Ringing her Salvation Army bell near Annapolis City Dock yesterday, Christine O'Neill spoke of a subject more essential to this season than Midnight Madness shopping, decking out the house, frenetic caroling on the radio and all the other holiday headaches.
She spoke of peace.
"I couldn't be more excited about the peace talks," said the Annapolis Rotary member, collecting donations on a street corner in a drizzling rain. She meant the gathering of leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and more than 40 countries and organizations taking place today behind the guarded gates of the Naval Academy. "It's our holiday season, and the holiday season for so many religions. I think all of that softens people's hearts."
Talk of traffic and other hassles related to security didn't dampen her spirit.
"Merry Christmas. Happy holidays!" she called to a man dropping coins into the little red bucket she carried.
"Yeah, well, I wouldn't want to be here tomorrow," Pete Westenburger of Annapolis replied.
And so it was throughout the city as residents grumbled and shrugged about the interruption to routine but also saved room for hope. Hope that the talks - which aren't expected to come to much - might bring about progress of some kind in the war-torn West Bank. Maybe the festive trappings of the season, however exotic they might seem to the Jewish and Muslim delegates, might somehow work magic.
Of course, the long holiday weekend had also taken emphasis away from the conference, which was only officially announced last week. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi of Annapolis, head of the Israel Project, which offered a panel discussion about expectations for the conference yesterday, said several other groups that might have planned events couldn't get organized over Thanksgiving.
"People applied for permits, but it didn't really go anywhere," she said. "On Friday, no one was really around."
And beset by the holiday rush, many other Annapolitans turned their attention away from what might transpire at the Naval Academy.
"Shopping, shopping, shopping, that's all anyone is thinking about," said Nicole Forrester-Cully, a manager of a pretzel shop in downtown Annapolis, who began her own gift-getting in October.
Some even felt a little put out by the talks.
"There's not going to be any parking spaces," complained Mollye Bendell of Annapolis, a high school senior.
"And my boyfriend is on lockdown," grumbled her friend, 18-year-old Jennifer Falcon, who is dating a midshipman. Yesterday, Naval Academy students weren't allowed to leave campus because of security concerns.
But for Sandy Spadaro of Severna Park, the feeling of promise in the air did as much for her mood as a first dusting of snow.
"It would mean so much if they could have peace and cooperation now, in December," she said. "And good will to everyone. If they would only cooperate."
Not every onlooker was rooting for peace - at least, peace achieved this way. Many of the handful of protesters who had gathered near the academy gates early yesterday were opposed to the meeting. Members of Shalom International carried signs that said "Don't Reward Islamic Nazis," the scrawled marker words running in the rain.
"This is the phoniest thing that's ever happened," said Bob Kunst of Miami Beach, president of the group, the name of which means "peace" in Hebrew. "There's no way to negotiate with people who want to kill you. There's no way to make peace with people who've disregarded any agreement they've ever signed."
Close by was David Barkley of Mount Airy, clutching a long spiral segment of animal horn.
"It's antelope," said Barkley, a Christian Zionist also opposed to the meeting with the Muslim leaders.
"I think it could actually be ibex," added his wife, Dorothy, worriedly.
The piece of hollow horn, the Bible's shofar, can be blown like a trumpet.
"When your enemy is closing in on you and you need help from God, you blow the shofar," Barkley explained. He said he planned to sound the shofar quite a lot over the next couple of days, and then did so to demonstrate for curious journalists.
Like the silver trumpets also mentioned in the Bible, Barkley said, he considers the shofar a summons of war.
Back in the center of Annapolis a few blocks away, a wandering Israeli camera crew notwithstanding, it was business as usual. A hardware shop displayed Christmas tree stands and pine cone-shaped lights and 40-foot outdoor extension cords. Snowmen and florid Santa Clauses grinned from store windows. Buddy's Crabs and Ribs displayed its all-you-can-eat Christmas Day menu. "Have a good Thanksgiving?" workers called out to each other.
Not everyone aware of the peace talks was lulled by the season.
"I really don't think the time of year matters with this stuff," said Margaret Messina of Annapolis, who didn't have much hope for the conference. She said her husband had asked to let their daughter skip preschool today because he's worried about security downtown.
But on the corner nearby, Christine O'Neill continued to ring her bell - a sound less arresting than the blare of a shofar, perhaps, but with a power of its own nonetheless.
"You know, I've done so well today, even in this rain," O'Neill said. She has faith in the good will of man.