CHRISTMAS CAN be an awkward presence in our times. So many families out of existence - dad in an apartment downtown; mom and the kids hooked up with someone else; relatives back in Illinois; friends remarried, relocated, converted to new religions.

Even in the happiest of circumstances, a person can find himself suddenly alone for the holidays. And it becomes tradition no longer, but an act of imagination.

A few years ago I was in that space, between families, and about to move out West to start a new life. I was staying in Connecticut, among strangers, and I couldn't see ringing in Christmas by myself. So I figured, why not drive into New York? Eight million people there - surely I could find some cheer among a few of them.

I arrived with nightfall Christmas Eve and wandered into a fancy saloon uptown. It was Elaine's, and it was empty. I had a beer and watched out the window people hustling across the trash-blown streets with presents in their arms. It was a cold night in New York, the lamp poles festooned.

I drove on down to Greenwich Village, then walked farther to SoHo, the district of warehouses and artists' lofts. I'd remembered a lively bar there, and I found it.

I ended up talking with Pete, on the stool next to me. Pete was a beer-truck driver. He lived several blocks away in Little Italy, and he began regaling me with stories of his neighborhood - the Old World immigrant ways, the men playing bocci, ancient women in shawls, kids playing hopscotch in front of the corner grocery, the overwhelming splendor of Old St. Patrick's Church. "It's another world," said Pete. "No lie!"

I imagined sharing the night with Pete's family - imagined a cozy overheated tenement with dimestore lights blinking on the tree, and me sleeping on the sofa through the enchanted night of the Slum Family Christmas, and waking up to watch generations of immigrants open their gifts and shake with laughter like a bowlful of . . . spaghetti?

And then Pete gave me my opening.

"I gotta leave pretty soon," he said. "I'm just here to get my courage up, ya know? I gotta play Santa Claus for the neighborhood."

"Santa Claus?"

"Yeah, my friend Bobby conned me into it. He rented this suit and all."

"You don't sound very eager to do it," I said.

"Aww - all the kids'll know me. They'll know it's me." And he got up and went to the john.

I turned to the girl sitting on the other side of me. "Hey," I said, sort of pointing to my beard. "Don't you think I'd make a good Santa Claus?"

She smiled politely but . . . strange girl. She was made up like plaster, a painted flapper girl with a Betty Boop mouth pursed cheery red, and her eyes - all I saw was a cross-shaped starburst glittering in each socket.

I turned away. The bar was raucous - people babbling, juke box slinging hard rock, general roar and confusion.

Pete returned, and I laid it out for him. I told him how I could use talcum powder to make my beard and hair white - "I'd be the real McCoy." I showed him my blue eyes; none of those kids would know. I demonstrated my "Ho Ho Ho." I gave it everything I had.

The girl with starburst eyes interrupted. "I think you'd make a wonderful Santa," she said, and she didn't look frightened any more. She had eyeballs. She believed.

Pete was convinced too. "If it's okay with my friend Bobby," he said, "it's okay with me."

Bobby arrived a few minutes later. He was half-tanked. He grabbed Pete: "Let's go!" Pete tried to introduce me. Bobby wouldn't listen: "C'mon - the suit's in the car." And before I could explain about the talcum powder, he dragged Pete into the night. It happened as fast as that.

The bubbles on the surface of my beer were clinging together like new continents formed in the ocean. The din resumed. The beer tasted metallic. The juke box was playing pinball Wizard . . . "see me, feel me . . . touch me, heal me . . ."

"Maybe somebody wants a Santa Claus," the girl said.

"Somebody?"

"Maybe," she said. The little flapper girl - shy puckered smile, eyelashes waving in promise like great batwings - she wanted a Santa?

She told me her name was Ellen, and she lived up on 89th Street. Her friends were having a party uptown tonight, but she didn't want to be there, at least not now, and she was a sad little essence.

It didn't take much prying. She was busted up over a guy. His name was Steve and he was a brilliant artist, but lately he'd been, in Ellen's words, "just wasting away." He hadn't worked in six months. "He's just on the street now. And I try to talk to him but . . . you know."

