I hardly ever talk about Christmas because I always forget about it until the moment it passes. But this time, with Christmas a whole five days after our issue date, I feel like I can intercept it.
The first thing I notice every year, starting sometime after Halloween, is all the stores playing Christmas music. In the last weeks, I’ve even heard “Jingle Bells” in Uwajimaya. I don’t like it.
For one thing, “Jingle Bells” isn’t a Christmas song. It’s about snow!
I’ll tell you what a Christmas song is. My number one favorite is Billy May’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo,” number two is Nat King Cole’s rendition of “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” number three is “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” by Yogi Yorgesson/Harry Stewart and number four is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”
In a serious vein is number five: “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” written sometime in the 1500s, and it’s my vote for the best song of the last millennium. My vote for the best song of the last century is likewise a Spanish song, “Bésame Mucho” by Consuelo Velázquez. But I digress.
I have not always enjoyed Christmases. For example, in the fourth grade I was forced to sing “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” with the rest of my class. It was Van Asselt Elementary, not a private school — a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Anyway, I didn’t know the words, so I just had to move my lips to it, the same way I got through the daily recitals of the Lord’s Prayer back then.
Ethnically, I’ve never been plugged into Christian culture. I never liked sugarplums, I don’t eat roasted chestnuts and mistletoe means nothing to me. In fact, I like to eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Eve/Day.
Sometime in the 1990s, I think 1998, after Real Change was well into business and I was writing for it as a volunteer, the Stanford Social Review magazine contacted us. They asked if we knew anyone who’d been homeless who could write about being homeless during Christmases. I said, “me, me,” thinking it would be another volunteer deal. Instead I found out they were going to pay $1 per word.
The original word count they wanted was 800, but my first draft went long, about 400 words over. I was sure they were going to ask me to cut the excess, but no. They changed the goal to 1,600 for the same $1 per word.
I wrote about different Christmases while homeless.
My favorite Christmas was at my graduate school, Cornell, while I was homeless. At the time, I was friends with several members of the Hindu Student Association and got invited to a lot of events. I saw a bunch of Bollywood movies. India being so far away, no one in the group went home for the holidays. Also no one was Christian. So an Indian professor offered his house as a site for an UnChristmas party, and I was invited. It happened to snow that day, with drifts two feet deep. The organizers bought too much beer to fit in the refrigerator, so they put it outside in the snow.
It came time to eat and, you know, there was hot, spicy food. No problem, right? There was plenty of cold beer. Well, it turned out there were plenty of cans of frozen beer, so the whole party was forced to suck on beer-sicles to make it through the dinner. Ah, good times.
Another memory of homelessness during Christmas was not so fun, and the days ran together. I was driving a cab but had to sleep in it, and my earnings dropped. One high point was a day of cold rain. To get out of the bad weather, I parked the cab and entered a church. When I got there, I was alone. But a woman soon came in and sat in the pew in front of me holding her week-old baby. She smiled at the baby, and the baby responded by reaching out to touch her lips. The image was frozen in my mind.
Twelve years later, I painted that image from memory for the cover of the December 1995 issue of Real Change. So my ’83 Christmas ended up helping out with my ’95 Christmas.
Read more of the Dec. 20–26, 2023 issue.