A Christmas Story

Joanne thought the Grinch was sorely misunderstood.

It was freezing cold outside on Christmas Eve and the roads were a mess, full of snow and other last-minute shoppers driving like crazy people.  She finally found a parking spot at the mall.  “I might as well have parked at home” she muttered as she wound her scarf around her neck and halfway over her face.  She yanked on her stocking cap and mittens and opened the car door to a whoosh of stinging snow and wind.  Every step she took across the expanse of the huge parking lot, she was reminded of how much she really, genuinely disliked this time of year.  As she entered the store she saw the heads of other shoppers over the racks of clothes and sporting goods.  None of them looked very happy either.  She wondered if each one of them felt similar to the way she felt right now – a list of gifts to buy, no idea what to get, feeling the sickly nausea in the pit of their stomachs because they knew they had already spent more than they should on this holiday but still compelled to go out and spend some more.

She dreamed of running away at Christmas every year.  A beach vacation perhaps.  Maybe a quiet cottage in the woods?  Yes, a fireplace and a stack of books, maybe a tiny bit of Bailey’s in her hot cup of coffee – now that would be a holiday.  But this – she scanned the length of the store and the lines at the checkout – not this again.

Joanne was not usually a crabby person.  And every year she pretended to be cheerful about Christmas….no one knew how she really felt.  She wanted to be happy about it because of course her kids were excited and she didn’t want to ruin Christmas for them – even though now that they were teenagers they were so busy with activities and going over to friends’ houses she felt like she hardly saw them during their time off from school.  Their main interaction with her over the holidays was to be certain that she had their Christmas wish list – the precise make and model of hockey skates, the correct version of ipod or netbook or whatever that they wanted this year.

She and her husband had made sure their kids understood as they were growing up that Christmas wasn’t about the presents – that it was about something much more.  The kids knew about the stable and the manger and the baby born to bring wonder and joy.  But the baby Jesus hadn’t come to bring them sporting gear or new high-tech gadgets so he soon had lost the same kind of appeal that Santa held.

And Joanne, to keep things nice, to salvage some sort of fun in a season where she usually felt so strange and sad figured the one thing she could do was to at least get some good presents under the tree.  She might not be able to help her kids feel joy and wonder this time of year – when she struggled with it all herself, but she could help make it fun.

At least it was better for her kids than Joanne’s Christmases had been when she was growing up.  Her mom had definitely tried so hard to make things nice on Christmas Eve.  She got out the good china and the lovely cloth napkins.  She cooked wonderful foods and the whole house would smell like heaven.  She made sure there were presents under the tree and after dinner on Christmas Eve, Joanne and her sister would giggle in anticipation of what new things they would have to play with after the brightly-colored wrappings had been torn off.

And when she was very small, her father would make a big show of dressing up as Santa and handing out the presents to the girls.  She could still hear his resounding, “HO HO HO”  as he smiled at them and handed them their gifts.

But as the years went by, and the drinking got worse, he rarely would come downstairs to share in the meal that her mom had made, much less humor them by playing Santa.  He stayed up in the dark bedroom and mom would do her best to keep things cheerful, even though all of them could feel his sadness seeping down the stairs.

But the sadness was better than when it turned to anger – which it did more and more often as the years went by.  Joanne remembered one Christmas in particular when her father had spent the better part of the morning yelling at her mom, slamming doors, and raging – and then he just left.  They had kept dinner waiting until late – until finally mom and the girls sat down to the meal and forced down a few bites, opened the presents in silence and then went to bed.  When she had woken up in the morning, her dad was back.  Joanne remembered the strange feeling of relief and sadness at that.  Relief because she loved her dad.  Sadness because he was angry all the time and Joanne nor anyone else could help him.  And when he died a few years later in a car accident, she wondered what it meant that she felt a similar mixture of sadness and relief.

When Joanne got married she knew that her home would be different.  And it was.  Her husband was peaceful and kind and never drank.  Her children never had to wonder where their father was and they had enjoyed time together as a family.  So it was all these blessings of her life now, and many more, that made her feel even worse that she still just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.  She would have happily skipped right over it and landed somewhere in January.

Joanne had bought all the presents and placed them in her trunk.  She hurried back into the car and her cold fingers fumbled the key into the ignition.  She turned it and there was the sound of – well, nothing.  She tried again and still, nothing.  Her battery was dead.  She leaned her head on the steering wheel and sighed.   Why did this have to happen now? She mumbled, “Wonder and joy have taken a vacation.  They have been replaced by the feelings “crummy” and “irritated.”  She sat back up and stared out at the snow covering her hood and began to reach for her cell phone.

Suddenly she became aware that there was someone standing right outside her side window.  In the side mirror she could see the sleeve of an olive-colored coat and an orange glove.  She looked out and saw a man standing there.  He was big and had a rough, grayish beard and a gray stocking cap on his head.  He was smiling at her a big, cheerful smile, and held jumper cables in his gloved hands. 