I squeezed her hand - she was acting so courageous. "Well look," I said, "there's no use sitting here feeling bad. Let's go to that party uptown and forget about it."

But once more the script fell apart. Ellen was looking past me, toward the door. A man stood there in an overcoat - puffed face, dark glasses. From the look on the girl's face, it had to be Steve. He wheeled and walked back out the door.

In a few moments Ellen asked me, "Wanna go down the street?"

"What's there?"

"Another bar - livelier."

"Okay," I said. "We might as well."

We stepped out the door and into a Hoppe painting, or was it some ghostly photograph? Stark emptiness - gaunt walls of warehouses, silent rutted streets, monuments of stacked rubbish on deserted sidewalks, yesterday's newspaper pinned against a doorway by the chill wind - a still-life in concrete. Above a darkened storefront, cheery light streamed out the tall window of a loft.

We stole noiselessly through this picture to the other saloon.

It was a costume party - Halloween, or what? Everyone looked bizarre, each in his own way but equally garish. The bartender was a double for Harpo Marx. The women - penciled, stenciled, bobbed and kinked - looked like the wistful sweethearts on old sheet-music. Lillian Gish over there . . . Eleanor Rigby . . . Babs Riley . . . my dead Aunt Hattie.

If Santa himself walked in this bar tonight, he wouldn't be recognized, except as a worn-out doper in a red jumpsuit.

We stood in the middle, in a congested huddle, with Steve and some others. Steve kept jiggling on rough idle, his head cocked whimsically, giggling behind those ludicrous sunshades, "eheh eheh eheh." The rest of the conversation was intellectual and banal.

I made my way to the bar and got Harpo Marx's attention. I asked him if he could play some Christmas music instead of the Grateful Dead. He said, "Somebody ripped off the Christmas tape yesterday afternoon."

The night was still and invigorating. Walking slowly, past vacant windows, a rusty loading-dock door, a wall with peeled posters. A taxi flew past, banging against the potholes. From somewhere down below came the death rattle of the subway. I remembered that Pete said they'd be having midnight mass at Old St. Patrick's. I hadn't been to church since I was a kid, but maybe this was the time.

I drove down Houston Street, following Pete's directions, and counted three stoplights. A chorus whispered over the radio," . . . amid thy deep and dreamless sleep . . ." At a red light, two bums stumbled through the intersection and fell across the hood of a parked car. I looked up at the street sign: "Bowery."

". . . in the dark streets shineth, the everlasting light . . ."

I don't know why, but I parked the car and got out. Tin country music drifted over from a honky-tonk across the street. Papers blew along the sidewalk with me, and I walked. An old man with sores on his face leaned semi-conscious against a boarded-up building; he mumbled something as I passed. Two young black men staggered toward me, and that old fear knotted my stomach.

A police car was stopped at the corner, its red light flashing in spasms against the brick buildings. I turned the corner and kept walking.

An abandoned car lay up against the curb. In the back seat, two mannequins, man and woman, were sitting frozen in mock embrace, blank-eyed, without explanation.

In front of a barricaded shop stood two toothless hulks, the stripped carcasses of a juke box and a pinball machine. These grotesque shells - I stopped there for a moment - they seemed to represent some amazing bottom-point of Spirit. I reached through the jagged glass of the pinball machine (". . . see me, feel me . . .") and tore off a piece of the cardboard imitation grandstand, with the wildly cheering fans, as a souvenir, I suppose, of having seen the worst of it tonight, and put it in my coat pocket.

Around the next corner was a dark alley of tenements. It was almost midnight, but there were people on the sidewalks chatting with their neighbors. Maybe I just imagined it, but they seemed happy. In the shadows of a doorway, a Spanish woman stood holding a baby in her arms. "Merry Christmas," I said.

The entrance to Old St. Patrick's was guarded by enormous double-oaken doors. I grasped the awesome knobs and slowly swung the doors open. An elderly gentleman in a dark blue suit stood looking at me, and I felt awfully out of place in my jeans.

"Can I come in?" I said.

"Why yes!" he boomed good-heartedly. "This is the church, isn't it?"

"Of course," I said, "thank you," and nodded to the others as well.

