In an expanding consciousness of differences, and yet globalization that tends towards sameness, Christmas has separate significance for many.
Once upon a time, and even continuing to current times, the Australian Christmas celebrated the Birth of Christ.
Now, times are a-changing.
Change is a constant. But memories are important. They seem to reside inside our heads, and are difficult to shake out – even if we want to shake them out, or we are told, nay convinced, that they are but “ghosts” of the past.
But for many, memories contribute to culture, to kinship, and to an understanding of who we are, and how being connects to a greater whole than one individual.
For those who wish to remember, the story below is from former members of the Gold Coast Writers’ Association:
Copyright remains with the respective authors. Stories contained in this ebook are unedited by the organisers.
Congratulations to all entrants in the 2011 Gold Coast Writers Association Christmas Competition.
All entries were posted on the GCWA website www.goldcoastwriters.org. They were then voted on electronically.
For the story, Christmas Magic compiled and edited by Candice Lemon-Scott.
Magic at Christmas still happens!!…Yes…but I don’t mean the kind in present-laden shops, ‘gifts galore,’ where the one with the most money gets the latest and best…No…I mean real Christmas magic…the one in fact, that warms your heart and makes you feel the joy.
But, before I tell you this story, I want you to sit back….close your eyes, relax and listen…
Far away, in a country way up North, lies a town covered in snow. So much snow in fact, you have to dig yourself out of your front door.
Outside it is cold, minus 20 degrees. It’s a crisp cold where one wants to be in cosy and warm clothes whilst being outside. It is Christmas Eve, and the snow is falling slowly, as only powdery-soft snow falls and swirls. All the house windows in this town are lit and the chimneys of each house are billowing out smoke from the hot, warming fires inside.
People are walking the streets, greeting one another, ‘Merry Christmas’ in passing. The smell of fresh ginger bread, hot cinnamon wine and roast dinners cooking are in the night’s air. The choir is singing at the local church. Pretty ice flowers, made by the frost, cover the windows.
In a not so bright corner of the street, sitting on an old rag, is an elderly man, wearing tatty clothes and shoes. A hat, that’s seen better days, is upside down in front of him on the ground. It contains a few coins passersby have donated. The man’s hair is curly and wild, his beard is long and grey. The wrinkles in his face tell of many years of living outside. The cold makes the old man shiver. His only friend is a bottle of cheap rum. Now nearly empty, it has warmed him from the inside against the night’s cold. The once shiny, blue eyes are now dull and have lost their sparkle. His vision is blurred from drinking, Christmas! He thinks. Everyone has loved ones, a warm home and a dry bed to sleep in…not me!! Jesus, I wish my life would change. With that, he sinks to his side, freezing…then passes out.
‘Thank goodness that’s over. I couldn’t deliver another Christmas tree if I tried. Now let’s head home and enjoy Christmas Eve with our families,’ he chuckles merrily. The two Christmas tree delivery men are about to finish their day’s work, bringing Christmas to the townsfolk’s homes, when the second man notices a strange shape on the ground.
‘Hold on a moment, I think there is something under that pile of snow over there.’
‘Good gracious, you’re right! I can see a hand,’ the other man gasps, ‘I hope he’s not dead!’
The two men hastily unbury the limp form from the snow and feel for signs of life.
‘He’s barely breathing,’ utters one of the men, in shock. He takes off his coat, to wrap around the frozen man he has just dug out, ‘We’ll have to get help urgently or he’ll die.’
‘The only thing open now is the church. They’re holding Christmas Eve mass. Let’s get him there, quickly.’
Without hesitation the two men lift the frozen man into the front of their sleigh. They wrap him in their jackets. One of the men holds him tight to try and warm him with his own body heat, while the other rides the reindeer-led sleigh in great haste to the church, shivering as they ride, and praying for his life.
The mass has already finished when they arrive. The rider wastes no time as he tells their story to the monk, while his companion remains in the sleigh trying to warm the nearly lifeless body they’ve found. The monk quickly grabs his coat and wraps the frozen man in it as well.
‘Let’s take him to Alex and Natasha’s house. They have a spare room and Natasha is a nurse. She’s our best chance of saving him,’ the monk says as he squeezes into the front of the sleigh as well, embracing the frozen man and adding his body heat as well. He starts praying from the depths of his heart, much deeper than he’s ever prayed before, begging God to spare the life of this unfortunate man. The rider hastens the reindeer to pull the sleigh as hard as possible, wasting no time in getting to Alex and Natasha’s house.
