Lessons & Carols by Rod Dreher

Lessons & Carols

Rod Dreher on Finding Hope in Difficult Times

Winter in New York City is cold and hard, but next to our glorious autumns, it is my favorite time of the year, because it snows here. We have not seen many snowy days the past few winters, at least compared to the city’s usual amount, but as a child who grew up in snow-free southern Louisiana, hoping against hope for a white Christmas (or a white any day), snowflakes are like manna from heaven.

This past December New York had a glorious early-season snow day. The snow began before daylight and came down heavily all day. My wife and I took our three-year-old son out sledding along the sidewalks of Brooklyn, where everyone was being unusually cheerful and kind to each other. It was especially wonderful after the sun went down and the streetlights went on, causing the sidewalks to glow, or so it appeared.

A Sign of Rebirth

The three of us bundled up and took the subway over to downtown Manhattan to Battery Park for an a cappella concert and tree-lighting ceremony. Battery Park City is the name of the neighborhood built on top of land added to the western tip of Manhattan island from the earth excavated when the World Trade Center was built.

On September 11, 2001, the people of Battery Park City found themselves living on the lip of a volcano. They suffered tremendously on that day, and for a long time after. The lighting of a Christmas tree in Battery Park this past December was to be a sign of rebirth. My wife and I planned to go to hear the Roches, three sisters who sing a cappella, perform Christmas music. Their Christmas album, long out of print, was a favorite of ours when we were younger, so hearing the Roche sisters perform live was a rare New York treat for us.

After emerging from the subway into downtown Manhattan, we stopped by Ground Zero to say a prayer. You might remember the Brooks Brothers store directly across from the south tower; on 9/11, it served as a makeshift morgue. Rescuers stacked recovered body parts in its aisles. Now the store windows were filled with red ribbons, greenery, and Christmas merchandise, bathed in warm light. It almost made me weep to see that mundane resurrection.

I stood across the street, at the fence ringing the site, and noticed the large steel-beam cross on its pedestal, its arms holding up a thin layer of snow. Just beyond it, someone had put up a huge Christmas tree, which would in days be festooned with lights, and hymned by choirs, but which tonight was merely evergreen. A sign of life. I offered my prayers for the dead, then turned away and walked back to where my wife and son were standing. A man in a trenchcoat hustled off making some kind of noise. Julie pointed to him, with a look of astonishment on her face.

“Did you hear that?” she asked. No, I hadn’t. “He was a businessman, I think, and he was singing Ave Maria at the top of his lungs as he passed the site.”

On we went to Battery Park, on the banks of the Hudson. Julie and I laughed when we first stepped into the park, where the snow lay like frosting on tree branches. Before us was a winter wonderland worthy of a Christmas card or a department-store window display. As we approached the loose knot of people gathered around the corner of a building, the Roches had just begun the “Hallelujah Chorus” in three-part harmony. We got hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, and stood under trees in our boots listening to these sisters sing the most beautiful versions of sacred and secular carols I’ve heard in ages.

The snow was still falling on the dark waves of the Hudson, and my boy told me he wanted to cross over to Jersey. “That’s where Edison lives,” he said. But we stood in the snow with the neighborhood folks, listening to the music, with hearts full of gratitude for this city and our place in it. A little over a year ago, on that terrible day, this neighborhood was covered with ash, and choked by smoke from the inferno a few blocks away.

Rod Dreher is a contributing editor to Touchstone. He is a writer and blogger and the author of several books, including The Benedict Option (2017) and Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (2020).

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