'Deck the halls with boughs of holly ... 'tis the season to be jolly.'
Ha! Should be more like deck the halls with hunks of holly 'tis the season to commit folly. Folly it is, if you want my opinion. Every Christmas I read, just for the sake of a tradition begun by my father, Dickens' immortal "A Christmas Carol," feeling a delightful kindred spirit with Scrooge. Now there is a character who echoes my sentiments precisely. 'Bah! Humbug!'
Now on this dry and somewhat warmer evening two weeks before the great day, I emerge from a very nice jewelry and gift shop, having purchased the three gifts I usually give. Yes, grudgingly, if you wish to know. But my cousin and I have always remembered each other and now her young son has joined the list. The third gift is for someone I don't know, nor wish to, just a nametag I pulled from the Angel tree at church. This is my one traditional charity.
As I near the main doors of the mall, I stop in amazement, for in the vestibule between the inner and outer doors there is a card table and behind it two young teens beseeching each passerby for some charity or the other; this being the season they proliferate like weeds in a garden. Didn't Scrooge say something about Christmas being the season to pick other people's pockets? They'll get my usual disdain.
Several people ahead of me slow down enough that I hear one of the kids say, "Please, good people, just a dollar or some pocket change so the little kids at our home can have some Santa Claus."
The placard hanging from the table identifies the charity as the St. Thomas Home for Boys. So? But unlike Dickens' time, there aren't workhouses any more and contributions to charities have fallen drastically as people struggle to keep their families afloat in these uncertain economic times. Grateful that I'm in a secure financial position, thanks to wise investments, I pass by and return home.
No, I haven't decorated either. But unlike Scrooge, my dwelling is warm and pleasant and I shall have a plentiful dinner tonight. The delicious seafood casserole is ready to pop in the oven. It's dear to prepare, as well as a bit time consuming, so I fix it only at special times. That heady taste of prawns, lumps of crabmeat and lobster combine to titillate the palate.
Just to get the job done, I immediately wrap the gifts, boxing the gifts for my cousin and her son together to post. The remaining one I'll drop off at the church office, for I may or may not attend mass this Sunday. It is the high festival masses I try not to miss, for the pageantry and music are glorious.
The next morning I go by the church office and hand my gift to the secretary, planning to leave, but pastor has heard my voice and asks me for a few moments.
"Matt, I assume you were at the mall shopping for that angel tree gift?"
"Of course. Is there a problem?"
"Yes and no. No, there's no problem with the gift nor is there any against the mall, however, did you happen to notice some kids from the St. Thomas Home asking for donations?"
"I did. I'm quite surprised that the mall would give them permission as they've never let charities solicit inside the mall before."
"Their place in the vestibule was the best I could negotiate with the manager. I hope the guys don't catch a cold or pneumonia from the constant blasts of cold air."
"I heard the boys say something about needing money so the little kids could have some Santa Claus. Surely the synod has money for that."
Pastor shakes his head. "I'm afraid not, not this year. General expense for every church in the synod is up, so corners have to be cut where possible. For the kids at the home, it's either stay warm and eat, or have some gifts at Christmas. The gift you brought in will go to one of those boys, but I'm afraid Christmas dinner might be a bit skimpy this year. Oh, they'll have enough to eat, but it won't be anything special like it has been in the past."
"What about a special collection in each church, then?"
"We tried that last Sunday. You weren't present but, here again, I guess it must be the times, for the collection was poor, at best. Most people don't even think about the home as being sponsored by our church. Since the home is here in town and this is the largest church in the synod, a lot of the responsibility falls on my shoulders." He shrugs. "I can only pray and trust in God to provide, but it will be hard to look at those precious children on Christmas morning and see only disappointment."
"How many boys are there at St. Thomas?"
"Only a dozen at last count. Will Thorson and his wife are the house parents. We couldn't have better ones, but they take everything to heart as much as if the kids were their own. I guess they do feel that way a lot of the time.
"Well, thanks for bringing your gift by and for listening to an old man complain. It's a relief to unburden at times. God bless, Matt. I hope we'll see you at mass during the holidays."
