Our house, with the crackling fire, floating pine scent, and carols playing in the background, was the epitome of Christmastime. Per our tradition every Christmas Eve, it was a time dedicated solely to our little family of four to decorate the house, wrap presents, and play games. My eight-year-old sister Anna and I hung our stockings on the mantel, Dad popped popcorn and Mom carried in steaming mugs of cocoa. Outside, snowflakes continued to drift from the clouds, clothing the earth in a shimmering white garment.
“We’ve got to wake up early so we can open presents!” Anna, dressed in her purple and pink footie pajamas, hurried to the other end of the living room.
Repelled from the heat of the fireplace, Dad rose from his kneeling position, popcorn pan in hand. “Don’t worry; tomorrow we’ve got the whole day to party.” Dad winked at me.
I joined Anna and together we took it in: Our real pine tree, decorated with colorful bulbs and handmade ornaments, the ceramic snowmen balancing on top of the mantel…it was Christmas, all right.
Mom cozied into her armchair and held her mug close. “Anna, Winnie; you girls did a wonderful job decorating. Looks fantastic.”
Everything about Anna dripped enthusiasm. “I know!”
As if my sister’s joy were contagious, just from standing next her I felt excitement bubble up inside me. I wrapped my arm around Anna and squeezed. “Wait until you see what I got you for Christmas tomorrow,” I teased, thinking of the latest-and-greatest craft kit I’d purchased for my artsy sis.
I picked up my popcorn bowl and plopped myself on the sofa next to Dad. With only the light of the fireplace and the glow of the Christmas lights in the tree, it created a charming atmosphere. As I snuggled in next to my dad, I watched and listened to the fireplace crackle.
My thoughts wandered to all the presents under the tree, so many that a few weren’t covered by the pine tree’s hovering branches. I’d spent three months of my allowance on presents for my family…but what was waiting under there for me? Soon, although it seemed like forever, I’d be able to open all the gifts marked Winnie. Now, it was time to cherish the moment and breathe in the combination of smells that only come once a year.
Mom interrupted Anna’s constant chattering some time later. “Girls, you’d better head up to bed. It’s getting late, and you want Santa to come, don’t you?”
A pink and purple blur whizzed past as Anna raced into the kitchen. I heard the fridge door open and close, and moments later she reappeared carrying a plate of cookies and a glass of milk.
Torn between wanting to stay up later and tomorrow to come, I pushed myself up from the sofa. “Did you write a letter this year?” I asked her. At fourteen, I didn’t feel like writing letters to Santa Claus anymore.
“Yup. Right here.” Anna picked up a folded piece of paper from the coffee table and pushed it half under the cookie plate. In red crayon, the word Santa was scrawled on the front. “C’mon, Winnie, let’s get to bed. We gotta fall asleep so Santa will know it’s time to deliver our present.”
I could hear Mom and Dad chuckling behind us as Anna ushered me up the stairs to my room. “What can we do to make her this excited about bedtime year-round?” Dad joked.
Almost Christmas, I mused as I lay in bed, trying to sleep. What a day it was going to be tomorrow. I hoped everyone liked what I bought them. What did everyone buy me? Excitement continued to swell at the thought of all the fun things I was going to get. And breakfast…mmmm. Mom never told anyone what we were going to have for Christmas breakfast; she always made it a delicious surprise. But for sure and for certain, tomorrow was going to be the most wonderful day of the year…if only it would get here quickly.
The hard slam of my bedroom door meeting the wall jolted me out of my deep sleep.
Groggy, I attempted to open my heavy eyelids. Though it was still dark, I could tell that the person in my room was too tall to be Anna, and that shriek definitely could not have come from my dad. “Mom?”
Mom raced to me, tore the covers from my bed, and gave my hand the death-grip as she pulled me to my feet. Disoriented, I stumbled a few steps behind her as she dragged me to my bedroom door.
I could smell it before I saw it. With each step we took towards the hallway, the stronger it became.
We paused at the doorway. When I looked down the stairs, I could see the illumination of bright orange flames on the wall of the living room and my stomach filled with an inexplicable fear. I wanted to scream, but the strong smoke smell burned my throat and terror took away my voice.
Our house was on fire.
Across the hallway in the doorway to my sister’s room, Dad cradled a wailing Anna in his arms. Her cries were almost lost amongst the sound of fire consuming our house. When Dad saw Mom and me together, he dashed down the stairs with his youngest daughter. Mom, still clutching my hand in an ever-tightening grip, pulled me behind her.
I coughed and used my free hand to cover my nose and mouth against the smoke. At the bottom of the stairs, I was hit by the heat of the fire. Dad turned for the front door, but the flames were too great there.
“The back!” he shouted, directing us to the slider in the dining room.
Mom and I spun around, slid open the door, and ran. We didn’t stop until we were on the other side of the yard. I was shivering uncontrollably and my feet stung like being pierced with needles. I hadn’t had time to put shoes on; I was standing in six inches of snow in my socks. But I was alive.
“Mom….” Tears slipped down my cheeks as I watched our house burn.
She turned my head away, pulling me into an embrace. “Shh…it’s okay.”
