Christmas carols waft through the crisp Manhattan air as the steady ringing of the bells of Salvation Army Santa sets the pace for shoppers hustling from store to store. The magnificent Rockefeller Center Christmas tree heralds the promise of Yuletide celebrations ushering in the season of love and joy.
But for thousands of homeless people in New York city, the season is a harbinger of struggle. Huddled in alleyways, bus terminals, doorways and other temporary hovels, attempting to ease the chill of winter, they find no joy.
Some keep their faces to the ground, too hungry and lethargic to honor the Christ child’s birth. Others glance upward, perhaps searching for a special star to offer solace to a life of misery, but more likely hoping for handouts–a dollar or two to stem the ever-present gnawing of a tortured empty stomach. Years ago, it was a nickel, but inflation has reached the street people as well. New York City with the highest population in the country, also has one of the largest number of people for whom Christmas is just another exercise in survival.
Perhaps it is the fear of ‘Except for the grace of God go I’, mentality that keeps us from recognizing them or addressing the biblical question, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Now that the holidays are upon us it’s a good time to reconsider our priorities. We live in a country of great contrasts; from the extremely wealthy through the strong middle class to the struggling lower class. Not enough of us consider the ‘no’ class, the people who have nothing; because acknowledging the problem necessitates a resolution.
Still, the day after Christmas there will be those who will ponder, like in the old Peggy Lee song, ‘Is that all there is?’ Too often Christ is removed from Christmas and we sense, but cannot name, the hollow feeling left after the frantic rush to make one day memorable. The homeless, hunched around garbage can fires, or sleeping over subway grates to catch the warmth of a passing train, do not have the luxury of such contemplation.
As our world grows smaller, the plight of the homeless becomes a global concern, bringing crime, disease and poverty to our doors. No one appreciates a guilt trip during the Christmas season, and no one wants visions of starving people interrupting the Holiday feast, overflowing with homemade delicacies, cookies and candy canes hanging from decorated trees. We work for what we have, ever harder in this sluggish economy and we deserve the rewards of our labors. True. But in the spirit of Christmas it is important to remember that over 2000 years ago, the Christ child lay in a manure-filled stable in Bethlehem, on a straw mattress of questionable cleanliness, wrapped in swaddling clothes that did not come from Macy’s.
Emphasis today weighs heavily upon material gifts. Charge cards promote a gluttony of expenditure that has little to do with the meaning of Christmas. The legendary Little Drummer Boy had nothing but a song to offer the new-born babe. That gift was cherished more then the gold, frankincense and myrrh brought by the wise men from the East, because it was a gift of pure love.
This season let us all think about how much we have, and how fortunate we are to be spending the holidays with loved ones instead of a damp, freezing floor in Grand Central Station. Above all, let us love one another. And if we can extend that love to the homeless street people, the next holiday season may witness a practical solution to our mutual shame. Love is a self-perpetuating emotion; and all it takes to activate it is to exchange it among ourselves. Merry Christmas!