abandoned for the holiday. This is the only time, I thought, when all the houses look friendly and safe. Even the darkened houses, the cold houses, the poor ones with trash in the yard. They looked like Christmas.
Even my house looked like Christmas, and I knew all three stories were empty, except for me and a string of unplugged lights.
That was the only Christmas I ever spent alone. I turned down the invitations that year, saying I needed to work on things. Mostly, though, I played online scrabble, watched TV and watched the snow fall, melt, freeze, and fall again.
On TV, they showed funny family gatherings, and hijinks ensued. On TV, they showed crime scenes set to the sound of "Silent Night," and detectives faded to black with the swelling music saying "and ransom captive Is-ray-el."
On TV, they showed men giving jewelry for Christmas, and men giving cars. I don't know why all the gift-givers were men. I figure the ad guys figured there was a country of men wondering how to express love, joy, peace, hope, and the meaning of Christmas.
I heard about this guy in the middle ages, who spent his life looking for the place of Christ's birth. He looked at every cave in Bethlehem, every old, barn-like structure.
Of course he knew the birthplace. The site of the nativity had been discovered hundreds of years before. He'd been there, to the church they built on the place. He walked through the little door and saw the priests praying and saw the spot marked on the stone floor. He thought, though, that something didn't seem right.
He was expecting something -- hoping, maybe, for joy, peace, or angels singing "Come all Ye Faithful" -- and he didn't feel it. He spent the rest of his life wearing out-dated, crusader clothes, looking for the true meaning of Christmas.
I think maybe the original version of the story ended with him finding the true meaning. Story I heard, though, it only had him wandering around and hoping.
Hope is such an insubstantial thing. It's hard to tell when you hear hope, said out loud, if it's hope or lunacy. Is it hope or the last vapor of a weird dream? The darkness of despair seems to surround us, so we never have trouble believing Herod killed all the baby boys of Bethlehem, but find it hard to believe that three kings crossed the country looking for a baby.
"Peace on Earth," the angels are supposed to have said, but it's hard to raise your hopes when you're looking at a little baby in a barn.
By the time I walked to the railroad tracks that Christmas eve, the snow was starting to stick. The last fall leaves were being buried and the snow was being blown into drifts between the railroad ties.
Inside a window, in a house there, a young man was being fed cookies by his young wife. They were standing by a Christmas tree, framed by the light. I could see her throw back her head and laugh. Somewhere upstairs, I imagined, a child was dreaming of Santa. I walked from tie to tie, down the track to leave the snow untouched.
The church bells started ringing as I made the last corner, walking by the street lamps with red bows. There was a path through the snow up the steps of St. Anthony's, and I grabbed the handle of the heavy door. The door was thick and it swelled with the cold, but I pulled with both hands. It seemed like it wouldn't move, then I heard singing and it was open. It was warm, when I got in there, and an alter boy was holding a candle up above his head.
The people sang, "And art Thou come with us to dwell, our Prince, our Guide, our Love, our Lord? And is Thy Name Emmanuel, God present with His world restored?"
My glasses fogged over. I took them off and went near-sighted, into the crowded church. An usher was unfolding chairs in the back, behind the pews, and she finished a row, smiled at me, a stranger, and said, "Merry Christmas."
Daniel Silliman covers crime and courts for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.