So many atheist bloggers have written about their Christmas memories, leftovers from the days when they were believers. As I’ve mentioned many times, I was never a believer, and even if I had been, my family was Jewish. For my ancestors, the arrival of a bearded Gentile in a bright red uniform, laughing maniacally and swinging a heavy bag, would not have been a pleasant sight; it would have been another pogrom.
Still, though, I actually do have some fond recollections of the season, not the least of which is my yearly excursion with my grandmother from the Bronx into the heart of Manhattan. When I was a boy, Nanny took me every year to see a nighttime Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall. This was back in the days when the alleged main attraction was a big-budget first-run movie. But there was also a live stage show and the usual assortment of cartoons, shorts, and newsreels. The full program lasted at least three hours, and was well worth waiting for. And half the world seemed to think so.
We’d stand, Nanny and I, excited and freezing, outside the theater for an eternity, sometimes lasting almost two hours. The long line we were in would snake up and down and around the block, moving just a few feet every now and then until the movie or the stage show had reached an end. Then, as Nanny would say, we’d make “some serious progress.” If we were luckily unlucky enough to be stuck near the back of that line — and we always were — we’d have a great view of the hypnotic Rockefeller Center Tree. I found dozens of ways to stare at those lights to make them look different. I squinted. I turned sideways and peeked out of my peripheral vision. I pulled down my upper eyelids to create a curtain of tears. I closed my eyes really tight until I could see shapes, and then I opened them superfast to find those shapes floating on the tree. I tilted my head all the way over till it touched my shoulder; then I repeated that action in the other direction.
Even Nanny tried to embellish the view. She always wore a hat with a veil, and she’d stare through it at the lights. After a while, she’d lift the veil and gaze at the tree again. When she thought that none of the million other people were looking at her, she’d alternately lift and drop the veil quickly for a few rounds, as if she were playing a frenzied game of peek-a-boo with a giant plant.
Every three minutes or so, she’d ask me, “You warm enough?”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“How can you be warm enough in that shmatta coat? You need a heavier one. Or something under. Whatever happened to that nice cardigan I crocheted for you?”
That cardigan would be home in my closet because, as Nanny whispered to my mother once, “I’m not from the measurers.” This was her way of saying that the sleeves ran from my apartment in the Bronx all the way to New Hampshire. She sometimes claimed that she made these things a “little long,” so I could grow into them. But I never did. Even if I’d gotten so big that the bottom of the sweater was up around the middle of my chest, there was no way the sleeves would fit anyone other than King Kong.
Finally, she’d say, “Awright. OK. Be cold. Do what you wanna, just don’t come crying to me next week when you’re sneezing and coughing. If I was your mother, you’d have a cardigan on, believe me. So what if you have to roll up the arms a little?”
Then she’d produce a thermos from the laundry bag she called her purse. “Here,” she’d say. “You’re cold. Have some cocoa. But only if you’re cold.”
“Well, I’m just a little bit cold.”
“So you are cold. Didn’t I tell you you were cold?”
She’d unscrew the lid from the thermos, and turn that lid upside-down to transform it, magically, into a cup. Steam would come rising up, warming my face as I stuck my nose as close as I could to the chocolate-scented mist. Then Nanny would pour some of the piping hot liquid, and take a healthy sip, leaving a smear of bright, red lipstick on the rim. When she’d pass the cup over to me, I’d use my gloved fingers to wipe off as much of the lipstick as I could.
“Whatsa matter? You’re afraid of my mouth? I’m your grandmother, f’heavensake. Drink from the other side if you’re so scared of germs. Believe me, in this dirty air, the other germs wish they could be as clean as mine. How come you’re not so scared of germs when it comes to wearing a nice cardigan?”
Nanny had a fakir’s tongue that could dance across hot coals. But when I’d sample some of the cocoa, I’d burn my lips. Then I’d start blowing furiously into the cup.
“Is the cocoa hot enough?”
“Yeah,” I’d say. “It’s boiling.”
“It’s not hot enough. But drink it anyway.”
As the line would move along, I’d become one with the billions of city lights flickering on and off in the surrounding buildings, reflected in car windows, glass doors, people’s glasses; the sound of Salvation Army bells ringing urgently all around me; the smell of chestnuts from the vendors’ carts nearby, the bite of a cold gust sneaking under the earflaps on my hat, and the taste of cocoa mingled with lipstick. It never occurred to me back then that there were unfortunate boys elsewhere in the country whose grandmothers took them to see movies at places where they walked right up to the ticket window, paid their money, and went in.
When Nanny and I finally got all the way to the main lobby of Radio City, she’d grab my hand and lead me up the enormous staircase to the balcony, which in those days was also the smoking section. With the help of rows of little lights shining from the backs of the seats, we’d find our way to the best place. Nanny always picked a seat right behind the one that would soon be occupied by the woman with the most gigantic hat ever seen. When that villainess would finally show up, Nanny would tap me on the shoulder and stage-whisper, “Uy. Y’see this hat? It’s a wonder her head isn’t crushed.”
“Just tell me, what hat are you talking about?”
“Shhh. I’ll tell you later. Can you see all right? Or is it BLOCKING YOUR VIEW, TOO?”
Nanny would grumble about the lady in the hat for a while, and maybe even throw in a few nasty remarks about the tall fidgety teenager behind her who kept bumping her seat with his feet, or the old bald man sitting next to her who couldn’t stop passing gas.
But I never noticed them, because there was an exceptional holiday glow in this elevated region, a shimmering constellation of yellow chair-lamp beams and vivid orange dots emanating from hundreds of cigarettes. Candy wrappers crinkled everywhere, including in my seat, because Nanny never forgot to load her bag with a giant-size Hershey bar with almonds and enough sucking candy to moisten the throats of all the children and grandmothers in the tri-state area. The air was thick with smoke and perfume and peppermint and just a tiny bit of resisted slumber, and, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about as contented as I’d ever be.