That Christmas Eve, the streets of Boston were clogged with tourists and locals bundled in wool and flannel. Shoppers, hawkers, and gawkers whirled and swirled around me. “Frosty the Snowman,” “Let It Snow!” and “Jingle Bells” played in stores; on the sidewalks, the street musicians did their best. Everyone, it seemed, was accompanied by someone else smiling or laughing. I was alone.
The eldest of a Puerto Rican family of 11 children growing up in New York’s crowded tenements, I’d spent much of my life seeking solitude. Now, finally, at 27, a college student in the midst of a drawn-out breakup of a seven-year relationship, I contemplated what I’d so craved, but I wasn’t quite sure I liked it. Every part of me wanted to be alone, but not at Christmas.
My family had returned to Puerto Rico, my friends had gone home during the holiday break, and my acquaintances were involved in their own lives. Dusk was falling, and the inevitable return to my empty apartment brought tears to my eyes. Blinking lights from windows and around doors beckoned, and I wished someone would emerge from one of those homes to ask me inside to a warm room with a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel, its velvet skirt sprinkled with shiny fake snow and wrapped presents.
I stopped at the local market, feeling even more depressed as people filled their baskets with goodies. Dates and dried figs, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts in their shells reminded me of the gifts we received as children in Puerto Rico on Christmas Day, because the big gifts were given on the morning of the Feast of the Epiphany, on January 6. I missed my family: their rambunctious parties; the dancing; the mounds of rice with pigeon peas; the crusty, garlicky skin on the pork roast; the plantain and yucca pasteles wrapped in banana leaves. I wanted to cry for wanting to be alone and for having achieved it.
In front of the church down the street, a manger had been set up, with Mary, Joseph, and the barn animals in expectation of midnight and the arrival of baby Jesus. I stood with my neighbors watching the scene, some of them crossing themselves, praying. As I walked home, I realized that the story of Joseph and Mary wandering from door to door seeking shelter was much like my own history. Leaving Puerto Rico was still a wound in my soul as I struggled with who I had become in 15 years in the United States. I’d mourned the losses, but for the first time, I recognized what I’d gained. I was independent, educated, healthy, and adventurous. My life was still before me, full of possibility.
Sometimes the best gift is the one you give yourself. That Christmas, I gave myself credit for what I’d accomplished so far and permission to go forward, unafraid. It is the best gift I’ve ever received, the one that I most treasure.
• Esmeralda Santiago’s six books include the bestselling memoir When I Was Puerto Rican and the new novel Conquistadora.