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Lonesome bachelors, holiday orphans

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-11-25


Even though the rest of the holiday season fills me with dread, I must admit that I'm a total sucker for the annual Santa lighting ceremony in downtown Fort Wayne. That day, that Wednesday, has always been my favorite moment in the holidays the prodigals have all returned to the city, liquor stores are jumping, the bars are packed, everybody's got a little kick in their step because of the imminent four-day vacation. And the lighting ceremony is the centerpiece of the day. It's not an official holiday, that Wednesday, but to me it seems like the day when people are happiest and most free. Anticipating a celebration is always easier and more pleasurable than the celebration itself.

I usually make it to Calhoun and Main for the ceremony and when I do I make sure to leave my hipster irony at home. I know that the Santa lighting is an entirely artificial event, and I know that there's something inherently tacky about the whole thing, but I don't care. I bundle up for the night, I stand shoulder to shoulder with the crowd, I stay warm by drinking schizophrenic amounts of coffee and cognac. Like a pre-teen I'm always disappointed with how quickly the party breaks up after the switch has been thrown--almost instantly I can hear the engines revving and I can see the kids being led into the SUVs and I just wish that everyone could stick around a little longer, I wish the (wholly illusory, I know) communal feeling and blank, upward stares could last just a little bit deeper into the night. Against all reason I stay on the streets long past the time when most people have left.

Believe me, I realize how ridiculous this all sounds. And it wasn't until recently that I understood why I had romanticized the Santa lighting so much. See, like most people, I had celebrated the holidays in traditional, family ways, and even as my role changed from child to parent, I still centered my holiday perspective on whatever position I held in the family. When I lost that position as many people my age do, with estrangements, break-ups, divorce I discovered how disorienting and saddening the holidays can be. It was by no means coincidental that the first year I found myself without a place to go for Thanksgiving was also the first year that I fully immersed myself in the Santa lighting ceremony. It filled a space for me, a little glow of fellowship with other folks, before they retreated to their homes and private celebrations while I tried to figure out where I now belonged.

Fortunately, though, it didn't take me long to see that I wasn't the only person in Fort Wayne who suddenly found himself "familyless" for the holidays. A friend heard of my recent estrangement and invited me to his annual "Orphans Thanksgiving" party, and when I arrived at his home I was surprised to find thirty or so acquaintances who shared my exact circumstances. Some were separated from their families by geography, but most had suffered some painful rupture that kept them from their traditional celebrations. All the Thanksgiving food was there the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes, the red wine and I was (pleasantly) surprised that the dinner became a somewhat formal affair. Before we sat down, everyone held hands and said prayers, sincerely, without irony. As the night progressed, the ranks of the guests kept growing, as more and more people kept showing up at the door, mostly non-orphans. They had "done time" at family Thanksgivings, and you could almost feel their relief when they walked in. Even in well-adjusted, loving households there's bound to be tensions and sore spots, and it's easy to imagine how pleasant it is to leave the subtle power plays of the ancestral home and repair to a house full of equals. I bet that families who traditionally go to the movies on holidays employ the same rationale i.e., sometimes it's necessary to seek out the neutral ground. It's no coincidence that Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the biggest box-office days on the calendar year.

I don't remember exactly when I left the "Orphans Thanksgiving" that first year predictably, as more people showed up and as more bottles got opened, the night degenerated into a sloppy drunk fest but I do recall that whatever melancholy I had been holding vanished almost entirely. Bourbon will do that, I know, but there was something else going on. As I stumbled home, I reflected on how fortunate I was to have found a lively, viable replacement to the holidays I had always known, and, also, I realized again how frighteningly adaptable people can be. The worst thing you know, the worst thing you've felt, somehow we have it in us to adjust to the new reality and move on. I know this survival gene is in all of us, and I know it has helped me through the hardest times, still I must admit that sometimes it scares the living hell out of me. I will survive, I know, but sometimes I wonder at the cost.

But enough of that. This is the beginning of the holiday season, after all and there's no room for morbid thoughts. Next Wednesday, mark your calendars, bring the hot chocolate, cheer like children when the lights are switched. I'll be there, and then afterward I'll be going from party to party. It's almost perverse to report that since that first year, I usually receive a solid handful of "Orphans Thanksgiving" invitations. My Thanksgiving, which used to be sleepy and warm and predictable, has now become one of the busiest days on my social calendar.

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