I was done for the year and I aimed my old Jeep toward home. I loved this stretch of road. I always felt fortunate to live in the country where the hills were flocked with snow in the winter. Soon I had put town behind me and drove east out of Millwood to where the long narrow bridge crossed high over the Kokosing River. I felt warm gratitude in my heart for the goodness of God when I thought about what would be waiting for me at home. A few minutes later I could see our white frame house snug in the valley, smoke rising from the chimney. Warmth, home, music, rest, good food and people who loved me were waiting. I sounded the horn as I passed the clearing.
We were having all the family in for Christmas and we were determined to do things right. Money was scarce but we managed.
One evening a couple weeks before Christmas the children were all chattering about what they were going to buy each other. I was a little frustrated because none of them had an income and I didn’t know if I could afford to pay for all the things they wanted to give each other.
Lois was sitting at her sewing machine. She had been making some homemade ornaments. I asked her if she could make them in large quantities fast. She said she could crank them out quickly if there was a market for them. “I think we are going to go and create a market for them,” I said.
That night when I got home from the study, we put them in baskets and drove in town. The children began to sell them door to door and before they were done they had sold enough to buy presents for each other and for each of us and with the money they gave Lois for making the ornaments, we were able to buy presents for them.
In preparation for Christmas I decided that we needed to have a star. The right place was in the south gable of the barn where people could see it from State Route 36 a half mile away. The barn was very high and I didn’t know if we could pull it off safely.
I had to climb in pitch-blackness up into the peak on old wooden slats nailed to the inside wall of the barn. We strung lights around some nails on a board to form a star. I climbed up to put a rope through the pulley in the window in the gable. After I came down the roped pulled off the pulley. I would have to climb up again. I started to give up and then decided that I would try again. By the time the girls got in from shopping you could see our star from a mile away high in the dark winter sky. And I knew we had created a memory that would never fade.
A few nights later we decided that we needed a little Christmas tree on the front porch. We went for a hike. It was dark and cold and the moon was our only light. I remembered some coniferous trees growing on a steep ridge high over the old abandoned roadbed and we started back with an old dull saw. It was quite an adventure but before we said our evening prayers we had our tree decorated on the enclosed front porch, complete with tiny white lights.
On Christmas morning we would tie a beautiful red bow around the neck of Ginger our affable Golden Retriever. She would be the first to greet our guests and we wanted her to look festive.
We stocked lots of food, baked and planned our favorite holiday dishes.
Every year we visited a tree grower on Pigeon Roost Road near Jellowy. She had come to expect our family to visit. We made an adventure of it. She knew we always wanted a large blue spruce and she would have a perfect tree waiting for us. She tied us a fresh wreath of pine boughs and beautiful ribbon. We would tie the tree on the top of our little wagon and labor home and wrestle it into its stand and decorate it together while we listened to our favorite Christmas tapes. The Spruce stood beautifully over in the corner atop a mountain of gifts waiting with the rest of us for our guests to arrive.
They were people who were dearer to us then any on earth. Our people. People who knew us as we were and loved us. People who we knew and loved.
Christmas Eve day snow was in the forecast. We were never more ready for a festive Christmas. At first the children celebrated the prospect of snow but I wondered if it would make travel difficult.
On Christmas Eve we received a call from an Amish family who needed help. It was too cold to dry clothes outside and Emma needed a ride to the Laundromat. The children were wrapping gifts and Lois was busy in the kitchen. She urged me to go and help. As I left to drive them to Coshocton, the snow began to come. Softly and white at first just like it does at the end of any good Christmas movie.
I pulled off for a cup of strong, hot coffee to nurse on the way to town. It made the cabin of the car seem a little cozier. On the way through town I checked my watch and noticed that it was nearly seven in the evening. Worshippers were shuffling their way through the snow to the Baptist Church for a candle light service as I drove by.
I dropped Emma off and went back to the service. I couldn’t remember in my adult life one time when I attended a Christmas Service I was not in charge of. I slipped in the back row and watched happily from the shadows.
The young pastor was at his best. The children were in their finest. Mothers were in their glory. The church was radiant with soft seasonal light. I sang softly to hear the other voices and watched the families all together.
