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One Good Thing: The gentle, lovely beauty of the YouTube Christmas coffee shop

It’s the holiday pick-me-up you might need right now.

This Christmas has felt different.

Normally I find myself eagerly anticipating the end of the year — I look forward to the presents, the well wishes from friends and strangers alike, the time off from work. It’s a chance to look back over the year that was and prepare for the year to come. The world changes, but this time of year, these remaining holidays, we try to keep as similar as possible. We like these little islands of time that change a bit more slowly than the rest of our lives.

In 2020, however, it’s harder to appreciate that island of time when time has ceased to have meaning. Each day blends into the next, and as I write this (on December 23), it’s hard to believe that Christmas is just two days away, even though looking at my calendar will tell me that it is. I still haven’t put up my tree. I’ll get to it when I get to it, maybe on December 27 or something.

YouTube, as always, has stepped into this void I’ve felt. Some of my favorite channels for creating “ambience” — soundscapes meant to replicate particular real-world experiences, usually with slightly animated visuals to match — have gone all out this holiday season, creating Christmas atmospheres that are lovely, festive, and aching reminders of the world that used to exist.

Particularly popular are “Christmas coffee shop” settings. There are seemingly thousands of these (though it’s probably only “dozens”), and they tend to feature the same elements. There’s a coffee shop decorated for the holidays, steaming hot drinks on the tables. There’s soft Christmas music (and often a crackling fire). There’s snow peacefully falling outside. Here’s one specifically set at Starbucks.

A friend and I will sometimes gather on Zoom, pull up one of these videos on screen share, then talk about how we wish we were sitting in a very real coffee shop, talking face to face. For now, this is a substitute.

What’s slightly eerie about these videos is the fact that none of them have any people, not even a bored barista behind the counter. These are Christmas coffee shops devoid of humans (though one of my favorites occasionally has someone walk by on the sidewalk outside). Watching them, it really does feel like the world is waiting for us to come back to it, as though these cheery holiday spaces are still out there somewhere, if only we could find them.

But that emptiness also makes it easier for my friend and me to project ourselves into those spaces. If nobody else is here, maybe we can grab a cup of cider or hot cocoa and sit down together without worrying about everything worth worrying about right now. It might be an idealized space, and it says something about 2020 that it’s easier to imagine an idealized coffee shop as an empty one than ever before.

YouTube is lousy with Christmas and winter soundscapes, which I turn to every year, because California Christmas will always be just a touch disappointing to a Midwestern girl raised on drifting snow. I love this visit to a Christmas-y apartment in 1950s New York, this check-in at Santa’s office, and this peaceful mountain cabin in the middle of a blizzard. Or consider this look at a Christmas party seen from outside of the house where it’s being held (look at all those people inside; wouldn’t you like to join them?). Or this Victorian Christmas storefront? I could go on.

The point is, we might feel unmoored in time right now, but the promise of finding this one tiny island where everything is the same and nothing has changed is intensely appealing. I don’t know if there are so many Christmas coffee shops on YouTube this year because we’re all missing the trappings of the season or because those of us who spend time on YouTube’s ambience channels keep watching them, but those two hypotheses are kind of the same thing. Christmas is best shared with other people. We can’t do that right now, but until we can, we can at least pretend.

Ambience channels are all over YouTube. Some of my favorites are Calmed by Nature, Autumn Cozy, and Ma Ambience. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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