This is the way I remember one particular Christmas as a child. My memories are colored by time, distance and the perspective of a child but they remain in my heart and are still able to keep me focused on the hope of things to come.
My family lived in New York, in a very rural part of Long Island. Jobs were scarce at that time and my father worked for a gas company driving a truck and delivering bottled gas to people for cooking and heating purposes. Dad was fairly young, about thirty-two years of age, and the father of four. My dad was also a volunteer fireman.
At some point, after working a full day in the cold and snow delivering the gas to his customers, dad was called out to help respond to a large fire involving a local community business. My mother bundled all of the children, as usual, and we all followed down to the firehouse so my mother could help the other women prepare hot coffee and food for the men as they took breaks and rested throughout the night. We children were made a bed of blankets in the mess hall and slept under the converted pool tables.
Towards the early morning a fellow fireman and his wife took my mother aside to talk to her. What I found out later was that my father had been inside the burning building when the roof collapsed. Although he was going to be okay, he was at the hospital receiving oxygen and would be released later.
Several days after my dad came home my parents talked to us children and told us that Santa might not be able to visit us that year, but we would still have the decorations and visits with family. There were medical bills and those days off of work made things really tight.
These circumstances certainly made an impact on my view of Christmas and the season generally speaking. But what made that particular Christmas so memorable to an eight-year-old girl was what happened in the late afternoon the day before Christmas.
Dad was somewhere in his garage and my mother was giving my youngest brother his bath before we would all eat dinner and head out to church. Suddenly … into our driveway pulls the shiniest, reddest, biggest … fire truck I had ever seen! And riding on the back with all the ladders and assorted gear was Santa himself! When those men climbed off that truck with bags of wrapped gifts and boxes of food, no one was more surprised than my dad. And when Santa called my name, he sure sounded a lot like my uncle Earnie. (!!!)
For the most part, I don’t remember what gifts those firemen brought for us. I don’t remember the food we had for dinner, or what the Christmas service was about, or even which of my cousins we spent the next day with. What I do remember is the restoration from hopelessness to hope in my father and my mother.
You see, what we received on that Christmas is what God offers each of us every Christmas. We received a new start, a new birth if you will. My parents found themselves surrounded by friends, family, and unknown members of the community and carried though one of their darkest moments. And since that time over four decades ago, the memory of what those firemen (and Santa!) did for four little kids and their parents has sustained me through dark days and given me hope when I thought it was gone.
Maybe that’s what each of us needs this holiday season – the hope of a child, born in a manger.