By DEREK BECHER
The winter winds blew early that year, bringing a record snowfall to Jubilee County. By November, the country roads were impassable, as frosty drifts gathered and grew along the roadsides, especially where the woods crept toward their shoulders. A week later, country residents had already assembled their horse-drawn wagons and sleighs for the first trips into town, which became less frequent because of the duration of the round-trip excursion to Merry Vale. Winter had indeed arrived early, and with the thick blanket of snow that it had brought, it was there to stay.
For Marie and her brother, Matthew, that first snowfall brought dreams of Christmas, as always. Before long, their town would be decorated with the symbols of the season. Twinkling candles and shiny wreaths would adorn street posts; frosty snow and elaborate holiday images would bring color to the inside of storefront windows; the town Christmas tree would again be wrapped with colorful lights, decorated with tinsel, and topped with an angel; and the wooden Nativity scene would again be set at the front of Town Hall, welcoming visitors from everywhere.
Together, they loved the beauty and the color of the Christmas season, and they savored every opportunity to wander through town, becoming immersed in the splendor.
As November progressed and eventually drew to a close, Marie became excited with the thought of a Christmas present she had planned to buy for her parents. Hers was a simple family, and money for decorations and lights and fancy ornaments just wasn’t part of the family budget.
But Marie had convinced the town’s merchants that she could clean their sidewalks every morning and after school, if necessary, and she even offered to deliver their weekly fliers. In exchange, she would be able to earn the money she would need to buy her secret gift — a Christmas wreath.
She had seen it hanging in the window of the town department store. It was a glorious wreath, thick with evergreen foliage, and it cradled a gathering of bright red holly berries, acorns, walnuts, and even a few fine strands of tinsel. In its middle sat an arrangement of three plastic candles of differing heights.
“Oh, how this would beautify our home,” Marie thought, realizing too that it would bring a touch of Christmas nature into their home that year. They always put up a tree, but it was always bare, except for a few strings of popcorn. Now she would be able to add some sparkle, light, and decoration to their Christmas experience.
For four weeks, Marie rode into town atop her father’s sleigh, bundled up in her winter clothing early in the chill of a winter morning, sharing her secret only with her brother Matthew. When she was dropped off at school, she would run into her classroom — always the first to arrive — to set her books and lunch bag on her desk. Then, she returned down the front sidewalk from the school and hurried along the block to Main Street. Quickly, but properly, Marie would clear the snow and ice from the sidewalks in front of the shops along the two blocks of Main Street, always pausing in front of the department store to admire the wreath, which seemed to sparkle as it reflected the colorful lights that surrounded it.
Occasionally, Matthew accompanied her, and followed behind with a broom as she pushed the snow with her wooden shovel. It was a short labor of love that they performed every morning that snowy December, and they always finished to a grateful “thank you” from the storekeepers, and returned to school in time for their first classes.
Often, the snow continued throughout the day, and Marie and her brother would return after their last classes. Again, they’d clear the walks, finishing in time to now enjoy the colorful lights and decorations that shone along the street in the darkening sky. Across the street from them, the town Christmas tree stood proudly, spreading its colors throughout the yard in which it stood, and beside it, the lovely Nativity scene glowed behind the yellow and blue floodlights that sprayed it.
It really was a sight worth appreciating. Still, they always made their way back to school in time for the 5:00 rendezvous with their father, who was unaware of the extracurricular work that they were involved with.
At last, Christmas Eve arrived, and Marie and Matthew rose excited, looking forward to their final day in school before the holidays. Their mother was already baking fresh buns and gingerbread cookies as they sat for breakfast, and the delicious aromas filled their home. Marie looked up to an empty space on the wall beside their kitchen, across from the window, and pictured how perfectly the wreath would fill that spot.
As the children quickly finished, and put on their winter clothing, they bid farewell to their mother and joined their father outside, where he was already preparing the sleigh.
Her Worst Fear
A light snow fell as they rode into town, and Marie whispered for Matthew’s help to clear the walks, one last time. They dropped their things off at school, and Matthew joined his older sister as she hurried to Main Street. When they finished the walks, Marie collected the money that she had earned from the shopkeepers, and counted eight dollars in her hands. She looked at Matthew and exclaimed, “I did it! I have enough money to buy that beautiful wreath that’s in the front window of the department store!”
Matthew simply smiled, pleased that he was able to help his sister, and skipped along with her as she grinned all the way back to school.
Both of the children took part in Christmas celebrations in their classrooms that day, and spent the whole time playing with their friends, singing, and listening to music and to stories of Christmas, and enjoying candy treats and fudge that their teachers brought in. Marie secretly spied the clock often throughout the day, till at last, after all their celebrating, the bell rang at 3:15.
