Dead cold night lay waning. It had given him no gift of sleep.
The old man’s sack had proven useful, laying a thin, tattered veil of warmth over his chilled-to-aching bones. “If it weren’t empty, I couldn’t use it for cover,” he reasoned. Yet his heart sought, again, a filling with Christmas bounty, long since lost in the battering gales of time.
Stillness, like a scab, covered his frigid body with a sheet of protective numbing, creating no real warmth, but somehow dulling the pain from the north wind’s steely jabs. As night’s blanket lifted, he feared his fate from another day without shelter and food. In his mind, he knew there would be no welcome for him at the shelter downtown. He sensed it before in the way they looked back at him as he passed by.
Cold, half day was now the shadow box of his stony, vacant life. There had been the parting time, the drifting away from love and security all those years hence. An ensuing path of self-destruction led to dead ends of isolation, and there were no helping hands extended his way. To those so unfortunate, winds of trouble always mount – walling away lives behind a drifted bank of woes. Bereft of even one remaining friend, and disowned by the few familial relations who still survived, he moved over the land like a haunting spirit seeking a host.
On occasion, he was able to obtain a hot meal from a church group about town. But for the past few days, no one had come. True; he had kept moving from location to location due to the cold. Regardless, he now found himself in a dire place, with dwindling energy and weakened will to stay in life’s race. A faceless heap of refuse walked-past by the world on its way to work, he would die a cold and hungry death.
On Christmas Day in the morning.
Despite the starving beast gnawing through the pit of his stomach, and the chilling chokehold of winter’s waxy hands, he seemed to have only one longing…he wanted a gift. And not for the gift itself. He wanted to be given to. But he could never ask. He was not worthy. Shame, like a hungry wolf, had ravaged through the wounded flesh of the self.
He had to move now, or he would die. With the first flinch, the fault line of his cracked skin quaked from head to toe. His body, a sack of prophesying bones, grumbled in its striving against the wind, as he struggled to raise himself up. In truth, all had been vanity, until the bloodletting had begun.
Managing to stand, though bent to shield himself from the smiting winds, he gathered up the flimsy sack and pulled his furrowed hat and garments in close approximation, so to hide most patches of his wrinkled, leathery skin. Then he staggered on, heading nowhere that he knew, seeking a gift for the poor in spirit.
“Christmas gift,” he muttered to himself, because no one else could hear. And the crevasse inside his soul grew deeper, still.
Parting clouds, illuminated by the rising sun behind them, hunkered down on the horizon to warm the earth. He saw fingers of smoke pointing up from rooftops, and his mind took him to a table spread with good things. But his body only felt the sinking lead weight of cold.
Spotting a modest, well-lit home on a wooded hill just off the road, he stopped and stood, leaning forward on a wall of wind. Not believing he still could think such thoughts, he pictured himself inside with the people who were surely present there, having Christmas together. He wanted to be one of them…one with them.
“Christmas gift,” he wished. Then, like a carcass dragged on by hungry carnivores, he moved forward.
Struggling to circle behind the home unnoticed along the fringes of the wooded yard, He neared the back door and kitchen window. There, he glimpsed a family inside, preparing to sit down to breakfast.
No. He could not do this. How had he let himself come this far? The shame surged within, as before his eyes appeared a storyline of strife from his stormy past, and he was left again, like he had been time and again, guilty and alone in death’s howling judgment. No one could see him. He could know no love.
He stood there, in the bitter elements of his reality, clothed in rags, and crying.
At the slightest parting in this miserable fog-bound existence, he stepped forward again, and made it near enough to see the father of the home with an armful of stuffed stockings, headed to the kitchen table. It was then that a longing like he had never known birthed itself from the deepest recesses of his being. He would die to everything and everyone else if he could have this one prize. Heaven seemed within his reach at last. Could it be given to him?
Ascending to the final step, nearly spent of physical strength and enlivened by pure soul, he knocked on the back door.
The father, who had just sat down and started the Christmas blessing, looked toward the door. Startled at first, he then saw the old man; barely upright; tattered cap down low across a sunken brow, toes visible through worn down tips of shoes, ill-fitting wool coat, rusty white beard, and reddened eyes behind a window sill of tears. And it touched a place inside the father that had been long locked away.
The door opened up, and the old man spoke first.
“Christmas gift,” he exhaled.
“Come in, my friend; come in! You are welcome here! Merry Christmas!”
“No sir, I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, if you won’t join us, let me gather up some gifts for you. God has been good to us, you know. And we want to share what we can.”
The father then went about with the old man’s sack, stuffing in apples, oranges, chocolates, socks and handkerchiefs, sweaters and coffee and a book. He packed and packed. And the old man cried. And smiled a smile of wonder, and of prayer, and of holding hands and running over hills with loved ones and friends. And he sat again on Daddy’s knee and had Christmas in his arms. And he felt warm and full and thankful. And he thought he had forgotten how.
“Are you sure you won’t join us for a hot meal? My family and I would be honored.”
“Yes, sir…please come in with us,” chirped the little girl at the table.
“Thank you, all, but I have to go. You have given me my first true Christmas in years.”
And he thanked them again, and bade them farewell. Energized by the experience, he stepped back through the yard and into the road, barely able to lift his Christmas sack.
And on his way back, he became aware for this first time that the family who had helped him, who had shared their Christmas with him, was black. He, himself, was white. He had been so caught up with the experience, he didn’t even notice.
Then, he felt a mysterious movement in the heart; an expansive gratitude which seemed to spread out to the world through the threadbare clothing, which had been his only shelter from the cold. Now, he knew a warming from within, and wanted, more than anything he had ever known, to share it with the world.
Picking up the pace of his steps with a new-found enlivenment, he moved in the direction of the homeless shelter downtown with a sack full of gifts for the “least of these;” children of many-colored skins, who sought shelter from a wind-blown world of winter woe.
He had been given to. And he would give it on to the poor in spirit, like him, who were too ashamed to say it.
“Christmas gift,” he sang. “Oh, Christmas gift!”…as he emptied out his old sack.