For most of us, the song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” took on a different meaning 13 years ago, just three months after the levees broke. At issue was not so much if we would be home for Christmas, but whether we would ever be home at all, or at least back to the place we had once lived.
Our refuge was a small apartment on Julia Street where our usual six-foot-high live tree was replaced by a three-foot artificial tree bought at the Wal-Mart in upstate Alexandria during our exile.
People who we usually visited during the holidays were relocated too, with neither stockings to hang nor chimneys to hang them on.
For many locals the château du jour was a trailer provided by FEMA, by then a much-maligned organization that had suddenly become the area’s major housing provider.
Conversation came easily at holiday gatherings. Everyone had stories to tell about their recent lives: All stories were compelling, each seeming to top the previous one.
A year earlier, on Christmas Day 2004, snow fell, beginning exactly at noon. It was a joyous moment, though a year later some superstitious souls remembered the snow as nature’s hex, a disarming moment of brightness as an omen for dark days ahead.
In another country, in another century Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” had created a template for Christmas being a time of good will and helping the needy. In 2005 New Orleans was a city of Tiny Tims leaning on their crutches; not only were our lives in shambles but our community pride was hurt; the Saints were playing in San Antonio; the Hornets in Okalahoma City and (heaven forbid) the Sugar Bowl was held in Atlanta.
But the Yule season by its existence creates its own sauce—a yearning for something benevolent, like the British and German soldiers who climbed out of the trenches one Christmas Eve during World War I to sing “Silent Night” together. So, in our blue roofed world, the season added a little music, a little sparkle. At midnight on Christmas Eve, we were at St. Patrick’s church for mass. That evening, the priests and the choir staged a show that was unprecedented in its beauty as angelic voices filled the incense- scented chamber with the glory of music that showed the genius and the survivability of mankind.
At that one spot on Camp Street, Christmas morning had arrived gloriously to this mildewed city—and for that hour, at least, all was calm, all was bright.