I love Christmas Stories. Last year, I wrote about the real-life impact that the book Christmas Jars (by Jason F. Wright) brought into my family. That miracle lives on in amazing ways.
This year, I am sharing a story written 24 years ago, as I lay on a couch and let my body heal from a miscarriage. As my heart tried to also heal, my mind wandered back to a time and place where I was reminded that no matter how small, rejected, or unimportant I ever feel … I am never forgotten or unnoticed by the Wonder of the Ages.
So this was a real creche. The perfectly painted porcelain shepherds and animals, the moss covered wooden stable . . . it was so perfect. And if the store-bought elegance wasn’t enough, a tiny crank on back could be turned to release the fragile notes of “Silent Night. What a far cry from our homemade attempts of years past.
The Brown family had a well-carved reputation for doing things the hard way, or at least doing them our own way. When you lived in a small town one hundred miles from big stores and had to fit the pieces of life together with a small income, it made sense that the way we did things usually fell short of the glamour we saw pictured in Christmas catalogs and better home magazines. In our house a well-set table meant a mostly matched set of Corning Ware plates, utensils bought with Betty Crocker coupons and white paper towels folded into careful triangles lying next to each fork. No fine china and cloth napkins for us.
While many of the farm homes around us had beautifully painted rooms boasting of wallpaper and handcrafted woodwork, we had a clean house with rooms in need of new plaster and a sink stuck to the outside of the house as you walked up the back walkway; this being Dad’s rendition of a modern day mud room.
Seeing that our attempts at improvements came out of what we had and not what we wanted, it should be no surprise that prior to Mom’s new nativity set, our creche, like everything else was a second hand performance.
The star in our stable were none other than Barbie playing Mary and GI Joe appearing as Joseph. Being the oldest, Big Brother was proud to contribute his prize soldier to the cause, but truth was, Joe looked extremely uncomfortable in his purple and white striped robe, crudely sewn from an old sheet that had belonged to our little brother. Barbie had been my gift, leaving the lead role of baby Jesus to one of Sister’s fat troll dolls. Dad worked hard at shaping a bed out of a matchstick box we hoped would tone down baby Jesus’ size, but no matter how you viewed it, it still looked like Mary and Joseph had given birth to the Jolly Green Giant.
I remember feeling almost rich the year Mom brought home the new creche. Owning something so delicate and expensive stirred other desires inside of me. More than anything, I longed to go to a Christmas church service. Although Santa Claus took the back seat to Jesus when it came to the meaning of Christmas around our home, we weren’t regular churchgoers. Nevertheless, I dreamed of sitting in a church service like I had seen the Waltons do on TV. Mom just didn’t feel right about going on special holidays when we didn’t make a usual habit of going otherwise. ”
“If we can’t go like regular people, then we won’t go at all,” she always answered when I begged.
What changed her mind, I’ll never know. Maybe the fact that I pleaded unceasingly waking hour upon waking hour, had something to do with it. All I remember is that one day she steadied my face in her hands and said, “All right, we’ll go. That is, if I can come up with something to wear.”
“Oh, great,” I despaired, “we’re doomed.”
Mom never bought clothes for herself. Although she always looked presentable in jeans, blouses and sweatshirts, most purchases were for us four kids or Dad. New shoes, outfits for school, sturdy jeans, work boots for Dad, winter coats, gloves for all — everyone always seemed to come before Mom.
Thus, what a genuine sigh of hope came from me when less than a week later, Mom returned from a community rummage sale in a neighboring town.
“Mrs. Hardy brought this in,” she said, holding up a pale blue dress with delicate white lace trim. “I saw her lay it on the table and heard her tell the woman running the sale that she had worn the dress only once. It’s in such beautiful condition that I’m sure no one will ever know I bought it secondhand.” Mom’s eyes sparkled at the thought of an evening out in a new dress
.That year the church Christmas program took place three days before Christmas. The church was brimming with people. So full were the four walls of the building that laughter, the squeals of children and smells of warming cider spilled several blocks out into the ice-frosted darkness.
We arrived twenty minutes early and still had to scamper to find an empty pew with room for all of us. I had just followed the whole family through a long row of people and settled into my seat when Mom startled me with a loud, “Oh, no!”
Quickly lowering her voice to an awkward whisper, she muttered, “Of all the people.”
“Who, Mom?” I asked.
“Her,” she answered, nodding her head toward the entrance.
While I stared at an elegant, elderly woman adorned in a sparkling jewelry and fur-covered everything, Mom fidgeted in her seat until she had slipped back into her coat.
“Mom! What’s wrong?” I feared that she was preparing to leave. After taking so many years to get to church, surely we weren’t going to get up and walk out. The service hadn’t even started.
Mom hardly had a chance to hear what I had asked, but that the woman moved down an aisle and slipped into one of the last spaces left — right behind me!
Mom squirmed some more, then whispered hoarsely in my ear. “That is Mrs. Hardy.”
About a hundred and fifty different people could easily have entered the church that night and sat in that seat. Out of all of them, it had to be the one woman who could look at my mom and say, “Why that looks just like a dress I gave to charity last week.” Some people might not have cared, but poor Mom; her cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
Before any more could be said, the service started. I sat entranced by every moment.
“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tiding of great joy which will be to all people.” The Reverend was bold and assured as he read from a thick, well-loved Bible. “For there is born to you this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The sermon went on. Songs were sung. Greetings were shared with neighbors. Cookies crumbs littered the floor. But all I could think about was what the Reverend had said about “all people”. Something splendid had taken place at the birth of that baby in a barn. I had heard all the stories about how the baby grew into a wonder worker who astonished the world with His understanding of the human heart. It occurred to me right then that it wouldn’t matter to Him that my life was made up of secondhand things. The gifts of love and promise which He gave were fresh and brand new, and were just as much for me as for people like Mrs. Hardy.
As we left that night, I felt as though I could float home. Mom too, looked peaceful and content although she continually pulled the collar of her coat high on her neck to hide any view of her dress. While we kids babbled about the evening, Dad nudged Mom with his elbow. Looking up, she sighed and let go of the coat. She started to say something when Little Brother wiggled between our parents and thrust into their faces the fat, paper sack of candy given to him on the way out the door.
“So much!” he announced.
“Yes …,” the night air seemed to snatch at words from Mom. “… so much.”
And there ends my memories of the richest Christmas experienced by the Brown family
Joy to the world … a Child born to be a King who mends our hearts and makes second hand lives and worn out hearts brand new.