The sleigh pulls up outside the house. Peering through the window, Alex and Natasha see the urgency in their arrival, and dash to the carriage. They all lift the man gently from it. The monk and the two men, nearly freezing to death themselves, and all shivering, work with the couple to do their best to help save this poor man as they carry him into the warm home.
Natasha’s mother Maria appears, looking concerned, but Natasha takes charge immediately and there is no time to think of the man’s uncertain future.
‘Mum, run a very hot bath. Alex, you can stoke up the fires. We need the house very warm. Would you two men undress this poor soul and put him in the bath, and Father will you keep praying for his salvation? We have to get his body temperature up as fast as possible before we lose him.’
Everyone works like clockwork, until finally the beggar begins to warm in the bath tub.
‘Natasha, these are some of Joe’s old clothes. This poor soul will need them more than Joe now.’ Maria speaks softly as she passes the bundle of clothing to her daughter. The clothes belonged to her dear husband, who died just a few years before. She had been unable to let them go.
‘Are you sure Mum?’ Natasha asks gently.
‘Oh yes! Joe would have done the same if he were here today. Please take them.’
‘Thank you. Can you get the spare bed ready? We’ll need hot water bottles to warm it and the quilts need to be warmed in front of the fire.’
Maria sets to work without hesitation, understanding the urgency of her assignment. This man’s life is depending on it.
Natasha returns to the bath tub. She feels the water temperature and immediately pours more hot water in.
‘I need your help my friends,’ she says calmly, looking to the Christmas tree delivery men, ‘We need to rub his skin to help get his circulation moving again. Use the soap.’ The three of them begin rubbing him down, hoping to see some pinkness appear in the ghost white skin.
Meanwhile, Alex returns from stoking up the fires to see what else he can do. ‘I’ll shave the poor soul,’ he says, ‘This man should have his dignity back.’
They all work hard doing their very best but it all seems futile. Nothing seems to have changed. They can only pray for the best now. The delivery men and the monk help dress the beggar and place him in the warm bed Maria has prepared before they leave.
The family sits in silence for a while, each one fighting the beggar’s battle in their own minds. Eventually Maria breaks the silence. You two should go to bed, I’ll keep the fires blazing and the hot water bottles warm. That’s all we can do now.’
Maria vigilantly warms the spare quilts in front of the blazing fire and exchanges them for the cooler ones on his bed, reheats the hot water bottles and stokes the fires. The night is long and Maria’s prayers are the only sound to be heard as Tom, Maria and their two children, Gerda and Marco, sleep. ‘Wake my friend,’ Maria says as she rubs the man’s cold hands, ‘Please wake.’
Between exhaustion and the wee hours of the morning Maria’s eyelids started to fail her. She can barely stay awake but the old man’s condition has failed to improve. Then she has an idea.
‘Tchaikovsky. Come here boy,’ she calls. The family’s pet Husky obediently appears. ‘I need you to help me tonight, Tchaikovsky. We must keep this poor soul alive and I can’t do it alone. Jump on the bed boy and use your body heat. Snuggle in tight. You must keep him warm.’ The dog leaps on to the bed without hesitation, breaking the rules he knows never to break, but following the instructions as though he understands the importance of every word.
‘If the angels come, do not let them take him! Do you understand me boy? They’ve already taken a good man from our home. I will not let them take two.’ The dog looks into her eyes as though he understands, and worms himself in closer to the man.
Maria looks into the man’s face, still hoping to see his colour return, but even in the darkness his pallor is visible. She touches his arm gently and takes herself off to her own bed for a few hours of much-needed sleep.
Tom dreams that he awakes in a strange house. In his dream, he slowly goes downstairs and into the kitchen. He boils the kettle and makes himself a cup of tea. Then he sees a Christmas tree and a present with his name on it to open. Amazed, he leaves it under the tree, whispering ‘May God Be With You,’ to the kind family who put it there. Warmth…a dim comfortable warmth surrounds the old man as he slowly gains consciousness early on Christmas Day. The strange smell of toast and coffee, as well as faint sounds of a woman singing, has awakened him. He finds himself in a warm and comfortable bed with fresh sheets. In the dim light, he opens his eyes to find himself in a cosy, decorated room. I must be in heaven, …how did I get here…am I still dreaming? His thoughts overwhelm him.
Everything is real to the touch. The room is filled with smells: lavender from the bed sheets he is in; cooking food from the kitchen; distant singing and sounds (he touches his eyes as if to make sure this is not an illusion and they are not playing tricks on him), and … hang on …where is … (touching his face now), …this can’t be…. Where is my beard? I have had my beard for such a long time.
