Once upon a time, in a cold and blustery suburb of Buffalo, NY, we had returned home from church, and my parents wanted to get us all bundled off to bed. Of course, being Christmas eve, my brother and I were much too excited about the thoughts of what might await us under the tree in the morning to go off to bed easily, but there was another problem: I, being the eldest in what would grow to be a family of six children, had caught wind of some talk at school. There were some children older than I who had whispered, in the manner of ruining a great secret, that there was no Santa Claus at all. I was beginning to have some serious doubts, and I voiced them one evening just a week or so before Christmas, quietly, and to my parents.
My Dad asked me who had told me such a thing, and I explained about the older boys at school, and he looked me up and down and assured me they sounded like the sort to find only coal in their stockings come Christmas. Besides, my father assured me, Christmas is a season of special magic, and the spirit of Santa Claus wouldn’t fail me. “Remember last year, who do you suppose it was that ate those cookies in the middle of the night?” Reassured, I went off to bed but still I wondered.
When Christmas morning arrived, it came early, with the sound of something moving on the stairs, and a distinct jingling of bells. My brother and I sat straight up in bed, and we looked across at one another. We leaped from our beds and to the head of the stairs, and down we went, but something stopped me. It was red, green, and white, and tiny, with a single bell attached at its toe. It was a tiny shoe, far too small for any person I’d ever seen. Dad emerged first from the bedroom at the foot of the stairs, and he asked us what was the commotion. Excitedly, I showed him this tiny shoe, and explained there had been a noise on the stairs and a jingling of little bells, and this shoe must have been lost by an elf.
In the dim light of morning, Dad asked for the shoe, because he wanted to examine it. “Are you boys sure you’re not pulling my leg? You found this here, on the stairs, just now?” We nodded the big, exaggerated nods of little kids, and told him “Santa Claus must have been here.” He said, “I’d better check, you boys stay here.” He handed me back the shoe, as he wandered down the hallway to the room where the tree stood. Of course, Santa had been there, with a few things, and we had a fantastically uproarious Christmas, but with our evidence in hand, we knew Santa Claus was real, and that those older boys at school were probably enjoying lumps of coal that morning.
Now, if I ended the story there, I’d be remiss, and some of you more cynical readers might well say that was scarce evidence indeed, but the story doesn’t end so simply as that. You see, I grew up of course, and learned what people learn as they grow to adulthood, and much of it spoils the magic of our youth, but sometimes, things happen that re-ignite the magic, but also offers more important lessons tempered by the wisdom that comes of insight and knowledge, but also an understanding of what is really at stake.
More than two decades later, I was a father myself. I was working in a temporary job, something to get us through as was so common in those days. I’d been out of the Army for a few years, but I’d found a job working as a civilian on some of the same equipment I had worked on as a soldier. We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, just barely, and my wife was working her first little job just having finished her college degree. We were playing catch-up on bills and times were tight, indeed.
Back in those days, I was paid twice per month, but the check would usually come a day or two after actual payday in the mail. I had paid all the usual bills to the point where I knew that with the check I would receive around the 18th, I would have perhaps one-hundred or one-hundred-fifty dollars “extra” and that this would constitute Christmas, but all of our shopping would have to wait for that check. The mail came. No check. The next day, still no check. The following day, when no check arrived, I was perplexed and worried. Had my check gotten lost? Stolen? We were having an unusually blustery week here in Central Texas, but it was now the 20th, and Christmas would come on the following Sunday, so I was down to just two mailing days.
Frustrated, I decided to give it one more day, and so I decided I would run home at lunchtime the following day to see if my check was in the mail, and if not, I would go to the payroll office. Naturally, the next day came, and at lunch time, I rushed home to my mailbox. No check, just bills and ads and a Christmas card. Dejected, I climbed back in the car and headed back to Fort Hood, and to the finance office.
It was lunchtime, and nobody was at the counter, so I had to ring the little bell they kept there to get the attention of the employees there. The office was decorated for the season, which merely agitated me a little, since I thought “Yes, sure, and I’d like to make my home Christmas-ready too…if you guys would pay me.”
Out came a man who was not very tall, but he had a long white beard and sparse white hair. He politely asked me what he could do for me, and I explained the situation. He listened gravely, and said, “Well, until it’s been missing ten days, there’s nothing we can do.” I looked at him as if he had arrived from Mars. I said to him, barely containing my growing anger: “Well, isn’t that lovely? Merry Christmas! Now I’m going to have to explain to my little girl why there was nothing under the tree.” He looked at me, and he asked: “You’ve not done any Christmas shopping yet?” I explained our situation, and our struggle to rise out of poverty, and he looked at me and asked: “You have a little girl? How old?”
I told him she would be five in just more than a month, and he looked down at his hands, resting on the counter, and shook his head as he thought grimly about my situation. He looked up at me, and he said warmly, “Well, listen, I don’t celebrate Christmas, I’m Jewish, you see, but I know how important Christmas is to you and other Christians, so let me think about this problem for a moment. Wait right here.” He walked off to the back room, and when he came back, he had a smile on his face, his wire-rimmed glassed seeming to sparkle with the wise eyes behind them. “Come back tomorrow, and I’m going to see what I can do.”
