"It's too warm," said another friend. "Money's so tight," said another. "It just doesn't feel like Christmas."
The truth, I think, is that we're too sad to celebrate. How could we not be sad knowing the depth of loss experienced by thousands of families in New York, the pain of hunger and injury suffered by thousands in Afghanistan, the ongoing toll of suicide bombings and military retaliation in Jerusalem? In spite of our government's best efforts to shield us from the reality of civilian casualties and mass destruction, we know the story too well. We know that as great as our loss has been at home, the loss over there will be just as great.
This year, images of Santa have been replaced by hauntingly Biblical-looking photos of dark-eyed Middle Eastern men, women and children. Baby Jesus, of course, was one of them, not the blue-eyed, curly-haired moppet often depicted in American nativity scenes, and nothing about the story of his birth rings more poignant in 2001 than the poverty of it -- no room at the inn, born in a stable, a manger for his bed.
"Shop to show your patriotism," says the president. "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas," rings the Muzak over the heads of exhausted shoppers navigating the mall. But the New York Times tells the story that can't be sweetened by visions of sugarplums:
A mother and her four children, buried in a burgeoning, makeshift cemetery at the edge of a refugee camp on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, dead from starvation.
Relief agencies looted during the siege of Kunduz. Journalists robbed, beaten and killed for their wallets, their passports, their cameras.
A 6-year-old boy standing barefoot on the frozen mud of Bagh-i-Sharat where winter has fallen and there's no food or fuel in sight. "My father has no money to buy me shoes," he said.
A mother and her 10-month-old baby, huddled in a mud shelter covered with plastic sheeting in Aliabad, Afghanistan. The American air drop of food aimed at the refugee camp where she lives overshot its target by a few miles and showered food on Northern Alliance troops instead.
CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, 32, reportedly killed when a Taliban prisoner either wired with explosives or clutching a grenade rushed up and embraced him, then detonated.
John Walker of California, barely old enough to graduate from college, converted to Islam at 16 and somehow allied with the Taliban in his search for religious truth, now emaciated and dirty as he emerges from a Taliban prison, despised by his American countrymen, missed by his family, lost to the world.
When I think of Mary this year, I won't imagine the glowing annunciation or the manger scene, but will focus instead on the Piet -- the image of a mother looking down on the body of her broken, dead son.
I'll think of Terri and JoAnn Langone of New York, sisters-in-law with four children aged 5, 9, 10 and 12, both of their husbands, brothers Peter and Thomas, killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Or Edith Layeni, whose daughter called to say goodbye on the morning of Sept. 11, while Edith babysat her children. The floor was shaking, her daughter said, and she was just calling to say goodbye, "if worse comes to worse." Edith watched the building where her daughter worked collapse on television while she was still holding the phone in her hand.
The only comforting thought this year is reunion with family. My sons and I will drive the familiar 1,100 miles across Texas to Galveston where we'll join my mother, my daughter, my sisters, my brother-in-law and my nephews. We'll eat and reminisce and walk the beach in sweaters, breathing in the salty Gulf air. We'll draw comfort from the eyes of our family, people who see and know us in this season of uncertainty.
But crossing the dusty West Texas plains and the frozen Panhandle, it will be impossible not to think of the similarly barren landscape of Afghanistan and the legions of lost loved ones there. "Sleep in heavenly peace," the familiar carol will say, but peace is a faraway dream this Christmas season, available only to those who choose not to look beyond their own back door.