I walked into a sea of curious brown eyes, Italian and Spanish, and found a pew near the middle. Two rows in front, a girl with silken-brown hair sat with a bush-headed boy in a sequined sportjacket, and it might have been West Side Story.

Once the mass began, though, there was little that a fallen-away Methodist could understand. The Latin invocations . . . nasal incantations . . . the certain particular signs and gestures. I had hoped to find some real Christmas here - some magnificient sharing of emotion - but the priests stood up on their altars and parapets, statues before us, and the woman next to me was impatient that I didn't know the right pages in the book.

However . . . however, after the mass, a funny thing happened. The priests, old and young alike, came down among the crowd now, and the parishioners were milling about boisterously, and the priests were shaking hands with them and laughing, clapping their shoulders in welcome, inquiring, embracing. There was a feeling of great excitement - a touch of magic, a night when animals talk - and when the Oh-joyous crowd began moving out of the side door of the church and down the sidewalk, I fell in with them.

We went around to the back of the church, and down some concrete steps. A sign above the door said: "Mott Street Senior Citizens Club."

Inside it was toasty warm - a reception hall hung with crepe holiday bunting. Long folding tables were set out and decorated, and the table in the corner held steaming piles of Italian sausage and hard rolls, soda pop and beer, coffee and cake. The room was dancing with three languages at once. Old men hugged. The smell of sausage reminded me: I hadn't eaten since breakfast. My stomach hurt, and I knew I'd found home.

I stuffed two sausages into one roll, and found an empty chair at a table where three priests sat talking with a woman. The woman was merry and plump, very motherly, and she noticed me right away.

"Hello," she said. "Are you from the neighborhood?" A poinsettia was pinned over her heart.

"No, I just . . . dropped by. It looked warm."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm staying in my van, tonight. But actually I'm living in Connecticut, and - "

"So!" she said. "You're seeing America!" Yes, she liked that idea. It sounded good to me too.

"Yes, I guess I am," I said.

"Well, we're from the neighborhood! Merry Christmas. I'm Mrs. DiMateo and this is Father Humphreys and this is Father Leone and this is Father Renzulli. And you're the traveler who comes to visit on Christmas Eve."

"Yes," I said, "that's me. Tom."

Mrs. DiMateo tugged at the sleeve of the old priest, Renzulli. "Father," she stage-whispered. "Look at our Christmas visitor - that beard and long hair, Father . . .?" She stroked her own bare chin and winked at the father. "It's Christmas, you know . . ."

"You never know," he agreed.

We talked some more, and then the hall started to empty, until suddenly we were the last ones there. Mrs. DiMateo was putting her coat on. She wished me the best, but didn't ask me to sleep on her sofa. I walked toward the door, buttoning my coat. Just before I reached it, a voice spoke out belllike from behind:

"Tom?"

Father Renzulli was standing there in his robes, as he'd appeared before on the altar, but with a generous smile on his face and his hand outstretched. It surprised me, that he'd even remembered my name.

I went back to shake his hand, and when our palms touched I felt something - money, folding money. I didn't dare look. I could only protest. "No - " but he sort of cut me off with an upraised palm.

"No look," I insisted, "you've got a lot of poor people down here, and I'm not really poor myself - "

He cut me off again. "Yes, Tom," he said. He was speaking very softly now. "But you are moving."

He whispered those words with such earnestness - "but you are moving" - with such understanding, as if he were passing on a deep wisdom, or a part of his life. He wanted me to have the money; there was nothing more to say.

It was quiet out on the streets - I could hear my rubber soles padding the pavement, silent night. Latin music pulsed faintly from a cafe on the next corner. His words kept coming back.

There was $9 there - four ones folded around a five, then folded again. At first I planned to give the money away - I'd leave it in a collection plate in Harlem. But then I remembered - no, he meant it for me. Maybe that was the lesson: to accept, to receive. I put the money back in the right-hand pocket of the coat, where it still dwells today, alongside that terrible scrap of last-inning cardboard grandstand.

". . . but you are moving." He the old man; I his missionary. He had done his best here; I was going forth, with this uncertain legacy, and Christmas had endured.