The relentless Christmas soundtrack at Starbucks caused the man and I to wince simultaneously, and, laughing, we bonded instantly, both grousing about the season. We agreed that we'd rarely seen anything as annoying as the brouhaha over this year's Christmas. Religious right-wingers, egged on by Bill "Phone Sex" O'Reilly, acted like the apocalypse had arrived because Macy's decided to wish people "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas."
Meanwhile, I noted, liberals -- apparently drunk on eggnog milked from free-range chickens -- wailed as loudly. I heard a caller to Air America Radio whining about how insulted he feels when people wish him, a non-Christian, merry Christmas. Moments later he was recovering traumatic memories of having to sing Christmas carols in grade school.
The baby, perhaps feeling ignored, raised his voice and stretched his hands out toward me again. I extended my index finger and he wrapped one of his tiny hands around it, patting it with the other hand. I felt suddenly emotional.
"He won't let go," the father said, laughing.
"It's OK. I don't get to be around babies much," I said, my voice unsteady. I remembered the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s when all my friends died, often turning into skeletal figures, curled into the fetal position at the moment of their last breath. One day, exhausted by the sight of so much death, I went to the maternity ward at the hospital where a friend was dying and asked a disconcerted nurse, her finger undoubtedly on the alarm button, if I could look at some babies. I needed to refresh myself with the sight of new life.
"Why do you think Christmas makes so many of us miserable?" the man asked, taking the baby out of his stroller. He was a big baby with a face as round and bright as the sun.
"Your baby looks happy enough," I said. But there was no denying his assessment. Although it's a myth that suicide rates increase appreciably during the holidays, more heart attacks do occur on Christmas than any other day of the year. I told him I guessed it was the usual explanations -- the pressure to spend money you don't have and share love you might not feel. And now, of course, the religious right feels empowered to wage holy war against secular liberals, who have in turn become hypersensitive.
But we agreed that the usual explanations seem inadequate to explain how a holiday that ushers in the new year with a message of peace -- which requires tolerance -- has become such an occasion of strife and unhappiness.
The baby continued to stare at me, smiling so relentlessly that I looked away, aware that he'd probably smiled more in the last 10 minutes than I had in a week. The father turned to me and announced that he needed to use the restroom. Would I mind holding the baby? The request shocked me. Who asks a stranger to hold his baby out of sight?
"Of course," I said. I took him into my arms and the father, standing, smiled at me.
"I won't be long," he said.
The baby, in a little nylon coat, pressed his hands against my chest and gurgled. It had been years since I had a baby in my arms and, now, I felt old as the child moved his tiny hands over my unshaven face. I put my own hand on his face, touching his nose with the tip of my index finger. Another memory arose. In third grade I played Joseph in the school Christmas pageant. A classmate's infant brother was conscripted to play the Baby Jesus.
I remembered bending close to that baby and my teacher telling me: His mother was homeless. His origins were so low that animals were closer to him than people at the time of his birth.
"Nice baby," a sarcastic friend said, breaking my reverie. "A Christmas gift?"
I looked around and felt a bit of panic. The father seemed to have been gone a very long time. But the baby was still smiling, trying to pull my finger into his mouth, kicking his legs now and then. "He's on loan," I said.
The father returned and took his son into his arms, thanking me.
"I can't believe you trusted a stranger that much," I said. "But I have the answer to why Christmas makes people miserable."
The man laughed.
"Christmas reminds us that divinity is in the dispossessed, in the child, in the poor and homeless," I said. I didn't say: It's why my dying friends -- returning to a fetal state, shedding everything resembling the adult -- seemed so sublime. "Divinity really is most evident in the weak."
The man smiled politely and shook my hand. The baby's gaze drifted back to his father.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. Write him at cliff.bostock @creativeloafing.com.