Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942 (Image credit: Friends of American Art Collection/Art Institute of Chicago)

At the heart of our celebration of Christmas lies a great paradox: God Almighty chooses to come to Earth and dwell with us but then shows up as an ordinary newborn, the son of a carpenter, far from the center of anything.

On one level, the whole history of the Church is the story of Christians struggling to accept the terms of this paradox, the grandeur of God embracing the ordinariness of our humanity. And I probably tend to err on the side of the ordinary. When it comes to Christmas, what fascinates me is the smallness of the event, the sense of it as really a non-event on the landscape of the time. It’s like a footnote in someone else’s story. 

New York City is not exactly known for its understatement. (The tree at Rockefeller Center this year is eighty feet high. Last year the windows and lights at Sak’s Fifth Avenue took 250 people 40,000 hours to complete.) But this holiday season I found myself closer to the mystery of Christmas wandering down side streets and sitting at little bars.

BETHLEHEM

I’m having dinner with my nephew and his fiancé, but I get to the restaurant way too early. In July I moved into a new place, and I’m still getting used to how fast the express subways can get you around. It’s such an unexpectedly nice evening, I decide to wait outside. 

Unlike many New York City blocks, the one I’m on has no prevailing look or purpose. It’s just an amorphous collection of office buildings and residential addresses. An endless row of cars snake down the block, preparing for the stoplight at the corner to change. During the day a scene like this is usually accompanied by regular blasts of honking, but tonight there’s an unexpected stillness. You can hear sounds of the city in the distance, the whirling siren of an ambulance. Yet from here it’s like gentle splashes of color on a dark canvas.

Down the block, a little girl sits on her father’s shoulders. She extends her arms and calls out something. I can’t hear what. A cyclist glides by, his wheels clickety-clacking. The sound of it is so bright and pretty in the silence.  

For some reason, as I stand here my mind keeps drifting back to childhood. I’m sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car after Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house, looking out the fogged window on a gentle, sleeping world, while my dad sings along to old songs on the radio. 

A New York City side street on a nice evening has a similar hushed beauty to it, a sense of quiet presence that somehow has the quality of the sacred. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents once famously imagined a young man standing on a similar street spontaneously singing, “Something’s coming. Something good.” I get it. I feel it, too. 

HOLY FAMILY

For months a friend has been suggesting we get together at an East Side bar he likes. When I show up there late one evening, he is already ensconced in what turns out to be a restaurant with a bar at the front that stays open long after the restaurant has closed. 

On this particular night just a handful of individuals are gathered, but it’s clear right away that these are people who have spent many nights together like this one, quietly watching the world pass by and sharing the stories of their lives. It’s something in their tone, a softness.

I join them for a while, not saying much, just feeling the affection that these people have for each other and not wanting to mess it up. Sometimes sacrilege is a matter of getting in the way of a good thing. 

Later I keep thinking of that famous Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. Three people sit at a corner diner, two side-by-side facing forward, one by himself while a waiter looks on. The street behind them is so desolate it looks like a movie set, and no one inside really seems together. 

From the street the scene at my friend’s place looks similar. A couple of people sitting at a bar late into the night. But inside it couldn’t be more different, more tender. 

THE STAR

Image credit: Jim McDermott

A couple of weeks ago on my way to the train I noticed that someone had decorated the second-floor fire escape of this little nondescript building near my apartment. It was nothing flashy, some snowflakes along a railing and a snowman in a top hat on a little wooden platform. And it was the only decoration on the whole building, which gave it a certain haphazard quality, like someone started to put up lights but then got busy.

On my way home that night I noticed it again. And I guess I’ve noticed it pretty much every day since. The owners have it lit day and night, and it’s actually prettier in the daytime because the halogen bulb of the nearby streetlight isn’t on to wash out its colors. 

The fact that it’s just this one random set of decorations on an otherwise ordinary wall has grown on me, too. The people who set them up no doubt did so for themselves. In New York City, sometimes a fire escape is your front yard. But it feels like a gift for all of us who live here, too. In its cheery little light our own haphazard, random lives look more delicate and dear.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.