‘This can’t be!’ he says aloud.
As if by magic his whole life has changed and turned around. He lies there, puzzled and confused, but with growing comfort that the change of life of which he had requested, is actually taking place, and he is now in warm clothing, and in out of the crispy cold.
Tom leisurely stretches his limbs and thinks, I really have died and gone to heaven. Then a lovely smell wafts in from the kitchen as his door opens and in comes a woman, smiling with twinkling eyes. She carries a tray in her hands that is laden with things to eat that he’s only ever dreamt about. It’s all too much to take in and tears start to trickle down his thin, pale cheeks as he is given this heavenly food.
‘Get that down you love! My name’s Maria.’
‘And I’m Tom,’ the old man says.
‘Pleased to finally meet you, Tom,’ the woman says.
No one has ever said that they were pleased to meet him.
More tears come as the woman called Maria begins to explain how the two men from the town had picked him up, and carefully put him into the sleigh, where they had taken him to Alex and Natasha’s house. She tells him how the family had been elected to take urgent care of him, as everything was closed for Christmas and Natasha was best qualified to help him, being a nurse. So it was, they had taken him in and he had been bathed, given a haircut and shaved, and dressed in warm clothing.
After his meal, Tom settles back among the pillows, which smell of lavender, and releases a huge, satisfied sigh of contentment. After his sumptuous meal he feels like royalty. How many years has it been since he’s slept in a bed? he wonders. It seems like a lifetime ago.
After the rest and a hearty meal, Tom finally has the strength to leave the room. He slides out of bed and goes downstairs. Natasha is busy preparing Christmas lunch. It is just as she’s beginning to gather the ingredients for her famous turkey stuffing when she sees Tom standing in the doorway. She gasps, hardly believing the change in him from when he had first arrived at their house the previous night. The beard is gone, the shreds of clothing replaced with those that had once belonged to her father. She can now see his pale skin, removed of grime and dirt, and deep eyes that reflect like the lake in summer now the hair is cut short. It isn’t just the physical changes that strike her though. It is something else.
Something like hope that seems to radiate from him like the lights on the Christmas tree.
Maybe I’m just imagining it, she thinks. Maybe that’s just what I want to see. After all, nothing would bring her greater joy than to know she had been able to bring a glimmer of happiness to someone who has gone without for so long.
As her eyes meet with Tom’s she is suddenly aware that she has been staring at him. She blushes deeper than the red stocking that hangs from the fireplace, and gets busy mixing the ingredients for the Christmas turkey stuffing.
‘Can I help?’ he asks.
His voice is softer than she imagined. Once again, she is shown never to assume anything.
‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’
‘I’d like to help. You have all done so much for me already. I don’t want to be a burden.’
Natasha smiles. Burden? Nothing could be further from the truth. Since his arrival at the house it’s as though something missing has been returned. He is indeed a gift to her home.
That’s when it strikes her. Perhaps it’s no accident that he’s close to her father’s age. The clothes that had once belonged to her father even fit him well enough to be his own. His presence seems to be filling a gap in the happiness of Christmas that appeared the first year after her father’s death. The first Christmas without him had been tarnished with a sadness everyone felt but no one mentioned. That gap remained, and had created a cold draft, as though the icy wind from outside had filtered into their home. But today that gap has been closed by the man standing before her. She barely remembers feeling so cosy warm, and content. But she knows she would sound completely foolish if she spoke to him in this way.
‘Let me assure you, you are nothing close of a burden. We’re so glad you’re here. But if you insist, you can help me stuff this turkey.’
With that Tom takes hold of the turkey’s legs and they laugh as she stuffs it full of the flavours of Christmas.
Later that morning, Tom goes out to the big barn in the backyard, with the young, energetic children, Marco and Gerda. They are very friendly to Tom, forever reminding them of their grandfather, of whom they had not seen for a long time, since he recently passed on. Also, Tom is wearing some of his clothes, but the children are a bit young to understand it.
Tom helps the children to feed the family pets, Tchaikovsky the dog and Prancer, the reindeer. The reindeer has long antlers which are heavy on his head. The dog is given a good feed of leftovers and a nice juicy bone. Then they leave a bale of hay for Prancer and the reindeer watches, very inquisitively, everything Tom is doing. The children get some dishes and Tom puts some water in them both for the pets.
Then they all return indoors and the children sit near the warm fireplace, as they have all brought some small logs in, out of the barn, for stoking the fire.