As soon as the service ended I slipped back out into the snowy night and drove away unnoticed. My heart was full of thanks and wonder for the ancient faith that I shared with millions of stranger friends all over the world.
Back home we tucked the children in and bed read them C. Clement Moore’s classic poem before we prayed. I went downstairs and stirred the fire. Peppermint tea and more carols, finally Lois curled up beside me and we sat together looking into the fire saying nothing. Later we lay together in our big poster bed and listened to the wind in the pines out front of the house. Before we fell asleep, we prayed. Then I lay still until I could hear Lois’ breathing change.
I pondered the wonder of the incarnation and God’s good hand in my life. Healthy children, a simple warm home, good food to eat, family coming to celebrate, and lying under a hand sewn blanket on a Christmas Eve next to a beautiful woman whom I loved. My last conscious thought was that of intense well-being and gratitude to God for his kindness and mercy to me.
The children woke us by stomping on the floor above. (They were strictly charged to stay upstairs in the morning until they were called down). They had awakened at dawn and occupied themselves by watching the beautiful birds flock the feeder outside my study window. The birds came in big numbers when snow covered the ground. The children watched deer come to water just after dawn. Finally they began to make noise to awaken us.
We shared our gifts and ate breakfast together. Lois always made a special baked omelet for our Christmas breakfast and we ate it with a special tea ring Dorothy Hall made for us every year. I walked Ginger back to the river and stood praying for an hour that seemed like a few minutes. The dark water ran through icy trees and along snowy banks. I made my way up to the top of the ridge to watch the beautiful, white world on Christmas morning. Where I stood I could see the house and all that was most dear to me in the world within. I hiked down to join them, stomped off snow, hung up my walking staff and set down in my big overstuffed chair. Lois, reading my mind, brought me a cup of coffee. I settled in to wait for our guests and watch the children play with their new Christmas treasures.
Christmas morning the phone rang and our Christmas guests informed us that they would have to delay their departure. They would never leave. A few hours later they called and said they would not be coming. Lois was very disappointed and the children were heart-broken. We had so set our hearts on guests for Christmas.
All the preparation, food, decoration, and anticipation were for nothing. No one would enjoy it. We began to adjust. Lois had no intention of doing so. A dark cloud rolled in over our home. Things were not happy in the house that night. Early in the evening I decided to get some fresh air and look at the sky. It was clear and cold and quiet when I stepped outside. My breath lingered in cold mist around my head as I walked. Snow crunched under my boots. There was no other sound. Ginger came from her straw bed to walk with me. Silent company. I carried a lantern but left it unlit.
The stars stood bright in the Christmas night sky and I drank in their beauty and wonder and questions. There was only one neighbor in sight and he lived in a mobile home up on top of the hill north of our place. I looked up to see if his light was on. It glowed from the window. I remembered last Christmas.
We were enjoying a wonderful Christmastime together. Lois’ mother and sister and their family were with us. We had just finished opening our gifts and we had cleared away the supper dishes. The phone rang and I wondered who would call on Christmas night. It was Andy, our neighbor who lived in the little trailer on the hill. He and his wife were having trouble and he had been drinking. She had left with the children and he wanted to know if they had come down to us to use the phone. It was a sad time just to see the hurt, embarrassment and fear on the faces of the children and the frustration in the eyes of his wife. That year she left and the children would visit Andy on the weekends. He struggled to keep work and seemed lonely and unhappy most of the time. My frequent attempts to share Christ seemed to have no effect. I wondered if he was home and if the children were with him. I trudged up the hill with an idea in my heart. He made his way to the door and the room was dark behind him. No tree.
“Are you alone, Andy?” I asked “Yea, the kids were here last night,” He mumbled “Have you had Christmas dinner yet?” “No” He said. “Our guests were snowed in. Could you join us?” “No, I don’t want to intrude.” “Andy,” I said; “If you don’t come we’ll be alone down there with all that food.”
Andy ate with us and then he walked back up the hill alone. That night in bed I felt badly for Lois, but I couldn’t help but think that God had other plans for Christmas Day than we did. I prayed for Andy but my heart was sad. I’ve seen the damage alcohol can do to a man’s soul and Andy was far from God and his heart was hard.
