It was not yet dawn and the crew at Isgro Pastries had been filling cannoli for hours.
If Christmas Eve is the busiest day at the iconic South Philly pastry shop, then the day before Christmas Eve is the longest. Everyone comes to beat the lines for those famous cannoli - only to find, well, lines. As the smell of Gus Isgro's ricotta cookies wafted past the doors, still closed, the crowd outside stretched down the block.
Gus, who is 68 and the proud grandson of the original owners, Mario and Crucificia, watched over the proceedings.
Fill the cannoli. Flip the cannoli. Fill the cannoli. Fill. Flip. Fill.
At 7 a.m., after Gus inspected one final time the shell-shaped sfogliatella pastries and his holiday creation - eggnog mousse cups with Baileys and caramel cream - the doors opened.
"Here we go," Gus said, readying himself.
It's Christmas in our city. At the end of this crazy year, we all deserve some joy. So I spent Friday morning walking around, looking to capture that palpable spirit of the season. Gus was the first stop of my day.
I found Franklin Myers ringing his Salvation Army Bell outside Macy's in the cold morning air. Franklin, who is 53, began the year sleeping on a cot in the city shelter system. Now, he sleeps in his own room in a YMCA as part of a transitional housing program. He is paid a few bucks to ring the bell, sure, but in a year when he has received such blessings, Franklin said he does it for the pleasure of helping others. He likes the smiles he gets from those who fill his bucket.
"People are good," he said, ringing away.
Rosebud Bogan and her daughter, Molly, hurried to the eagle statue in the center of Macy's Grand Court, an hour early for the morning's first light show. This is a family tradition dating to when Rosebud was a kid in Willow Grove: lunch at Lit Bros. or Strawbridge's, then the light show at Wanamakers. (It's still hard for Rosebud to call it Macy's.) They live in Alabama now, but keep the tradition alive whenever they visit. They like their traditions, they said. They looked up, waiting.
From his perch high above the shoppers, Fred Haas looked down. An assistant Grand Court organist, he has been playing the Wanamaker Organ for 10 Christmases now. It is his joy. The pleasure he feels from those who listen, who look up. The lights darkened. The crowd hushed. Fred struck the chords of "O Tannenbaum," the sounds thundering.
But the spirit was there, too, in the silence of places such as the stately reading room of the Union League. With the club members gone for the holidays, the library sat empty on Friday, decanters of Scotch and sherry untouched, the only sound the licking of the fireplace flames.
At the Academy of Music, the Sugar Plum Fairy, queen of the Land of Sweets, danced the final steps of her warm-up for Pennsylvania Ballet's matinee of The Nutcracker. Alexandra Hughes, 24, of Fairmount, has performed for six seasons in the ballet's annual Christmas show. But this is her first as the queen, and it's a dream come true. Friday's matinee marked the 14th show of this season's run. They do two shows a day and the queen's back ached, her feet hurt.
It's always the same in the seconds before showtime: "You can do it, one more - smile!" she'll tell herself, dancing on her toes to warm up. Then, the curtain will rise and the pain will subside and the queen will dance.
In the solitude of his office, the Rev. Jason Ferris, pastor of Old Pine Street Church, searched for the right message for his Christmas Eve sermon. At a time of such uncertainty, what words would the pastor of a church dating to our country's birth choose to tell the Christmas story?
He turned to the Gospel of John: "The light that shines in the darkness."
A light in the time of darkness.
Thank you, Pastor.
And thanks to all of you this year who have let me glimpse your lives.
And thank you, readers.
I hope I made you smile. I hope I made you laugh. I hope I made you angry. I know we cried together.
It's been a hell of a year. Lord knows what the next one holds.
I am thankful I have you. I hope you'll stick with me.
And I was thankful for all the unreal cookies Gus Isgro let me sample.
When he finally closes the doors on Christmas Eve, Gus will offer a champagne toast, as he does every year, and he and his crew will all head home.
Home, for the holidays.