Before long, when the lunch is almost ready, little Marco staggers into the dining room with a pile of plates stacked high. He struggles with the load, but setting the table for Christmas dinner is his special responsibility and he is determined not to let the family down.
‘Can I help you with that load?’ Tom asks.
‘I’ve got to get my chores done or there’ll be no Christmas dinner today,’ replies Marco, emphasizing the enormous importance of his role.
‘Well we wouldn’t want that to happen, now would we,’ Tom replies with a knowing smile, ‘Let me help you then, I certainly don’t want to miss out on Christmas dinner. I’m REALLY looking forward to it.’
Tom allows Marco to instruct him and together they enjoy setting the table. They place the plates, cutlery, glasses and all the bonbons on the table, having a little laugh as they work.
Tom has always found it easy to talk to children. They make no judgments and happily accept you for who you are, he thinks.
‘Well done son, that is the grandest Christmas table I’ve ever seen,’ smiles Tom as they stop to admire their finished work. It truly is the grandest he’s ever seen. It had been many years since Tom had been invited for a Christmas meal and even more years since he’d had anyone to enjoy it with. From his smiling face, a little tear of overwhelm runs down his cheek. He is truly blessed to be here today.
‘Marco, can you start putting the food on the table,’ comes a voice from the kitchen. Both
Tom and Marco respond and before long the beautiful table is covered in the most superb meal Tom has ever seen with the most wonderful people Tom has ever met seated around it: Alex, the head of the family; his wife, Natasha; Maria, the grandmother; Marco and Gerda, the two children, and ‘oh yes,’ Tchaikovsky, the Husky who surely saved his life, sits right beside Tom’s chair.
The room also is tastefully decorated. Mistletoe, freshly picked in the forest, has been placed over the window rail. A big pine Christmas tree is standing in the corner of the room, decorated with candles and angel hair. A hand-carved Crip sits in front of the tree, commemorating the birth of Jesus.
The family begins to help themselves to hot food, and the wine is poured. Tom watches on in awe. His heart aches with longing when he sees the children laughing and selecting food for their plates with joy. These are a different kind of people, not on the poverty line like he is.
As a child, he never had the luxury of going to school and always felt like an outsider. Tom starts to reminisce about his past life and what his destiny has become. As a child, there were never any presents under a lovely green pine-scented Christmas tree, nothing special to eat, no one really cared. His father used to say, ‘Christmas! Humbug. There’s no money for all this nonsense.’
When he was old enough to work, he became a gardener and looked after an elderly lady’s small piece of land.
Mrs Hobbs, who he worked for, had been very kind to him, and gave him a bit of lunch from time to time. Sometimes stale bread or leftovers she had.
One day in September, on a brisk, fresh day, he went to work as usual, but there was no reply to his persistent knock. Finally, a neighbour popped his head over the fence.
‘Looking for Mrs Hobbs?’ she asked.
He nodded and was told that she had died in hospital after suffering a heart attack.
He wandered around aimlessly after that, and ended up sleeping in a shelter, but the few belongings that he had were stolen and he moved on, becoming homeless. He remembered little of those times except the feeling of being very tired, cold and hungry. He thought that no one cared if he lived or died. But low and behold today he had awoken in a heavenly room with lace curtains at the windows, a side table with fresh juice, a comfy down covering him and the sounds of laughter, people talking, the bark of a dog and music, delicious cooking smells. What more could any man want? He thought, God has heard my prayers.
Alex, seated at the head of the table, notices Tom’s still empty plate and responds, ‘Tom, please join us in eating this lunch and celebrate with us.’ So he does.
The food is plenty, from dumpling soup as entrée, to a beautiful roast and a rich Christmas cake and homemade biscuits for dessert. There is so much food in fact that everyone could eat their fill a few times over. Soon everyone’s plates are full, including Tom’s.
‘I’d like to say grace today,’ Marco suddenly announces, ‘Dear Father we thank you for all this yummy Christmas food, the special Christmas blessings and all the presents also and for the people here today. Please give Grandpa Jo a hug in heaven for me… oh and also thank you for sending me a new grandpa for Christmas. AMEN.’
The adults exchange looks of joyous surprise and Marco looks at Tom’s smiling and teary face for a moment and then goes and hugs him.
‘I didn’t mean to make you sad. You really are just like a new Grandpa to me,’ he says, still hugging the old man.
‘Marco, that is the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me and I’m so honoured that the tears just fell from my eyes. Those are happy tears, young man. You’ve made me very happy. About the best Christmas present I’ve ever had.’ He smiles a big smile from his tear covered face, as he hugs Marco back.
