It was the end of December, and something was missing.
I wasn’t the only one who’d felt the absence. Several friends had mentioned the lack of that special December-y soamething in the air. I’d initially chalked it up to the lousy economy, but even the people I knew who still had money noticed it. The jaunty sleigh-bell tunes were tinny, the sonorous hymns flat, the winter wonderlands dismal and grey. Clearly something was wrong.
Not having anything else on my schedule, I decided to go looking for the elusive holiday spirit. How hard could it be to find it? I mean, like the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. How do you camouflage that?
I found traces of it here and there. Even though the donations were smaller, people were still giving to help the needy. Every now and then I’d come across a new piece of holiday music that wasn’t just cashing in on the season. A waitress at a regular joint threw in a free piece of pie with a wink and a “Merry Christmas.” But still it was nothing on the scale I’d usually see.
So I wrote off 2010 and gave up, heading to a blues joint for a glass of holiday cheer of my own.
That’s where I found him. I can’t tell you how I recognized him. I’m a storyteller. You just get a feeling for these things. But there he was, slouched at the bar. He was drunk.
I sat down on the barstool next to him, in a miasma of peppermint fumes. “Shouldn’t you be out there spreading cheer or good will to men something? What are you doing?”
He turned toward me. He was younger than I would have guessed, late thirties or early forties, close-cropped black hair, sallow complexion, sharp nose and chin, wiry build, in a red leather trench coat and green t-shirt — the kind of guy that finishes fights someone else starts, and with that coat in this kind of bar, he’s used to the fights. He glared at me through eyes like polished coal.
“I would tell you where to shove your goodwill but you might like it.” His accent was vaguely British, clipped, with a lot of travel mixed in. “Why do you care, anyway?” He reached across the battlefield of empty shot glasses for his beer.
I shrugged and ordered a drink of my own. “This year sucked. I was hoping for a little cheer to taken the edge off all the disappointment. You know. It’s traditional.”
He glared at me over his glass. “Traditional, is it? What do you know about tradition, anyway?”
“I know enough to recognize you.”
At that he paused, staring into space for a moment, then shrugged. “Fair enough. What do you want to know?”
“Why are you in here getting drunk on peppermint schnapps and beer—”
“Cider, thank you very much!”
“—cider, when you are supposed to be easing the burden of a weary world?”
“Easing the— Do you really talk like that? Hell, do you believe that!?” He leaned over to me and dramatically sniffed. “Sure you aren’t the one who’s blotto?”
I tried not to roll my eyes, and I may have succeeded.
“Do you have any idea what a pain in the ass this job can be? This isn’t one of the cushy, straightforward gigs, like the one the fat man scored.” He tossed back another shot of schnapps. “What a joy that would be, having a clear mandate. Fly around the world in a night bringing toys to kids, everybody loves you. Even when they don’t get what they want they don’t stay pissed for long because hey, everyone’s relieved they weren’t on the ‘other list.’
“Or the old man with the hourglass. Yeah, that’s rough, huh, ooh, yeah? No one pays any attention to you until the last couple of days, then the champagne corks fly and there are fireworks and people kiss and you get turned back into a baby! I mean what the hell? That’s a job?”
“Well, there are the resolutions…”
“Oh, that’s a load of crap. No one takes them seriously. The days of sober reflection of the year gone by are over. Now it’s all top ten pop culture lists and dropping some talentless pseudo-celebrity off a tower. The old geezer in the top hat doesn’t even notice.”
“I can see your point.” I wasn’t sure I did, really, but I didn’t want to rile him up more than he already was. “But what about… you know. Him.”
He stared at me for several seconds. “Let’s not go there, okay? He’s a nice enough guy, and has good intentions, but his followers think they own the season. They’re a big part of the problem. Hey!” He threw back another shot and slammed the glass down on the bar, then turned toward the bartender. “I’m running low over here.”
The apparently unflappable barman was at the end of the bar chatting with another customer, a set of ridiculous felt reindeer antlers perched on his head. He cleared away the legion of glassware with a wry smile, wiped down the sticky residue, and began setting up a new rank of soldiers.
“What do you mean, they’re the problem?”
“A bunch of the big guy’s followers are getting their knickers in a twist over people saying ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s pretty stupid, really, but that crowd thinks they run the world, anyway. I’m going around spreading holiday cheer, and some uptight, insecure little douche bag says that somehow people are using me to declare war on their faith. There are wankers all over the world killing each other over religion, but somehow someone saying ‘Happy Holidays!’ is the bleeding problem?”
Two freshly emptied glasses hit the wood counter in quick succession, followed by a relatively discreet belch.
“So if you don’t handle Christmas or New Years, what exactly is your part in the season?”
He paused while the barman filled the glasses, then poured another cider. When the antlers pointed in my direction I waved them off.
“Look, around here the fat man gets most of the attention, followed by the carpenter. Mammon’s numbers are way up there, too.”