No fences separated our backyard from our neighbors. Keeping a safe distance, we all ran next door to Mr. and Mrs. Howard’s so Dad could phone the fire department. In minutes, a red fire trunk, sirens blaring, halted in front of our house.
“What happened?” I asked Mom, finally having found my voice.
She shook her head, eyes wide and blank as if she were still in shock. “I…” she coughed, then looked to me. “I don’t know. It’s possible there was a short in our Christmas lights, and our tree was dry….”
I watched with Anna out the front window as firemen poured out of the vehicle and sprinted to action. A small crowd, consisting of all the people who lived on our block, gathered on the opposite side of the street. Even though Dad’s feet were three sizes larger than Mr. Howard’s, he borrowed a pair of shoes to go outside and talk to the fire chief. Mom went with him, but insisted that I stay with Anna.
Mrs. Howard, a woman old enough to be my grandma, startled me by running her hand up and down my back. “I’m sorry,” she apologized when I jumped. “Are you girls alright? Can I get you anything? How about some hot cocoa?”
The next few hours crawled by. The firemen were able to put out the fire and eventually Mom and Dad came back to Mr. and Mrs. Howard’s house. Anna had long since fallen asleep on the couch, but I couldn’t sleep. Didn’t want to. I wanted to wake up from this horrible nightmare that was supposed to be magical Christmas Eve.
Mr. Howard found an inflatable mattress in a closet and made me a bed. I wanted to take a shower, to get rid of the putrid smoke smell that was absorbed into my clothes and skin, but I had no energy. After running on adrenaline for the past few hours, I was beat. Somehow, in spite of it all, I managed to fall to sleep.
The sun shone bright the next morning when I woke, a sharp contrast to the night before. The first thing I did was cry. Silent tears; I didn’t want anyone to hear me. Everything was gone. There would be no Christmas for our family this year. Still feeling rotten but having no more tears to shed, I wandered into the kitchen to find something to drink.
Mrs. Howard was puttering in the kitchen, busy making a cup of coffee. She smiled when she saw me and pulled out another mug. “How would you like some hot cocoa this morning?”
Mute, I nodded and settled into a wooden bar stool at the counter and let her make the beverage for me. I wrapped my hands around the mug and brought it to my lips. “Where are Mom and Dad?” I asked.
“They’re sleeping in another guest room,” she answered, settling into the stool beside me. After a moments pause, she asked, “Did you sleep well?”
I shrugged and kept my head lowered.
“I know it might not feel like it, Winnie, but…merry Christmas.” Mrs. Howard, in a motherly fashion, laid her wrinkled hand on top of mine.
I pulled my hand from beneath hers and ran it over my face, distraught. “This isn’t Christmas.”
“How can it be Christmas when everything was just taken away from me? Have you seen our house?” I thrust my arm in that direction.
“I know that your parents raised you up Christian, Winnie. You know that not everything has been taken away from you.”
“Everything that counts,” I muttered softly under my breath. Not softly enough, apparently.
Shocked, Mrs. Howard drew back. “Christmas isn’t about food, presents, or the best decorated tree. It’s about Jesus, the best gift that we could ever be given, one that could never burn in a fire.”
She was right. I had been so consumed in giving presents to other people, and anxiously awaiting all the presents I would get, that I had overlooked the most important part.
When I remained silent, Mrs. Howard continued on. “Jesus gave up everything He had in heaven so He could save us, He loves us that much. The most precious gift came in the form of a baby born in a dirty stable. It’s not that presents and Christmas celebrations are bad. It’s when it gets to be bigger than Jesus’ birthday.”
“I guess…I forgot that it was Jesus’ birthday too.”
“It can be easy to sometimes. Winnie, it might seem like Jesus has forgotten about you, but let me tell you, He hasn’t. God is bigger than all of this, bigger than your house burning and your Christmas flopping. I know that He has a plan for you and your family.”
“You’re right. We’ll be okay, no matter what happens. Jesus is the most important part of Christmas anyway, right? And He hasn’t changed.” For the first time since sitting down, I glanced at Mrs. Howard’s smiling old face.
“Exactly, Winnie. Exactly.”
Anna padded into the kitchen in her dirty footie pajamas, rubbing her eyes. The sparkle in her eyes was gone, and my smile drooped. Eight years old, and her Christmas spirit had been stolen from her.
“Merry Christmas, Anna.” I hopped off the stool and hugged my little sis. When she began crying into my side, I stroked her brown hair. “It’s okay.”
“But…everything’s gone…” she looked at me with puffy, red eyes and snuffed.
I looked over my shoulder to Mrs. Howard and grinned. Looking back to my sister, I said, “Everything?” I tapped her on the tip of her nose. “Yeah, everything’s kinda pretty awful right now. But I think we can still make this Christmas special. I know about a gift that can’t be destroyed no matter what, and that gift, when you accept it, can make you very happy.”
Anna looked puzzled. “What are you talking about, Winnie?”
I laughed. Laughing the day after our house burned down? Who knew such a thing could be possible? Maybe presents really weren’t everything. Maybe Jesus was just what I needed.
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. ~Luke 2:6-7