ix. It’s seldom what we expect.
Kate found a Christmas tree propped against her door when she returned from shopping for the feast on Christmas Eve.
“Found this in the alley. Heard you were having a party. Thought you could use it. –A Neighbor”
She hadn’t planned to get a tree–environmental reasons: Trees belong with their roots in the earth and their crowns in the air. But since it had been found abandoned, and since it had been delivered here in a gesture both thoughtful and kind, she hauled it into the apartment and set it up in a corner.
She strung popcorn and cranberry garlands and found lights and decorations in the donated boxes.
The apartment smelt sweet, spicy, and deliciously acrid. It smelt like Christmas.
Near midnight, the tree decorated and a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven, Kate sat to plan the meal for tomorrow. She didn’t know what people’s dietary restrictions and preferences would be, so she planned a vegan feast, with plenty of gluten-free dishes. Vegetables were remarkably accommodating!
Kate had no idea what to expect the next day.
She certainly hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors would come dressed in a full raccoon costume.
Nor that Bertha would wander up in her nightgown and bunny slippers.
“Are you feeling all right, Bertha?” Kate asked, wondering if she should call her son.
“Yes, yes, dear. Quite well. Quite merry. Merry Christmas, dear.”
And Bertha began to dance and hum to Bing Crosby.
She hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors was Ishaan, the artist she’d spoken with at the center earlier that week, nor that he’d be one of her guests, along with a fashionable young woman about her own age.
She hadn’t expected that by the time the meal was ready, the apartment would be filled with happy, dancing people, strangers who were neighbors who were in the process of becoming friends.
She hadn’t expected she’d pull out a tiny bell from the box of decorations and call her guests to dinner, using the same words her father had used to announce the serving of every Christmas feast:
“Supper is on!
Let’s feast with friends
Until the year ends!”
Everyone contended that they’d never had such a fine meal, and no one, not once, asked where the meat dish was.
They shared stories and memories. They laughed and joked. They sat in that comfortable silence that comes after a good meal.
She hadn’t expected that the guests would bring presents, but they had, each and every one, so after the meal, they gathered around the tree.
“I hope you like it,” said the raccoon. “Just something I found while out foraging one day!”
But it was a real gift that her neighbor had brought her, not a raccoon’s idea of a joke: an infuser and a bottle of pine essential oil, “to keep the spirit all the year.”
“Now you relax,” said Bertha, after the presents were opened. “The host never does the dishes!”
So Bertha and the fashionable neighbor cleared up, while Kate relaxed on the couch, listening to more stories.
As her neighbors began wondering about coffee, desert, and tea, the doorbell rang.
Kate hadn’t expected, when she answered it, that she would learn the identity of the neighbor who had started this all, the one who’d left the box of decorations beneath the bulletin board.
“I hope I’m not late,” said Geeta, Kate’s next-door neighbor, whom she was meeting for the first time. “I just finished up at my son’s and thought I’d swing by, since I said I would come.”
“You’re just in time for desert,” said Kate.
“Oh, the place looks lovely!” said Geeta. “So much better than all those bangles sitting in a box in my closet, yes?”
She hadn’t guessed that it would seem that her neighbors would never leave.
The meal had been eaten and cleaned up, the presents had been opened and admired, the coffee drank, the tea sipped, the cake eaten, and still, they lingered.
Perhaps no one wanted to end this feeling of community they had crafted together on a Christmas day in the city, when each of them, otherwise, might be feeling very much alone.
She hadn’t guessed that, even after they decided on a late-night walk in the cold Christmas air, and each one went down to their own apartment to put on their winter clothes, and they met up on the stoop outside the building, then strolled and raced along the waterfront, that they would return, breathless, tired, and happy, all of them together, to her apartment, once again, to continue the celebration.
And she certainly hadn’t expected to find their landlord there, dressed as Father Winter, handing out a last batch of presents to his tenants.
He gave a box to each of them.
A coupon for a month’s free rent!
“It’s a Christmas miracle!” chuckled Stefan, and each one shared what they’d do with the godsend.
Kate hadn’t expected any of it, not the strangeness, nor the weird joy, nor the happy feast, nor the sudden friendships, nor the feeling of community they created, which maybe, had always already existed, and they had only to discover it.
When, after all the other guests had finally left, and she discovered Ishaan curled up, peacefully asleep on the loveseat in her study, she realized that, Christmas means “all are welcome,” and she had never expected to discover that.