Golden horns line the Macy’s building on State Street at Christmastime. Visitors to Chicago stop on the sidewalk to take pictures of their symmetrical glory, and I sidestep them to get by. Lights are strung in trees along Michigan Avenue, and store windows filled with snowflakes, sales signs, and Christmas trees stay lit all night.
This year, Christmas means that the bright shine of the Cub’s World Series Championship is finally wearing off, and we are finally consigned to cheer for the Bears, though the navy “W” will no doubt be left to fly all year.
Christmas means that the wind has picked up and the streets are cold. Melissa, a woman I often see asking for money on Michigan Avenue, is more desperate than usual. She is responsible for 8 kids who often sleep outside. She is in earnest. Today, she goes up to people one by one, asking, “Could you please help me?” She doesn’t have a sign like others who ask for money in Chicago. I have stopped to help Melissa twice. The first time, I made a point of remembering her name. I avoid walking down Michigan Avenue at night now, unless I’m willing to run into her. The second time that she approached me, I responded, “Melissa, how are you?”
“Bad,” she said.
I had hoped that my using her first name would surprise her; catch her off guard; mean the world to her. But she hoped it meant I would help her find lodging for the night. Instead, I bought her sandwich fixings at Walgreens, three bottles of Dr. Pepper, and one can of Fancy Feast for a kitten that her children have taken to caring for.
Christmas means that the man who does taekwondo on the corner of State and Van Buren is no longer shirtless. He is there every day in the summer, slowly moving from pose to pose, breathing deeply. When I first saw him, I thought he had lost his marbles. I passed by him on the other side of the street. In December, he is there less often, but I still see him every now and then, and I wonder what would happen if I joined him.
Christmas means that the Garrett’s Popcorn Shop on the corner of Plymouth and Jackson has a line out the door of people in knit wool hats buying tins of caramel corn for their dads and granddads. The man on the corner who panhandles the popcorn shoppers gets a little more change than usual. I don’t know his name. But he recognizes me, and we exchange head nods.
Christmas means that, at church, I take time to set out the plastic basket with homeless kits containing McDonald’s gift cards, chapstick, and hand warmers. But, in December, those kits are burned through like whiskey at a holiday party.
The Advent of Christmas also coincides with the advent of wind and cold. Christmas brings a harsh climate and December’s deadlines. Deals to get done, papers to write, three kids to manage, three Christmas parties that you’d rather not attend, and two that you wish you could look forward to.
Loss is churned fresh at Christmas, too. It stirs up pain like grounds that have settled at the bottom of a cup of French-press coffee. The job that didn’t work out is felt keenly in the lack of presents under the tree. The divorce that you had come to peace with becomes wandering grief about the life that could have been. Dad’s empty chair at the dinner table is almost too much to handle.
These are the characters and the moments of my Christmastime story. These remind me that before Christmas becomes joy and peace and love and hope, it brings cold. It is the cold of Chicago in December. And who can bear it?
Before Christmas becomes anything like silent nights, calm or bright, it is busy, chaotic, shortened days. Its characters are neither meek nor mild—and thank God for that! The unkempt vagabond shepherds, the bloodthirsty Herod, the inhospitable inn-keeper, the unwed Mary, and the screaming infant. These are the characters of Christmas.
The shirtless man doing taekwondo, the child staring blankly across the table at dad’s empty chair, both parents celebrating a baby’s first Christmas and the couple who cannot get pregnant, and Melissa moving earnestly from one person to the next. These are the new characters of Christmas.
In Christ, God meets all of it at the front door. Holding the door back with one arm, he waves us in with the other. “Come in! Come in!” he shouts. The whole mess of humanity—the shirtless, the begging, the grieved, the rejoicing, the one who has lost her marbles, and the one who has yet to—all of it comes traipsing through the door. We are welcomed to the manger, in all its unedited glory, like the shepherds, by the same refrain that the angels proclaimed so long ago: “Do not be afraid! Good news!”
At Christmas, God decides to be a flesh-and-blood character in this story full of characters. God decides to throw His lot in with ours. Take heart! He is for us!
The first snow has come and gone, here in Chicago. The cold has set in. On a walk home, I come to the place where I must decide whether to take the direct route home on Dearborn or stay on Michigan Avenue. It is bustling with shoppers, people out on the town, locals who cannot refuse the beauty of The Bean covered in snow—and somewhere in the crowd, Melissa is there, too. Christmas means that although it is not easy, I throw my lot in with her, and take the long way home.