“They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”
One would think a seasoned member of Santa’s helpers, and captain of the Golden, Colorado Elves, could answer any Christmas-related question thrown her way. That was not the case this time, however. My inability to construct, let alone articulate, an answer was not because it was a difficult question. It was due to the setting, and what appeared to be the reason, behind the child’s query.
A few years ago, at Christmastime, my lieutenant elves and I were helping Santa in a church-based homeless shelter. We were attempting to keep the excited children in line while awaiting their one-on-one time with St. Nick. I was distracted from my duties by a tug at the bottom of my red and green tunic. A young boy, whose head came only to the middle of my five-foot frame, stood looking up at me. His twinkling brown eyes and wide, gap-toothed grin greeted me. He motioned for me to bring an elf ear closer to his mouth.
“Miss Elf, is Christmas for me too this year?”
His expectant expression punctured my soul. I was taken by surprise and trying to understand his need for clarification on this issue. I slowly raised up, hoping to buy time to come up with an appropriate answer. Somehow, a simple “yes” just didn’t seem to be enough.
“Yes. Yes, sweetest child,” I said. “Christmas is for everyone. And it’s especially for you this year.”
The twinkle in his eyes grew brighter as he received the answer. He nodded his head as if I had confirmed what he already knew and then moved in the direction of the big guy in red.
I was pretty sure there was a twinkle in my eyes as well. But my glimmer was due to tears bubbling up from a heart stung by his simple, sad question. I wondered how many times he had asked that question and what answers he may have received.
The boy and Santa were soon engaged in quiet, animated conversation. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him until I heard a soft voice in my left ear, “Thank you. May I give you a hug?”
I turned to face a woman in perhaps her mid-twenties. Her eyes were as misty as mine, but she was smiling much like the young man I had spoken with a few seconds earlier. Their similarities were unmistakable. I smiled and nodded my head. Her arms wrapped around me before I could blink. Then stepping back, she asked permission to tell me her story. I nodded again.
Her hand rested on my red, velvet-clad arm. “These last four years, my two children and I have lived on the streets after I ran from an abusive relationship, trying to keep us safe. In summer months we sleep under bridges. In winter we’re housed overnight in shelters, when there’s room for us.”
She dropped her head as she continued. “I never completed high school, you see. So I’ve only been able to find temporary and part-time work.”
When she looked back up, a smile accompanied the rest of her tale. “After I passed my GED a few weeks ago, I was accepted into a training program for a career I think will provide a livable income for us. This is the first real Christmas my children will remember. And at last I see light at the end of what has been a dark road for us. I have hope now for a brighter future. For the first time in years, I believe we will be okay.”
As she shared her journey, I gained an understanding into why her son asked the question. Having wrapped up his conference with Santa, her young child joined her. They moved to a table spread with roasted turkeys, hams, sweet potatoes, and a variety of freshly baked pies. The little guy pulled his mother toward the celebratory feast then stopped and turned to look at me. I smiled and winked at him. He smiled back, waved, and attempted a wink by blinking both eyes twice.
I left the church that night with elf bells jingling and pointed green shoes plodding along in a snow-covered parking lot. I thanked God for His mercies and for that little family. I felt gratitude for being able to witness that moment in their transitional season.
As I considered what had happened, I asked myself if I had ever really understood the true meaning of Christmas before then. Had I ever been such a close witness to hope offered to the hopeless? Had I ever really taken time from my busy schedule to observe others experiencing new life and another chance? Wasn’t that really what Christmas was supposed to be about?
While sitting in my car, under a city street light, I watched the snowflakes fall upon my windshield. I mulled over the numerous times I’d celebrated in decorated churches, sang carols, opened presents, and enjoyed delicious food. Yet, I could not remember ever feeling the peace and joy I unwrapped that night as I answered the simple question of a child who knows homelessness and street life firsthand but refuses to relinquish his precious sense of hopefulness.
I can honestly testify that in an old church, on a wintery Denver night, in the presence of a child-angel who relied on a secular elf to answer a sacred question, I was the recipient of the true Christmas blessing. I understood that every year, in the busyness of the worldly holiday season, there is one question that must never go unanswered: “Is the true promise of Christmas for me too this year?”
This post originally appeared on my blog December of 2013. It also has been published by Chicken Soup for the Soul in one of their “Merry Christmas” editions. And it appears in my latest book, “Jesus in Shorts: Twenty-five Short Stories of Life-Changing Jesus Moments.”
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