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Multicultural Christmas Eve Service in Los Angeles

Rick Hamlin recalls a memorable church service, which included a traditional Japanese dance performed to Silent Night.

An artist's rendering of a multicultural group of children doing a traditional Japanese dance

Until that year I had hardly ever missed going home to see my family for Christmas. Only once before, in fact, when, right after college, I was trekking in the Peruvian Andes during a fairly improvisational journey to parts more or less unknown. That year, my mother later told me, most of the discussion around the holiday table was about when they’d ever see me again. “We had no idea,” she told me later, “because you didn’t call.” Did I mention that my mother was a bit of a worrier? I called her a prayer worrier rather than a prayer warrior.

Truth was that now, at age 30, I had given her more to worry and pray about than any loving mother ever deserved. A reckless, artistic and footloose youth had transmogrified into something much darker and more disturbing than my mother knew. And this Christmas, 1983, two weeks after I turned 30, I had to tell my mother I wasn’t coming home. That coming home was too dangerous. At least for me. At least for now.

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“If you get on a plane for Detroit, Edward,” my sponsor in the 12-step program I’d joined warned me, “you might not make it back. The holidays can be tough. Everyone will be toasting and celebrating. That’s fine for most folks, but for people like us it’s a matter of life and death. It’s your first Christmas sober…your first month, actually. You should stick close to your meetings. You need all the support you can get right now.”

Of that I had no doubt. I was on shaky ground. In the years since I had finished graduate school and drifted down from New Haven to New York, alcohol had subsumed my life like some treacherous rip current I kept getting caught in. I’d been in enough trouble at school, taking four years to complete a three-year master of fine arts program. Even then I spent my final semester living at the student health center so I could be supervised and medicated.

New York and its environs were altogether a more dangerous game. The girl I’d moved here with from New Haven quickly left me…and I couldn’t blame her. If I could have left me I would have. But that was the problem. I’d walk past the huge churches and cathedrals in this great city and cry out for help, but no answer ever came except the plaintive echo of my own dissolute voice.

Finally, on a cold, rainy day in the East Village, an old friend smacked me over the head with one of those cheapo street umbrellas until she got me to a 12-step meeting on Perry Street. Yes, it was grim and crowded and the man talking was clearly nearing the final stages of AIDS. My mind said, Why bother to stop now, dude? Go out in style. Yet even as I thought it I couldn’t help but grasp the courage of a dying man who wanted to meet his Lord sober.

I was introduced to others and everyone was eager to give me their phone numbers. Since I didn’t have a phone, that seemed pointless…until a collection was taken and I was awarded a wealth of coins to use at pay phones. “No excuses now,” someone said.

For the past month I’d trudged to meetings once, twice, three times a day. I turned 30 in a huge “sober party” that was as wild and fun as anything I’d ever done. As Christmas neared, though, I pined for home, for the beautiful clean snow of Michigan and midnight Mass with my family at St. Owen’s. What I wouldn’t have given to be back there with them, like it was before everything had gone so wrong in my life. There wasn’t anything about my family that was bad for me. I came from a good family and they were supporting me in my decision to play it safe this year. There would be plenty of time to go home later when I had a few stable months under my belt.

Which was why I found myself wandering alone down a quiet Fifth Avenue late on Christmas Eve. There was a fresh dusting of snow on the sidewalk and the buildings soared into a frozen sky. Only the brightest stars shone through the ambient light. All I had on was a raincoat with no lining, and I shivered when I stopped to admire the holiday windows at Lord & Taylor: Santa’s workshop, the elves still working furiously even at this late hour. I watched, feeling lonelier and lonelier. A figure passed me and turned—a woman named Casey from one of my meetings. She was older than me and had been sober a while.

“Where are you off to?” I asked.

“Midnight Mass. Want to come?”

I joined her and in a few minutes we were inside the church, edging our way up the side of the sanctuary until we could find a decent place to stand since the pews were packed. Crowded, just like everything else in New York. But warm, too, especially when the choir lifted its voice in “O Come, All Ye Faithful”!

We’d pushed up next to a side altar that had been converted to a crèche. A beautiful Mary, the most beautiful Mary figurine I had ever seen, knelt lovingly over the Baby Jesus in his crib. Joseph stood above her, his hand resting tenderly on her shoulder. There were others around too, shepherds and animals. But my attention was riveted on the three gorgeous figures and all that the humble scene proclaimed. You, I thought, you are my family tonight.

After Mass Casey took me to an all-night coffee shop on Third Avenue open even on Christmas Eve, where a bunch of people I knew from meetings in the neighborhood were drinking coffee, singing carols and generally having a fine Christmas time. Someone bought me breakfast, which tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten, probably because I hadn’t eaten in a while. We stayed until the sun came up over the East River on Christmas morn. I went home to change clothes and get ready for another meeting. But not before I found a phone and called home to let them know I was okay.

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It was a few more years still before I found my way, and when I did I found my way to Guideposts and another kind of family, the family of Guideposts and its readers. But each Christmas in New York, where I still live and work not far from that church, I always remember the one family I am never far from and who will be there always.

This story first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Joys of Christmas.

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