She opened the door and he said in a gravelly voice – “I heard you try to start your car and it doesn’t sound like it is going so well.  Maybe I can help?”  Joanne nodded and he pulled his truck around in front of hers.  She opened her hood and he opened his and within a few minutes and a turn of the key, her car started again.

He pulled off the cables and called out “Merry Christmas” as he shut their hoods, climbed back into his truck and drove off.  Joanne had to smile.  Her own personal Santa?  An angel?  What a relief that he had come along at just the right time.  When does that ever happen? 

She thought about the man and wondered about him.  Did he have a family?  Did he have daughters?  She wondered what Christmas was like in their home?  How might it have been if she had had a father like that – one who had grown old and gray still loving her and caring for her even when she was grown up.  A father who understood that she still needed help sometimes, needed him sometimes?  A father who could see beyond a bottle in his hand and the sadness in his own heart?

She had decided a long time ago that it didn’t do much good to wonder about things like this.  What was done was done and she couldn’t change the past. Even if he were still alive, what could she possibly say or do to heal the hurt that had happened once upon a time?

She pulled up to the house and brought the presents inside.  The kids weren’t home –they had plans to be off skiing with friends all day.  They would be back in time to go to Christmas Eve service, though.  She and her husband wrapped the presents and got as much of the food ready for their Christmas Dinner as they could and stuck the turkey in the oven.  Before she knew it, the kids were home and laughing and shaking off their ski jackets and bustling to get ready for church. 

The family drove to church along the icy streets and found a parking spot.  They scurried in through the snowy air, hung up their coats and found a place to sit.  The service began and Joanne listened to the familiar scripture readings, she sang the familiar songs, she looked around at the pretty Christmas tree, the congregation, the pastors….and she prayed.  She prayed to feel something.  She prayed that something, anything might move her.  That something, anything, might help her feel the wonder and joy she longed to feel being there on that holy night.  Instead, she mostly felt annoyed.  She was annoyed when she noticed that on her favorite Christmas hymn, they wouldn’t even get to sing her favorite verse.  She was annoyed that her kids were whispering back and forth during the sermon, not even pretending to pay attention.  She was annoyed that she kept wondering how the turkey was doing in the oven at home and kept looking at her watch hoping the service would be over soon.

No, she sighed.  Christmas wonder and joy would not appear this year for her just as it had not for years and years.  She could still smile and go through the motions.  Maybe that was as good as it would get.  It was okay.

When the service was over, the family piled back in the car and drove home.  The turkey was done, they put the rest of the food on the table, they ate and laughed until they were full and then sat down to open presents.  When everything was open and the wrapping paper cleaned up, the kids went off to find places for their new things, and Joanne’s husband turned on a movie. 

Christmas Eve was nearly over.  Joanne walked slowly through the kitchen and ignored the dishes in the sink, the food still needing to be put away, went over to the back door with her coat in hand and slipped outside.

It wasn’t snowing anymore.  The night was simply clear and cold.  The stars always seemed brighter on cold nights like this.

She thought about everything that had happened that day.  The mall, the nice man with the jumper cables, the worship service, the meal together with her family. 

She dusted the snow off one of the stray lawn chairs still remaining in the yard and sat down.  She wouldn’t stay outside long in this cold – but there wasn’t any wind and she liked this quiet place.  She liked to see the soft light coming out of the windows of her pretty little house.  She liked to look at the drifts of snow and remember when the kids were small and they ran outside bundled up in their snowsuits and boots. 

And she wanted to sit there and listen, one more time, to give Christmas wonder and joy one more chance.  To make a space for God’s voice to whisper anything to her – just one more time on this holy night. 

She believed it could still happen.  She was glad about that.  Through everything – the good and bad, the memories that were hard, the lovely family she had been blessed with, she knew God was there in the midst of all of it.  She was sad she didn’t feel that presence more often, but still, she knew God was right there – closer than her breath.

And so it was that in that cold night air, Joanne found herself humming.  She recognized it was the tune to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  She imagined it was stuck in her head since church.  Why hadn’t they had sung the verse she loved so much?  She sang it softly to herself… 

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heav’n.

No ear may hear his coming

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him

Still the dear Christ enters in.

 Still.  Joanne knew it was true.  Maybe it didn’t sound like angels singing on high.  Maybe it didn’t look like a star in the east lighting her way clearly and brightly. Maybe it wouldn’t take away every bad thing that had ever happened or fill her full of Christmas cheer, but that old hymn resonating in her mind and the silence surrounding her felt like an embrace.  An embrace from God who had comforted her in the scared sadness of her youth, continued to walk with her and provide for her in surprising ways in the peaceful, happy life she knew now, and would remain with her forever, no matter what was to come….On the days she could feel that presence and maybe even moreso on the days she couldn’t.

And in that moment Joanne knew she had it all.   Everything she needed and more – even a glimpse of wonder and joy on that Christmas night.  

“Merry Christmas,” she whispered to the stars, to the night air, and to God who loved her.  “Merry Christmas.” 

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