The meal is splendid, everyone enjoys every bite of food, but the smiles on everyone’s faces and the Christmas magic that is served with it is the best part.
After this beautiful lunch finishes, Alex stands up and says, ‘Tom – my wife, grandmother Maria and I would like to make you a present.’
Tom thinks back to his dream about the present with his name on it. Could it really be coming true? Tom holds the wrapped present, that Alex passes him, and slowly opens it. He cannot believe his eyes.
‘Jo, Natasha’s father, who sadly passed away a few years ago, had a cherished pair of boots and a thick, winter coat that he had loved and looked after. I think they will fit you perfectly, and you surely will need them this winter. We also would love you to stay with us as we have the room to spare and I certainly could do with another man’s help making furniture in my workshop.’
Tom is deeply moved, the generosity of this family overwhelms him, and he responds, ‘Thank you all so much, I don’t know what to say. You have made this Christmas the best I’ve ever had. I would love nothing more than to stay with you and help you, Alex, in the workshop.’
With that said, everyone claps in applause and then everyone else goes to open their presents.
The day shifts into evening, and Tom finds himself sitting by the fireplace with the family. Together, they give thanks to God for the lovely day and for Tom’s company. Then the little girl Gerda hands her new doll to Tom and they play together. Gerda feels so happy to have the new guest in the house. When she first saw him she had asked her mother who the man was, and she told her the story about Tom, the man they found in the street. Tom reminds Gerda of her own grandfather who she has lost. She likes Tom because he looks like her grandfather so much and because he is very kind. He even asked her mother if he could help give her some dinner because Gerda was only little. To her delight, her mother had said, ‘Yes, please.’ But now she feels sleepy and she leans against Tom’s chest. Then he picks her up and puts her in bed. She is so happy. She remembers the special day. This morning she was dressed up so wonderful, then she looked around the Christmas tree. It was so beautiful with all the decorations, and she had found a wonderful present for her. Then the family enjoyed wonderful food and cake and sugar mead, and there was toasted popcorn for Marco and her. Tom kisses her goodnight. She smiles and falls straight to sleep.
Slowly, the rest of the family retires to bed. Tchaikovsky and Tom remain. Usually the dog always stays close to his family and he likes to play around with the children. But today, when he saw Tom, he looked at him and being very clever, liked Tom and became very friendly with him. He jumped around Tom and sat on his lap. Tom felt so good because he was given a lot of love. Then Tchaikovsky went to the window and started making a funny noise because he was scared of the snow outside. Tom took the dog and got him to listen to what he said. Amazingly, Tchaikovsky stopped making the funny noise and was no longer scared. The dog and the man had now helped one another. Tchaikovsky lay down close to the chimney and all together they celebrated a very happy Christmas as Tom remembered the day…
He had been picked up off the street. The wonderful people who took him in the sleigh were so kind. The poor man thought it was a dream but this was real. The wonderful opportunity he had to be taken care of made him very happy. For the first time in his life, he could feel Christmas. It had been a big surprise for him when he saw the decorated tree and also found a special present just for him. Also, he was around the family like he had never been before in his life and all together they celebrated and played and gave him a lot of love. He felt like he was floating up in the air, and he gave thanks to God for what he had been given.
As the years passed, Tom felt as though he had finally found his love, and a place in this family. While washing dishes, or sitting in front of a dancing fire with the blue, orange and yellow flames sending out their warmth, Maria and Tom would talk about many things of interest.
He also enjoyed feeding the animals and connecting with them, their soft, soulful eyes, their fur coat. He found everything about them fascinating.
‘Tom, what is your birth sign?…Scorpio! Wow! Same as me, that’s a good start…Do you like cards? Board games?’
‘Yes, we used to while the time away in the streets. I also loved music from a young age. Not that I have heard much in my life.’
‘Well, I have some great music.’
She played one of his favourites. He moved in time to the music, fast tapping to the beat, and got lost in the moment.
As time went by Tom learnt how to read, and got great pleasure from the experience. Now the library is his friend which he visits often.
It was a nice feeling, bonding with another person, the first in his life and would be a wonderful friendship. Friendship, a priceless gift. He whispered the word softly, ‘friendship,’ what a lovely word. Tom knew he had received a priceless gift, the gift of Christmas Magic.
The Authors (in alphabetical order):
Luz Maria Lleuful
Compiled and edited by Candice Lemon-Scott.