Early that year Andy moved away and we never stayed in touch. Like so many people we have tried to help, I have no idea where he is today or if he ever came to really know who Jesus is.
Mitch Franklin reported for News Six, Chicago for thirteen years and he was getting a little cynical. He didn’t like what he had become. Christmas was a couple weeks away and for the first time in his life he just didn’t have much heart for it. A crisis of faith or a mid-life crisis, he wasn’t sure but he didn’t like it and he couldn’t shake it.
Mitch was heading out the door when Bill called to him. “Hey Mitch, do you mind checking out a lead on the way home?” Sure Bill, what is it?’ We’ll it’s a possible human-interest story we could run on Christmas Eve. “What’s the angle, Bill?” “You know the homeless people on State Street? Well, with the cold this year there aren’t enough gloves and hats and warm coats to go around.” Yea; Nancy told me about that, Mitch said; half remembering an article his wife read to him over breakfast one morning.
“We’ll lately someone has been leaving winter coats on the benches in Grant Park. The homeless people pick them up and they always have an envelope in the pocket. In the envelope is a note with a twenty dollar gift certificate to Al’s Home cooked Meals on Ohio Ave. The note reads: “Have a good hot meal on me and never forget, no matter how alone you feel that Jesus loves you.” Mitch, if you can find out who’s been doing this and get an interview it would make a great human-interest piece. Look into it and let me know. Maybe you could take Nancy out for dinner tonight at Al’s Home cooked Meals and nose around a little. Put it on your expense account.”
Al accommodated Mitch immediately with an address from a check he had not yet banked from his best gift certificate customer. It was a tall man, middle aged who came in every Friday and bought five twenty-dollar gift certificates. On the way home from dinner, Mitch felt a rare softening in this soul and an intense desire to track down this mysterious benefactor.
The next day he rode the El to Wells Street and walked to the address written on the slip of paper Al had given him. The apartment was down a small flight of stone steps. The door was wreathed and outlined in lights. The window was filled with a lighted tree. A tall middle-aged man answered the door and within an hour he had coaxed him to allow a filmed interview in the apartment the next day.
Bill would be pleased. Mitch had his story and more. The cold city was alive to him that night. He noticed things he hadn’t seen in years. He was alive to both the beauty of the great city and it’s pain. He was eager to get home to Nancy.
On Christmas Eve, Mitch held Nancy’s hand as they settled in after dinner to watch the interview. This would be sweet. Mitch had covered train wrecks and mob hits, murders and muggings and City counsel meetings. But this is one he would always remember.
His own image flashed on the screen and Nancy squeezed his had. “A strange mystery has been solved this evening in one of the poorest and coldest parts of Chicago. Since Thanksgiving someone has been visiting Grant Park and leaving their coat. It’s happened every Monday through Friday. There is always a note tucked in a mysterious, hand-lettered envelope in the pocket of the coat that reads “Have a good hot meal on me and never forget, no matter how alone you feel, Jesus loves you.” We’ve done some footwork and we want you to meet the man behind the note. He has insisted that we withhold his name but he has agreed to tell his story for News Six tonight.” The camera angle widened to include a tall middle-aged man with bright eyes and an engaging smile.
“Well, Mitch, it all started on a cold winter night the year after my divorce;” the man said. “It was Christmas and I was alone. Alcohol had taken over my life and I had driven off everyone I loved and everyone who loved me. I had no interest in religion or religious people. I had come to the end of things and I was sitting with the barrel of my revolver in my mouth when I was startled by a knock at the door.
It was my neighbor inviting me for Christmas dinner. His guests were snowbound and he invited me to take their place. I will never forget that night. I was hard-hearted and confused, and it took a couple years before my life turned around, but the memory of that kind, Christian family has never faded from my mind and heart. The little coat trick is just my way of doing for others what others did for me on a Christmas night years ago.”
Snow swirled around Mitch as he signed off his story; “That’s a heart warming story for a cold city tonight. I’m Mitch Franklin wishing all of Chicago land a very Merry Christmas.”