I went on to work wondering what this civil servant of long standing had up his sleeve. What could he possibly do, since he had explained to me the 10-day rule they had on lost or missing paychecks? Friday morning arrived, and I went off to work, not certain what the day would hold. At lunch time, I again careened home in my clunker, only to again find an empty mailbox, so back to the payroll office I went, wondering what the man had in mind.
I walked into the payroll office, and up to the counter. Again, the place was empty apart from me and that same man, and he was cleaning his glasses, and he asked: “Any luck today?” I told him luck had not visited me, and neither had my paycheck. He nodded knowingly, and said: “I feared as much. Well, I think you have been a good guy, and I think your daughter’s been a good girl, and since it’s Christmas time, I thought I could help.” With that, from under the counter, he produced a giant teddy bear, probably two or more feet tall, but he wasn’t finished. Out came a doll, and some books for children, and suddenly, there were toys and a game and all manner of things, all of them of the sort that would be loved by a little girl.
I was stunned. I was absolutely astonished. I felt my chest tightening up, and he said to me: “Merry Christmas, to you and to your little girl!” He beamed with a grin that some might have called impish, and I looked at him, tears welling up, and I asked him: “Why?”
He said, with his white eyebrows furrowed, “You’re a good man, I can see, and you work hard, I can see that in your hands, and in your clothes, and you’re a good father. You’ve had hard struggles, and you haven’t quit, or lost hope, and you’ve been a humble man. Your daughter will know what a good man is when she looks some day for a man of her own. Times have been tough for you, but I think that will soon change. Take these presents in the spirit of Christmas, and all it means to you, and revel in the day with your daughter. Merry Christmas.”
By now, the tears were streaming down my face. I don’t how I managed a word, but I thanked him, and, he had a large box into which he carefully packed all these things, and slid it to me across the counter, winking at me, and he said: “Go have Christmas with your family – the spirit of Christmas is for us all.” I bowed my head in a moment of solemn contemplation, and looked at him, and then past him, and that’s when I noticed. The calendar on the wall behind him showed the date, and it was annotated: “Finance Office Closed – Holiday.” We were alone in this office, and I asked him: “Why are you here? Isn’t this a holiday for you?”
He nodded, and he said “Holidays are what you make of them. You are working today, so why shouldn’t I, but the truth is that I came here for one purpose today, and I’ve been reading my paper waiting for you. Now, go, and have a Merry Christmas, but remember that the greatest works we do are not paid in dollars, but in the joy of giving. Have faith, and you will know great joy.”
I went back to work, the presents loaded in the trunk of my jalopy, thinking about the kind man and his gift to me. As it turned out, they let us go at work a couple hours early, and so off I went to corral the daughter, and then onto our home. As I turned the tired old car off of the road, it dawned on me that the mailbox was closed, which was odd because I remembered distinctly having left it open as I drove away in dejection only a few hours before. I parked the car, and walked to the mailbox, and inside was a single item: My paycheck.
I walked back to the car, and drove on to the house down our dirt and gravel road that we shared with our only immediate neighbor. He was a retired man, a Missionary Baptist pastor, who had traveled the world with his wife and children, teaching the Bible’s promise to any who would listen. He had seen great poverty, and hardships, all around, and that year, he and his wife were hosting a poor widow with three children who had become homeless. They were destitute, and with the bread-winner now deceased due to an accident driving home from work, these children had no father and little hope. Looking at the long overdue paycheck in my hand, I knew what I would do.
A short while later, after the wife arrived home, I went off to the bank in a flash to make a deposit before it would close, and off Christmas shopping I went. I had to find things suitable for little girls, but also a little boy. When I arrived home, the daughter was in bed, and I brought everything into the garage, and asked my wife to help. Together, we made short work of the stack, and now there were sufficient gifts for our daughter, but also many, many more. We loaded most of them into the trunk, and off we went to the neighbor’s house. I spoke in hushed tones with the pastor as I explained the situation, and we together agreed this was evidence of much more than Santa Claus.
On Christmas morning, four children smiled ear-to-ear, and with a wink, Santa Claus and all his helpers had done their work. You should have no doubt about it, because after that year, I hadn’t any more questions. I went to see Santa’s helper again, on the 27th of December, at lunchtime, where I had seen him before, and I told him of the great wonder he had brought to so many children. He smiled and laughed, and he said to me: “It’s the season of miracles.” Indeed, from a Jew to a lapsed Catholic to a Missionary Baptist to the smiles and wonderment of children, this is the season of miracles. Christmas denotes a gift none of us had any right to expect. Look for that gift in your own life, and if you don’t find it where you were looking, make one for somebody else, in the times and places they hadn’t expected, and you’ll find that gift lives in you, and through you.
That is the true meaning and promise of Christmas, after all.