Opinion Comment

Sunday 22 September 2019

Donal Lynch: 'A Christmas alone... and a New York cure for this Grinch '

I hated Christmas - until a desolate night in Manhattan changed my mind, writes Donal Lynch

NOT SO SILENT NIGHT: Downtown Manhattan can be the loneliest place in the city that never sleeps
NOT SO SILENT NIGHT: Downtown Manhattan can be the loneliest place in the city that never sleeps
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Are you lonely this Christmas, Elvis asks every year. Mostly it's one of those festive songs that makes me retch slightly at its syrupy sentimentality. But for one Christmas, exactly 10 years ago, the desolate sound of it drifting over the speakers in a nearly deserted Manhattan mall, dissolved my grinchiness and made me understand that there really is a point to the presents and family claustrophobia. Because the alternative is so awful.

I was in New York because I'd moved there right before the economic crash began. This made me a very early member of what was subsequently called Generation Emigration. We were recession martyrs, deserving of pity and Skype time, it was agreed. And yet, though I did technically belong to this group, I was always a bit of an impostor. I'd chosen to leave when the going was still good here. I didn't miss a thing about Ireland and rarely sought out other Irish people over there. Living alone in an anonymous metropolis thousands of miles from home didn't feel in the least bit lonely to me.

And if anything was going to tug at the strings of my cold dead heart and bring forth a latent homesickness, Christmas in New York seemed an unlikely candidate. It lasts barely a day there, I told myself. I will eat Chinese food with Jewish people. I will learn a new, brisk, modern way of dealing with what is otherwise an orgy of idleness and indigestion.

At the core of my loathing of Christmas was probably a resentment at having to grow up. I am a child of the Eighties, when all the best Christmas songs were released (Fairytale of New York, Do They Know It's Christmas, Last Christmas) and when Santa delivered He-Man figures to the end of my bed. For the first decade-and-a-half of my life, every Christmas morning was spent in a farmhouse in Dingle where my grandparents live. In summer, the town is overrun with tourists but in winter it glistens with a silent, frosty magic. My granda, who for decades drove a pony and trap to midnight Mass, would let me light the big old candle in the window. The aunts played ferociously competitive poker amid clouds of cigarette smoke in the sitting room. It felt like the bosom of safety and, with apologies to Jesus and Bing Crosby, very much the heyday of Christmas.

Grinchiness and puberty seemed to go hand in hand. The wonder of pressies was long over and all I wanted for Christmas was cash and freedom. My younger cousins had usurped me as the candle lighter. Christmas became a chore.

And so, a few years later, the prospect of spending it alone, far from people and sentimentality, actually seemed like a fine idea. My East Village den had no decorations, no tree, no reminder even that it was Christmas. My Jewish friends had gone home for the holidays. And so I went to a bar, chugged a few drinks, and briefly talked to a guy, a lone straggler tourist, who suggested, since it was the day that was in it, we go and get something to eat. But if I wasn't going to eat Christmas dinner with my family, I certainly wasn't going to eat it with a stranger. And so I wandered alone out into the freezing city, to one of the few malls that were still open in Manhattan and had what you might call a high-class homeless shelter Christmas dinner: mass produced Turkey served on to a plate, on a tray, in a queue.

It was only the doleful, burnt-sugar voice of Elvis - another unmistakable sound of childhood - floating over the food hall that reminded me that behind the cynicism and isolation there was a person whose soul needs familiar faces and home cooked sprouts once a year. I felt sorry for myself, for the people eating around me, for the people serving the food. Solitude, once a hard-won prize, suddenly felt like a lump of coal, and the lump in the throat wasn't far behind. A few years ago, at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Archbishop Of Canterbury, Justin Welby observed that all life is divided down into a struggle for independence and a realisation of interdependence. That day in New York marked this dividing line for me, an understanding that as much as a part of me might wince at the consumerism, and duty and forced bonhomie, I need, like Dickens, to honour Christmas in my heart and keep that feeling all the year.

Sunday Independent

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