I awoke to an empty Christmas morning. On Christmas Eve, I managed to find an at-home test at the River Forest Walgreens, and the result was positive. I remember when the word “positive” meant something … positive. The world is topsy-turvy with COVID. After going almost two years avoiding the virus, taking all the precautions, finally getting snared felt like a failure. The rest of the afternoon was spent emailing the people I had contact with last week. If I missed anyone, I apologize. I did attend two dinners with large gatherings the weekend before. It was, unfortunately, a more social week than usual for me.

The upshot was that my extended family canceled their Christmas get-together and the eagerly awaited gift exchange. Several friends changed their holiday plans. I felt pretty lousy about all that. 

So when I woke on Christmas morning, the day ahead seemed an empty vessel. But before my feet hit the floor, I thought, “Every day begins as an empty vessel.” I did not have one of those Hallmark moments of grand determination — “I’m going to make this my best Christmas ever!” — but I did take comfort in the fact that most Christmas literature and media involve out-of-the-ordinary holiday scenarios, so I quietly resolved to keep an open mind and pay attention to whatever might fill my empty stocking.

I knew I’d be spending the day alone and wondered how many other people were doing the same this year and what they might do to make it special.

In the age of social media, of course, “alone” is a relative term, and when you live alone, you can’t ignore it because people will think you’re dead on the floor. Several of my brothers checked in and were very nice considering I had ruined their Christmas dinner plans. In fact, they were positively supportive. One said, “I’m a Cub fan, so I’m used to saying, ‘Wait till next year’.” He also provided my mantra for the day, wishing me, “Merry Christmas Anyway!” which applies to so many of us, given the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I hope you all had a Merry Christmas Anyway. My mantra went into my empty vessel.

I’m one of those who tries to make the best of bad situations — probably to a fault. My Christmas spirit hadn’t been this high in years, but this was certainly dispiriting. However, I didn’t wallow, mostly because I already felt pretty crummy (cold-like symptoms) and really didn’t want to go out of my way to make it worse.

Besides, people were sending best wishes and high hopes for my recovery. In my largely blessed life thus far, I’m usually on the side sending best wishes. Being on the receiving end, the object of people’s unvarnished goodness, is quite something. Even though I hear about it all the time, and even see it in action (one of the privileges of being a journalist), feeling it directly is positively medicinal. 

When my next oldest brother (I have five, speaking of being blessed) checked in, we conjured stories about our childhood Christmases, including the famous story of “the hand.” He stayed awake — or woke up, can’t remember which — and looked out our bedroom, down the long hallway to the Christmas tree, and suddenly saw a hand reach out, holding a gift. Another inch and he would know if it was Santa. What would you do? Would you amble down the hallway and say hi or would you, as my brother did, dive back into bed and pull the covers over your head? My brother couldn’t believe I still remembered that incident, but he doesn’t recall how many times he’s retold the story since. 

I put all those memories in my empty vessel.

Next, I played Santa myself. I couldn’t visit my grandsons, so I wrapped their presents, arranged them under my tree, filled their stockings, and put half-eaten cookies on Santa’s plate (actually a plate-shaped ornament that they designated Santa’s cookie plate) and emailed photos of each to show what was awaiting them after I conquered COVID. 

Christmas will be extended a bit this year. We could hold it on the Epiphany (in spite of Trump and his minions misappropriating Jan. 6 with their glorious insurrection).

In the afternoon I took a walk because the sky was cloudless with temps in the high 40s. That doesn’t happen very often on Christmas Day around here and I wanted fresh air in my lungs. I avoided people like the plague (literally), though many were out and about. Passing by our former family home at Jackson and Elmwood, I hoped to see what window the new family’s tree might be visible from. As on Thanksgiving, however, they were celebrating elsewhere, so the house was dark. For 39 straight years those windows were warmly lit every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Watching the glow of waning day, I missed my parents, but counted myself lucky — and hoped to remain so since contracting COVID is a vivid reminder of one’s mortality. I have no wish to join them in the land of the ancestors. As I neared home, I noticed that the sunlight is already staging its comeback; we’re in the upswing of the year. “It’s definitely brightening up,” my dad always used to say.

It all went into the empty vessel. 

When I got home, because I was too preoccupied the previous day, I checked the mailbox. It was filled with Christmas cards, reminding me of the many quality people I am lucky enough to know (another perk of journalism).

I made a modest supper and treated myself to a celebratory glass of wine, then watched the movie “Top Hat” with Astaire and Rogers, which I had never seen before. Ginger didn’t “do it all backwards in high heels” as the famous line goes. She was, in my view, an equal partner. They danced side by side or dervishly whirled so you couldn’t really tell who was leading. Wonderful dancing, but a supremely silly film. I enjoyed it anyway.

Before I went to bed, I found my old watch fob with the belt clip and attached it to my brand new pocket watch, a very welcome early Christmas present, which, of course, made me think of the classic O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.”

My pocket is full again. 

And so is my empty vessel. 

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