Max picked up one of his two Christmas cards and shook his head. One was from his dentist, and the other was from his tax guy. The mantel used to be covered with these things. Why had everybody stopped sending them?
It wasn’t just the cards. It seemed like all that was left of Christmas was a conspiracy—people with families trying to make everyone else wish they had one. It hadn’t always been that way. People used to throw Christmas parties. He’d enjoyed them, both noisy and subdued. But nobody had parties anymore. He’d passed out invitations for one at his place two years ago, and his next door neighbor and one guy from work had showed. They’d stayed maybe an hour.
He’d never been one for church, but a movie might be an idea. Something, anything other than spending Christmas alone at home.
He thought about checking movie times but decided to simply go and watch the best thing playing. Anything to get out of his apartment. His little Christmas tree suddenly seemed pathetic, a meaningless gesture in an uncaring world.
Max shrugged on his leather jacket and unlocked his Honda. He stopped at a burger joint on the way to the theater and took his cheeseburger and fries to the communal dining room. He smiled at the man sitting at the next table as he sat down.
“Merry Christmas.” It was an easy enough conversation starter.
The grizzled man raised his head and regarded him blearily. “What’s merry about it?” he slurred before returning his attention to his fries. With exaggerated care, he dipped one in ketchup.
Max cast his gaze around the room, but everyone’s eyes slid away. Only one older lady smiled at him before she pushed open the door to leave. Max gave the Pakistani gal behind the counter a cheery “Happy Holidays” as he left, but as an exercise in spreading Christmas cheer, it was hardly a resounding success. That place was enough to make him consider swearing off Christmas altogether.
At the theater he bought a ticket to the latest sci-fi flick since the Christmas movie looked irredeemably lame. Then he bought a coffee and a box of M&Ms for the lady in line behind him and received a “Merry Christmas” in return, which was encouraging as far as it went. He scanned the theater carefully before he sat down, but everyone seemed to be chatting with someone else.
The movie was okay. Predictable, but the effects were good. Max dropped his popcorn tub in the trash, visited the men’s room, and then hesitated in the lobby. He had no place to go but back home.
“Would you like some Christmas candy, mister?”
Startled, he turned to see the gal he’d bought the candy for behind him. Maybe forty, with short brunette hair and a holly-printed scarf tied around her neck. She held out the box of M&Ms and smiled. “They’re really too much for me by myself. Would you like some?”
“Sure.” Max put out his hand, and she filled his palm with brightly colored chocolate. “Do you know why the quality control guy at the factory kept failing the M&Ms?” Ugh. Was that all he could think of? The lamest joke in the world?
But she smiled and said, “Yes, they kept sending him all the W’s. Maybe he just needed a different perspective.”
“Sounds good,” Max admitted. “The quest for Christmas cheer hasn’t been going too well.”
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” she said. “Social interaction requires a dedicated skill set these days. It used to just happen before. I wanted to thank you for the candy again, though. For the unexpected gift.”
She turned to leave, and Max blurted out, “Would you like to go get some coffee? Uh, that is, if there’s no place else you need to be?”
She smiled. “My name’s Liz, and I’d love a cup of coffee.” They made plans to meet at the diner up the road.
Max chose a table close to the door, which also had an unfortunate view of the clock. He fiddled with his spoon as he waited, stirring the coffee long after the single packet of sugar had dissolved. Did the gal get some strange kick out of leaving people hanging? Max drained his cup and stood with a surge of anger. At least the down-and-out guy at the burger place had been honest.
But just then Liz breezed in, a brightly decorated bag in her hand. “I’m sorry I took so long,” she said. “But I nipped into the drugstore to pick up something for you. Then I realized I had no idea what to buy, and the lady in front of me had to have the entire store dancing attendance while she used a coupon to get her quarter off. I offered to pay the quarter, but that wasn’t the point, apparently.”
Max broke into a grin. “You bought me a Christmas present.”
Liz shrugged. “It’s not much.”
They sat down, and Max laughed when he looked inside his snowflake-covered bag. A prepaid gift card to the theater, a box of microwave popcorn, and Christmas M&Ms. Then he opened a real Christmas card from a real person and smiled as he read the silly reindeer joke. It wasn’t much better than his M&M riddle, but it was just what his mantel needed.
“It’s perfect,” he said, and then he raised his gaze to meet hers. “Maybe we could do it again sometime.”
Liz’s brown eyes sparkled. “What are you doing for New Year’s?”
This story was based on a number of real-life experiences and impressions, some more profound than others. My first husband and I divorced after eleven years of marriage, and in order to avoid the even-odd year chaos of switching holidays, I gave up Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s to get Easter with our three kids. Every Christmas Eve by six the kids were gone. We celebrated on Christmas Eve morning.
Later this turned out to be a good thing. Now my husband Tom and I take a leisurely approach to Christmas—we observe the twelve days (plus one, including Christmas Eve), and the holiday becomes more of a season than a single hectic day overwhelmed with expectations.
But while I was single, it made for very lonely Christmases. After a divorce, so much of my family and friend network just…went away. Some married friends became newly defensive around their husbands, as if I was going to somehow try to snatch them away. My former in-laws now viewed me in an adversarial way, and my family wasn’t supportive at all. They were ashamed of me for getting a divorce.
One New Year’s Eve I remember reviewing my options. I didn’t want to go to a bar and spend time with strangers. No real conversation could take place over the sound of the band, and too many people are drunk, which also results in disappointing dialogue. I like to dance, but by that I mean real swing, foxtrot, or waltz—not random gyrations on the dance floor. The whole bar scene struck me as a more complicated form of loneliness.
So I went to a movie—it was Leap of Faith with Steve Martin. And maybe a cinema is always this way, but that evening it struck me with particular force. It was a peculiar form of parallel companionship. Nobody spoke much and eye contact was minimal—it was a completely different atmosphere than going to a movie on Christmas. It was almost solemn. We were quietly banding together so we wouldn’t be utterly alone.
It was a good lesson, even if it was painful at the time. Lots of people are alone during the holidays, and it hurts. There are official kindnesses we do at this time, and these are all good—donating to food drives, taking tags from gift trees and buying clothes and candy, hitting a dollar store and dumping bags of stuffed animals into toy bins. (For some reason, my husband always chooses oddball critters like alligators, sharks, or snakes. He thinks the bears and dogs I pick are too tame.)
A gift is a tangible sign of caring, and that’s important. But a human touch matters, too. Things like striking up a conversation with the person next to you in line, a smile when you make eye contact in a Starbucks, and small courtesies like holding doors or braking to let people cross even when you don’t have to.
So every holiday I try to spread a little subdued joy. I don’t always succeed, and we can always be more diligent about any good works than we already are, but it seems important that I make the attempt. And I pass it on here in case it seems like a good idea to you, too.
May you all have the best possible holiday season.
If you enjoyed “Holiday Movie,” eleven other stories are available free on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Twelve-Tales-Christmas-Contemporary-Brighten-ebook/dp/B0784FSL94/.
Twelve Tales of Christmas was my Christmas present to the world. I hope you enjoy it.
Happy reading! 🙂