And Suddenly, It Is Christmas

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A few Christmas stories I have told before that bear retelling, plus a new one.

• My earliest memory of Christmas is from more than a half half-century ago. We always spent Christmas Eve at my maternal grandparents’ home in Hopkinton, New Hampshire. The tiny house, built by my grandfather, was filled with cousins bedded down most everywhere. I was lying in my grandparents’ bed, looking out the window, which was narrow and near the ceiling, so you could see the stars if you were on your back looking up and out.

I saw Santa Claus streaking across the night sky and realized I had better get to sleep, or the old man might skip this house. My cousins would really be upset with me. Sure enough, in front of the fireplace the next morning were gifts from St. Nick. The plate of cookies held only crumbs. The carrots for the reindeer were gone.

I know. I probably didn’t really see Santa Claus. Maybe it was an airplane headed to Boston, or perhaps a meteor shower. But it’s a powerful childhood memory that has stuck with me for a very long time.

• I remember a cold Christmas afternoon, more than a quarter-century ago, when I drove out with Nathan Tindall, San Augustine County’s legendary sheriff. The presents were open, my kids were busy playing with new toys and the mother of my daughters was taking a post-Christmas meal nap. I headed to town, where I ran the weekly Rambler paper, and stopped by the jail for a cup of coffee. C’mon, he said, and I did.

We headed down one red-dirt road, then another, finally arriving at a shack in the middle of the woods. A gap-toothed man came to the door, which was open despite the bitter cold. Tattered plastic flapped from the windows and the cracks between the boards were big enough to drive your fist through.

The old man’s face was blackened from hovering over a sooty wood stove. He was trying to warm a cup of frozen coffee, brown sludge in a dirty cup. The man didn’t seem to be terribly unhappy about his fate this Christmas afternoon, but obviously he needed some help.

The sheriff brought out from the trunk a kerosene heater a hardware store owner had donated, lit it and left it. After we left, I asked why the man didn’t get some help, check into a nursing home or something. He didn’t want to, the sheriff said. Several folks had tried to get him to, and he fought them tooth and nail.

I took his photograph as he stood out on the porch, talking to the sheriff, a skinny dog watching the exchange. The photo still hangs in my house, a constant reminder.

The old man died some months later. They found him frozen to death in that shotgun shack. It still bothers me, as I wonder if I could have done more for that man who wanted no help.

• Our family spent last Christmas morning cooking and serving breakfast at Newgate Mission here in Longview. It was one of the best Christmas presents I’ve received, being in a steamy kitchen that day, serving folks who had hardly anything, watching them help each other get an extra plate of food, place a few coins in the collection plate after the sermon, and then thank us for our meager efforts. They thanked us, who would leave after the meal was served, the dishes and kitchen cleaned, for our warm homes, cozy fireplaces and comfortable lives. They meanwhile would return to the streets on a cold winter morning — Christmas morning at that.

They were the ones who deserved thanks, for reminding us of the meaning of this season.

Christmas will arrive in a few days. I hope you can spend it with family and friends, that you will take time to reflect on the true meaning of this season, perhaps do a kindness for a stranger, or maybe accept a kindness from one.

In any event, have a Merry Christmas and keep an eye out for Santa. I know I will.

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