Marie had one thought in her mind as she stepped out of the school, and as soon as she found Matthew, she hurried to the department store. For four weeks she had cleared the walks along Main Street, all the while imagining the color and beauty she would be able to give to her parents. At last, she would have the wreath, and her Christmas dream would unfold.
They hurried down the first block of Main Street, crossed the road, and arrived at the front of the department store. Marie looked up with anticipating eyes for a final view of her treasure; but she stopped in her tracks, and her jaw fell open in disbelief. The Christmas wreath, with its berries, candles, acorns, walnuts, and tinsel, was gone!
She anxiously pulled the front door open, and Matthew followed her as she rushed in. She held on to a hope that perhaps the wreath had only been moved, but the shopkeeper confirmed her worst fear when he said, “Sorry, Marie, but someone came in this afternoon and bought that wreath; it was my last one. I wish I’d known you wanted it.”
Marie’s world seemed to crash in front of her. Gone was the hope for a bright and colorful Christmas home. Gone was the gift that she worked so long for, so hard for, to buy for her parents. Matthew followed her as she walked slowly out the front door.
They crossed the street and sat on a bench beside the town Christmas tree. Marie looked up at the empty window across the street, and began to softly cry. “What will I give my parents now,” she wondered.
A moment of silence followed; but Matthew turned to his sister, then, and said, “Marie, do you remember what the priest said in church last week? He said, ‘Remember that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday.’ Maybe you could give something to Jesus?”
Marie looked at her little brother, and paused, to clear her mind. Then, a sparkle seemed to appear in her teary eyes as a tingling feeling swept through her. Looking in his eyes, she sighed, then smiled, and said, “You’re right, Matthew. Maybe there’s a better way I can spend this eight dollars.”
With a new-found hope, Marie held her brother’s hand, and together, they walked down the street to the little church at the end of the road. As they stepped inside, they saw Fr. Joseph preparing for the Christmas Eve service.
After he welcomed them, Marie explained everything that had happened — how hard she had worked; how long she had waited; how much she had looked forward to seeing the colorful wreath brighten their home for the Christmas season. Marie then told the priest that she wanted to give him the eight dollars, and maybe he could find someone who needed the money more than she thought she did.
Fr. Joseph smiled and said that a special collection was being taken up that night for needy families in the world. He would put her eight dollars in the collection during the Mass. Before he let the children leave, though, he brought them an ivory-colored Christmas candle that was part of a collection that had been stored in the church. It was a foot high, and Marie needed to use both hands to reach her fingers around it. Engraved in the middle of the candle was a picture of the infant Jesus in a manger, with Mary and Joseph beside Him. As Marie looked at it, she realized that this simple candle would bring all the color and light to their home that they could want. Indeed, it would truly brighten their Christmas season.
Before they left, Fr. Joseph added, “Jesus will be so happy for this gift you are giving. Indeed, your heart is filled with the true spirit of Christmas.”
After thanking the priest for his gift, Marie wrapped the candle in some tissue he had given her, and walked out the front door of the church with a wide smile on her face. By now, the sky was dark, and the colors of Main Street glowed around her. She returned to school with Matthew, and waited only a short while until their father arrived. As they rode on the back of the sleigh all the way home, the clouds that had brought a light snowfall earlier that day had disappeared and been replaced by a black, starry sky, the first one Marie had seen that month.
A Magical Decoration
Inside, after they finished their supper, Marie carefully set the Christmas candle under the tree, still wrapped in its tissue. She looked forward to Christmas morning when her parents would unwrap it, sure that they would love it. As she pondered the surprise that would appear on her parents’ faces, a soft, colorful glow slowly danced on the wall behind her. She looked up to see where it was coming from, and through the window, the northern lights shimmered in the clear night sky.
As her family joined her in the window, a rainbow of colors flowed and mingled among the stars, twinkling on the white blanket of snow below. Some of them appeared to flicker red, and others blue, and a silvery line along the edge of the northern lights appeared to drape along some of the stars, like a long piece of tinsel.
Colorful garlands were streaming in the sky, even more beautiful than the wreath Marie had planned to buy, and they stayed there throughout the night, providing a wonderful display that shone through the window, dancing on the very spot on the wall where the wreath was to hang.
Marie smiled as she lay in bed that Christmas Eve, thankful for the colorful lights that filled her home, providing her family with a magical decoration. But as she fell asleep, she was even more thankful that the wreath disappeared from the department store window.
With some help from her brother Matthew, she learned that giving from the heart was the purpose of Christmas, and she found a gift that would bring her more peace and harmony than a thousand wreaths could ever have.