“God of money. America’s number one religion with a bullet, as you say. But those three are just the big guns. There are plenty of other people people celebrating different holidays in different ways. You got your Yulies, your neo-pagans, traditional pagans, and modern druids, but they tend to be fat middle-aged men in brown polyester robes trying to score with hippie chicks. (It’s an English thing, I guess.) And to make it all worse, when the lunar calendar ends up in the right place you can end up with Chanukah and Eid al-Adha in there, too. Jews, Christians, Muslims, crystal-waving solstice types — all tossing around greetings and stepping on each others’ toes. It’s my job to do what I can to let the year close out on a high note, by finding a common ground.”
I sipped my rum as he rambled. He was getting more animated as he started to veer toward a full-blown rant, but fortunately, the jukebox started playing Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” and the mellow backbeat seemed to calm him down.
“I just get so bloody tired, you know?” He slid down a bit further on his elbows. If it isn’t the Holier-Than-Thous badmouthing me for self-serving political purposes it’s the merchants and money-lenders exhorting people to spend beyond their means in the name of a tradition that didn’t even exist a century ago. And that leaves desperate charities using the season to beg for more money for their causes, when the people most likely to give are those who can afford it least. It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.”
He lifted the last shot. “Speaking of drink, cheers!” He knocked it back, only spilling a little, and only wobbling a bit more.
I took another sip of my drink and decided to make my move. “So you’re quitting, then? You’re done with the whole Holiday Spirit business? You’re going to leave us on our own?”
He paused, glass halfway to his mouth, and looked sideways at me. “I didn’t say that now, did I?”
“Well, I think you should. Frankly, as nasty as people can be, I still think we deserve more than a half-assed self-pitying excuse for a spirit.” He snorted and threw back another.
“No, pay attention to me. I think you owe me that much. Have you looked around lately? You know how bad things are these days, particularly in America. There’s damned little hope in the world, and everywhere we look it’s all violence and hatred.”
“It’s been that way forever. What’s your point?”
“My point is that it hasn’t been this bad forever. It’s a unique situation right now that’s emphasizing our differences and hiding our common bonds. This season — religious or secular — has traditionally brought us together, given us a reason to hold out hope that maybe next year will be better. This year, though, the spirit’s deserted us. You have deserted us, and why? Because some shallow, mean-spirited, materialistic people have made your job harder than usual? Because some self-righteous religious types have tried to co-opt an ancient tradition? Because of politics?! Really, that’s it? Well, boo hoo, boo hoo.”
“Hey, c’mon, don’t be a jerk about it, be nice!” He was starting to whine. “You don’t have any idea what it’s like…”
“I’m sorry, that’s crap. I know very well what it’s like to have people deliberately misrepresent you, who hate you, who wish you were dead. I know what it’s like to have a price-sticker put on the value of your life, and have people think you deserve to die if you can’t pay it. And you know, I don’t have that advantage of being immortal, either, unlike some people I could name.”
He stared at the bottom of his glass for a moment, a hangdog look on his face. I softened my approach.
“Look, I know something about how these things work. You wouldn’t have this job if you couldn’t do it. No, it isn’t as flashy as some, and no, you don’t get the recognition you deserve. But there are a lot of us out here, a lot of people who depend on your efforts to get us through December. More than usual, this year.”
“Besides, you don’t impress me as the kind of guy who gives up without a fight.”
He perked up a bit at that, and a wry grin curled his lips.
“You aren’t wrong, my friend, you are not wrong. Hey, Jose?” The bartender came over.
The man in the red trench coat stood up without a hint of unsteadiness and patted down his pockets. After a minute’s searching he took out a large silver coin and a sprig of holly, complete with red berries. He slid the coin across the counter.
I couldn’t see what kind of coin it was, but when Jose picked it up he took off the antlers and said with real sincerity,” Hey, thanks, buddy, I appreciate that!”
He then turned to me and shook out his long arms, then cracked his neck audibly. “Ah, well, I’m feeling a bit better now. There are still a couple of days left to try and spread a little joy, too. Let’s see what we can accomplish.”
I tensed up. “What do you mean, ‘we’?”
He reached over and pinned the holly to my lapel, smiling wickedly. “What, you think I do this by myself? It’s a team effort, chum. I may start things rolling, but it’s up to you people to share it. Consider yourself a Deputy Holiday Spirit.”
“Me? Wait, what am I supposed to do? I hardly ever leave the house these days!”
He rolled his eyes, but with humor. “What do you think? It’s the twenty-first century: use the Internet. Tell the sodding story!”
He opened the door into the cool evening air and took a deep breath. “And also, you know? Thanks for making the effort to hunt me down. I appreciate it.”
I fingered the points on the holly leaves. Beats a tin star, I suppose.
I called out to him, raising my glass. “Hey, happy holidays!”
He shook his head and laughed as he walked into the night.
And happy holidays to you, too.