"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace."
He shuffled in the back door, weary, dirty, and discouraged. The weight of defeat bowed his shoulders. The events of this day had been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Years of hard work with little pay had worn him down; worn his family down, too. As the door banged shut behind him he caught a glimpse of the pitiful excuse of a Christmas tree in the corner of the sparsely furnished living room. He didn't need to look under that tree to know that there weren't any presents there. He'd seen the children cast hopeful glances at that very spot...always hoping to see some small gift...and he'd seen the disappointment in their eyes even though they had tried to hide it. How could he buy gifts, when he could barely afford food for them?
He scrubbed a calloused hand across his stubbled face and sighed wearily. He headed for the bedroom but stopped short when he saw the envelope on the table. He picked it up, saw the return address, and felt the heat rise to his face. Another letter from Ellen's parents. Another long rant, no doubt, about the rotten husband she had. Another list of his failures as a husband and father. Another invitation for Ellen to leave him and come home where they could take care of her and the children. He resisted the urge to tear it to pieces, placed it back on the table instead, and stepped into the bedroom.
Ellen looked so pale. So tired. He hooked his foot under a nearby chair, pulled it to the bedside and sat down wearily. He reached for her hand, kissed it. He asked about the doctor's visit. Did Doc think the baby would come soon? Was everything alright? Had she been able to rest? Were the children feeling better? He said nothing of the letter. He knew that her parents' words hurt her as much as they hurt him. She knew how hard he worked. How hard he tried. She didn't fault him for what they considered his failures. She loved him, knew that he would lay down his life for his family. She didn't demand the best of everything.
After checking on Ellen, he warmed up the soup and they ate together. It was a quiet, meager Christmas Eve supper. He dreaded morning, and the lonely, cheer-less Christmas Day that awaited them. He studied the faces of his children. John, too old for his seven years, with thoughtful, serious, brown eyes, and delicate Ella Jane, only ten but forced to grow up too soon; tall, slender, and as capable of caring for a home as any grown woman. Ellen's poor health had been hard on all of them. And now, with the baby coming any day.... Another heavy sigh escaped. This strain was nearly crushing him. He had never felt more helpless. More hopeless.
The kitchen was cleaned, children sent to bed, and the house grew quiet. He sat in the living room, not bothering to turn on the light, and stared at the silhouette of the straggly Christmas tree. Christmas was only one day, he knew. It wasn't the end of the world if they couldn't exchange gifts. But that wasn't it. It was the symbolism. The meaning behind it all. They had nothing, could give nothing. Everything seemed to be falling down around him and no hope was in sight. Illness and financial hardship had taken hold of their little family and threatened to squeeze the life out of them. To ruin them. He didn't have the strength to fight any more. That bare little tree was symbolic of his life. His shattered dreams.
He stood and paced the moonlit room, despair written on his face. How could he tell her? All that had gone wrong already, and now how could he let her know that he'd lost his job? That the food was nearly gone, the bills were overdue, and now there was only one more paycheck, pitifully small, left to try to cover it all?
Another question tormented him. Taunted him. Threatened to destroy him.
Where was God? All this talk of Christmas, and the Gift that God gave in His Son. What about the promise that Jesus had come to bring peace? He had no peace. He had trusted long ago in that Gift, but that seemed far away and forgotten now. Meaningless. All that talk about how the spirit of Christmas could turn even a scrooge into a saint...where were the saints now? Where were those people who were supposed to be giving to those in need, especially at Christmas, to honor the Gift that had been given to them? It was all a lie. A cruel lie.
As he paced near the tree he tripped over something in the dark and kicked at it angrily. The object rolled into a patch of moonlight and he stooped to examine it. It was a baby doll. A baby....
He dropped to his knees and picked it up gingerly, gently, as if it were real. Then he saw the note tied to the doll's wrist. He opened it, and tears sprang to his eyes. Little Ella Jane had written the note...to him.
I know you feel bad because you can't get us anything for Christmas. I just wanted you to know that it's alright. You have always told us that Jesus was the greatest gift ever given, and we have Him, so we don't need anything else for Christmas. I wrapped my doll up and put it under the tree so we would remember. We need to remember, Daddy.
He clasped the doll to his chest...and the tears came. He sat, clutching that doll and sobbed like a baby for what seemed an eternity. He wept out his fear and frustration. His anger at the unfairness of it all. And, finally, he wept tears of repentance. How could he have doubted? Would God have sent His Son, only to forsake the ones to Whom He was sent? No! He knew that now. Forgiveness came, and with it, a glimmer of hope.
He was startled by Ellen's weak voice calling him from the bedroom. Dropping the bundle, he stumbled through the darkness to the bedroom door and turned on the light. Ellen's face told him all he needed to know, and he raced to call the doctor.