The Spirit of Christmas

by Robert Cely

As the sun set that day the cold winds of winter began to stir in earnest. Temperatures dropped in the fading light. Snows fell heavy in the places where snow would fall, and fog covered the windows of warm houses. A bite to the air made the people walk faster and stomp their feet in the chill. Cheeks turned red in the frigid air as breath came billowing out in white puffs like smoke.

Despite the weather, the world rejoiced. This was Christmas. This was the season to rejoice. Lights were strewn over the houses. Trees rose up in living rooms and were hung with bright, red balls and garlands of glittering tinsel. Wassail and eggnog and Christmas hams gifted the celebrations with the sweet smells of the holiday. Children gathered by the tree to guess at what wrapped presents belonged to them in between missions to stuff their mouths with chocolates and candy canes.                             

As the earth below began their festival of celebration, the Spirit of Christmas stirred from its place in Heaven. It looked down at the glittering lights of the mortal world, all decked in tinsel and ribbon and beginning their ritual of the holiday. There was a joy that permeated the earth that rose up like a pleasing aroma to the Spirit. The Spirit was glad.

At just the right moment, when sunset on December twenty-fourth officially became Christmas Eve, the Spirit lighted from its perch in Heaven and began its descent towards the land of men. Tonight, as they celebrated, the Spirit would search the homes and the houses, the dwellings of the rich and poor, the castles of the powerful and the slums of the oppressed, and find a place where it would dwell that night.

The Spirit was drawn first to the loud and mighty celebrations of the big cities. It flew into the apartments of the rich and admired, the crowds of happy people. The trees were tallest and the music blared. The people, dressed in black dresses and pressed slacks, lifted up flutes of champagne and nibbled on smoked salmon and rich, chocolate meringues. They exchanged all the trendy gifts with one another; crisp smelling new shoes, watches bearing exotic names, jewelry from rare boutiques wrapped in tissue paper.

Despite the festivity and the happiness, the Spirit of Christmas could not dwell there. For the people in the rich and sprawling apartments did not know the Spirit and did not welcome the Spirit there. So it flew away from the laughing parties and away from the young women in Christmas dresses and away from the men with winter tans and bleached-white teeth.

The Spirit searched the world over. It visited the powerful places, the homes of men in suits with flag lapels, whose wives watched jealousy over them, knowing the girlfriends waited for the party to end. Deals were made at these parties; legislation argued over, treaties debated, votes tallied in the minds of men who could not stop campaigning, even at the holidays. The lives of men were bartered like goods at a cheap market. There was no regard for any sentiment here except the next play for power. It was all about power. Even their lust was just another expression of power.

A stench filled these parties that made the Spirit shudder. It could not dwell there. It hastened out of that place and searched for cleaner homes with freer air.

Far and wide the Spirit searched. It lighted upon the family gatherings, large and small. Many were happy, some only pretended to be so. It paused at one full of people in sweaters and laughing by a blazing fire. A balding man sipped scotch and laughed too loud at a joke. His face turned red with loud talk and laughter. The Spirit could see that he was trying not to think about the investigator who had visited him that week. He tried not to think about the clients who had trusted him with their money.

In the kitchen two sisters talked with guarded words. They each looked the other over, talking and thinking and quietly analyzing the other. One had burned her cut out cookies. The other one had a husband who was drinking too much. One had a son who she was certain was gay. The other wore a blouse too small and her stomach bulged out the middle.

The sisters thought these things as they talked. With their mouths they said pleasantries. In their minds they smiled at the weakness of the other and rejoiced.

The Spirit of Christmas would not dwell here either. It flew out into the night again, searching on the winter air.

The Spirit entered the places where the families celebrated in pious and God-fearing ways. Here they drank sweat tea instead of wine and beer. The egg nog had no brandy, and the jokes were only clean jokes. Quotes from the Bible hung in cursive letters on the wall and in wooden block signs on the end tables. They ate Christmas ham in fresh rolls and talked about the real meaning of Christmas, and how the country was going to Hell if it didn’t go back to Church. The heavy matron with dangling, Christmas tree earrings nodded her head as she talked to her daughter-in-law. She nodded and said things like, “Bless you.” and “For heaven’s sake.” But in her mind she only said, “I wish this bitch would shut up.” The matron even reached out and touched her daughter-in-law’s arm affectionately, while in her mind she wished the girl would have an affair so her son would divorce her. Then he and the kids could move back in with her.

A tall and wiry man, a deacon in his church, tried to concentrate on what his brother was saying. But all he could think about was his cousin who had the nerve to come traipsing into their family Christmas with a black man. What the hell was this world coming too, he thought. Black men who thought they could just take up with white women. And what kind of white girl would let herself get caught up with a black man? Must be drugs involved, he decided. Any day now she would be spitting out his bastard, half-breed children. He would have to pray for her.

The reek of hypocrisy repelled the Spirit from this place. It permeated every couch cushion and into the corners of the crown molding. It made the lights go dim and stifled the joy with an unconscious dread.

All over the Spirit moved, searching for a place to dwell that night. Not all places were foul to the Spirit. Many places were good. Many places were true and holy.

The Spirit went to the homes of families who celebrated without pretension or guile. It visited rich houses where the families were humbled by their blessings. It visited poor homes where the families were even more humbled and thankful for their meager plenty. It visited celebrations that were bright with the joy of Christmas, and shelters where the homeless gathered in dim Church basements. It went to places where the lights of Christmas proudly blazed from the lawns and rooftops, and it went to countries where frightened people celebrated around a single candle because these festivities were cruelly oppressed by their governments.