"Plan on it, Pastor. You know I love the high ones."
"And pray for the kids, too, would you?"
"Of course," I say and take my leave. If ever a man was close to being a saint, pastor is it and, though I have never heard of paired saints, I would include his dear wife, for she unselfishly encourages him in ministering to his parishioners.
But for me now, a pleasant evening before the fire, a good book in hand. yes, the beginning of my annual reading of Dickens' Christmas Carol, and a soothing glass of wine at hand. What more could one ask.
I go to bed after watching the late news on the TV and quickly fall asleep. Could it be a morsel of undigested seafood, instead of the mutton Dickens used? No matter, for the dream is vivid.
Dressed in rags, I have reverted to my early teens and stand shivering on a street corner, my hand outstretched beseeching alms in hopes of getting enough for something hot to drink and, perhaps, a little to eat. Passersby move closer to the street as they pass, since I'm leaning against the cold brick wall of a store. But no, no coin of the realm drops into my hand. Tears of disappointment trickle down my cheeks. The thin winter sun drops below the horizon and I wonder if I shall survive the bitterness of the night.
Only half conscious, I roll over and the dream continues. There's the rattle of a carriage which stops in front of me and from which a well dressed gentleman leans and says, "You look cold and hungry, my child. Take this and get something hot to eat and drink, then find a shelter from the cold." I reach out my hand, but instead of money, I wake enough to realize that I'm reaching for the alarm to shut off its annoying rattle.
I shower and have a bountiful breakfast, savoring my second cup of coffee before the gas log fire. Damn it! Why did pastor have to fill my head with his problems? I'm not his saviour, nor anyone else's for that matter.
I read the paper with no more than cursory attention, all the while thinking of those two boys. This time I lose the battle with myself, for with the dream vivid in my mind's eye, I recall my father telling me of trying to survive during the great depression. I dress to go out after looking up the address for St. Thomas House in the phone directory.
The house, obviously once a mansion for a wealthy family, is a two-storey brick structure in good condition in an older part of town. I'm surprised that it still works, but I faintly hear the bell ring when I press the button.
"Yes? May I help you?" A pleasing baritone voice asks kindly. The owner is a neat man I judge to be in his late thirties.
"You're Mr. Thorson?"
"Pastor was telling me about you and the home. May I come in?"
"Of course. Please forgive me. I'm afraid that my wife and I are a bit stressed at the moment."
I follow him to the kitchen where his wife is seated at the table where another cup indicates that Will was seated there also. I accept the offer of a cup of coffee and sit down across from them.
"What can we do for you, Mister ..."
"I'm sorry. I'm Matt Morrisy. I attend St. Nicholas Church; that's how I know Pastor Holmberg. He was telling me that you're having financial problems and not much in the way of improved income in sight."
"I'm afraid that's true," Will says. "We're trying to conserve in every way possible, that's why it's cooler in here than it otherwise would be. We're hoping to save enough on gas to give the boys a traditional Christmas dinner."
I'm about to open my mouth to wish them well when I think of the nice dividend cheque I received a few days ago. Now I'm possessed by two tiny beings sitting on my shoulders. One is a little devil whispering, 'don't do it, stupid, who knows when you might need that money.' The other is a little angel, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Tiny Tim, whispering, 'you know what happened to Marley. Surely you don't want to carry around the weight of the sin of failing to help someone in need. You've been blest; now use your good fortune to bring joy to others.'
I say nothing more, but thank them for their hospitality and drive to the church to seek the help of pastor. He listens to me and keeps his promise not to tell the Thorsons whence came this beneficence. I'm informed later that the Thorsons paid all outstanding bills, bought enough food for a lavish holiday dinner and additional meals as well, and more of the gifts that the boys had wished for than they had ever received before.
Though it has never before been sung during a service, the recessional hymn is God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen. This time it strikes home, for I have such a feeling of being blest by God as master of my house - there is no mistress, thank goodness - that nothing will dismay or prevent me from having a restful sleep and a joyous Christmas Day. Strange feelings, indeed, for one who has not had these feelings since early childhood.