In all these places the Spirit was glad. It left its blessing as it glided through the hallways and kitchens, through the shelters and hovels, and in the parties and even in the few, lonely gatherings of one. But it was at none of these places that the Spirit of Christmas would dwell that year.

It continued its search of the homes and parties, of all the places where Christmas was celebrated in the world. It journeyed until it arrived at a twenty-year-old Honda that came to a stop in a trailer park. The single-wide in front of it had rust on its undergirding that could be seen even in the night. The bushes around the border were taken care of, like the rest of the trailer, but couldn’t quite cover up the brown streak that ran up the seam of corrugated tin.

Dorothy Graves cut the Honda’s engine off and let out a loud sigh. For the hundredth time that day she told herself she was much too old to be doing all this. Her bones ached with every step and no matter how she sat or laid down, her back would not stop hurting. Fifty hours a week cleaning up at the hospital was no way for a sixty-seven year old woman to live. But then again, she told herself also for the hundredth time, life ain’t never asked me what I wanted.

Reaching for the grocery bag in the passenger seat she hoisted herself out of the car before the cold could settle into her. It was times like this she missed her husband more than ever. It had been a full ten years since he had gotten that first diagnosis. The treatment drained what little they had managed to save. Then it took their house, and then their good car. Finally, it took him too. All those medicines and therapies and doctor’s visits, and the only thing it had seemed to cure was his appetite. She hated that last image she had of him—his six-one frame wasted down to an even hundred pounds.

Dorothy shook this image out of her head. It was no good to think of that now. Tonight was Christmas, and she had two grandchildren that were the world to her to take care of. She looked inside the grocery bag, and thought how empty it looked with that tiny ham inside, and then remembered instead to be thankful for what she had been given.

The sound of muffled screaming drew her attention to the trailer next to theirs. It was almost a ritual here. Every four or five days she could hear them, cursing and screaming at each other, furniture overturned and bottles breaking. Dorothy glanced at the battered trailer—the soffit still hanging down and the busted window repaired with a plastic sheet—and shook her head and tried not to think about what went on inside.

Before she could turn away she saw the little figure sitting on the stoop. He wasn’t wearing a jacket, and she wasn’t sure if he even had one. Instead, he shivered in a red, long sleeved pajama shirt that was at least one size too small. He looked up at her with a question in his eyes.

“Folks fighting again, Connie?” she asked even though she knew the answer.

The little boy didn’t say anything, only nodding glumly.

Oh Lord, not tonight, Dorothy said to herself. I just ain’t got it in me tonight and I ain’t got enough. Their Christmas dinner was going to be small as it was and Connie always ate enough for ten children. 

Still, that tugging on her heart wouldn’t leave her alone.

“Did you eat your supper tonight?” she asked.

Connie shook his head.

Dorothy sighed again, knowing full well she couldn’t walk away. It would have to be an even smaller Christmas dinner tonight.

“Come on,” she told the boy. “I was just going to fix us a Christmas feast. You can join us.”

Connie jumped up and followed the older woman into her trailer, out of the cold and into the small, but warm abode.

“Grandma!” the boy and girl yelled out together as they greeted the woman who shuffled inside.

Connie sat down with the other children while Dorothy gave herself a moment before starting their dinner. She opened up the small canned ham, almost tiny to her, and placed it in the oven to heat up. While that was getting hot she started the mashed potatoes. The two cans of green beans would go in the microwave but the gravy would have to be stove top. Finally, she took out the three little tarts she had gotten at the store and decided she really didn’t need the sweets anyway.

As she cooked, Dorothy felt better and better about inviting Connie in. A calm and a peace settled over her while she prepared the meal. After a while, the tiny ham and the small pot of mashed potatoes didn’t bother her near as much. She even started to think that maybe she could get one the kids’ old presents and wrap it up for Connie. Why, the more she thought about it, they weren’t so bad off. After all, she had enough to share. And that was the thought that brought her warmth and comfort: if you can find enough to share, then you always have enough.

As the makeshift family gathered around their table that night the Spirit of Christmas drew close. It rejoiced in the humble celebration and the humble hearts that dwelled there. It rejoiced in the simple sharing and the simple generosity. The Spirit rejoiced, for it felt welcome in that place.

The Spirit hovered over the table and spread its blessing upon the three children and the grandmother who had taken them all in.

“Blessed are you among the houses tonight,” the Spirit said. “For here the fullness of God is pleased to dwell.”

Years later Dorothy would often reflect on that Christmas night as one of the best she ever experienced. She could never say why, but when she thought of Christmas, she couldn’t help but think of her and the three little ones enjoying a feast together in that old and drafty trailer. She didn’t much notice at the time that no matter how much they cut off the ham it never seemed to get more than half gone. Or how many times they spooned potatoes from the pot, and the pot never emptied. Or how the kids got full of pie long before they ate their little tarts and Dorothy got her fill as well. She even found an old gift in the closet when she went to get the kids presents and figured it was from two Christmases ago, so Connie got to open something after all.

She didn’t think about those things then, but she did years later. She thought of it every Christmas. Every year she would rest content remembering that one night when she felt close to the kindred spirit of the universe. And even in remembering, she could feel it all again. For one in whom the Spirit of God has dwelled is blessed forever.

It would be later that Dorothy would reflect on these matters. But for that night, for that Christmas, she could only think of how blessed she truly was. She was sheltered by a Spirit she could not see and filled with a peace that was beyond her understanding. For it was in that cramped, little trailer, barely large enough to hold three children and a grandmother, that the boundless Spirit of all things good and holy, had found its place to dwell.

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