A Christmas Story

Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.

1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV)

      Gene Weingarten, an award-winning author and writer for The Washington Post, was trying to come up with a topic for his next book. While bouncing ideas off his editor, he said: “What if we randomly pick a day from the recent past—last 50 years or so—and write about what happened in the United States during those 24 hours?” 

      His editor liked it, and so the two of them, on New Year’s Day, 2013, headed to Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington where they imposed on some fellow oyster lovers to help them select a date between 1969 and 1989. Through the drawing of three numbers—a day, a month and a year—from an old green fedora, a day was chosen: December 28, 1986. 

      The two of them were crestfallen.

      “Why?” you ask. Well, first, that year December 28 fell on a Sunday, the slowest news day of the week. And what happens to be the slowest news week of the year? You guessed it: the week between Christmas and New Years. As much as they were tempted to find some excuse for a “do over,” they knew that in order to honestly represent their project as being the product of randomness, they had to accept the results.

      And, as they would soon learn, randomness often gives birth to serendipity.

      While working on his book—One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America—Mr. Weingarten took time out to get his hair cut at his favorite barbershop: a place called Brice’s Barbershop in Washington D.C. near Capitol Hill. The place at that time was run by Sheila Knox who wears her own hair in a crew cut, under a baseball cap, and talks like she was “brought up hard.” She doesn’t care for homeschooling or male Geminis, who she says are “needy and clingy,” and she has opinions on virtually every subject and shares them liberally.

      While she was cutting his hair, Weingarten mentioned his latest project and noted the specific date that was the focus of his attention. Suddenly her scissors paused, and she exclaimed: “I know exactly where I was that day.” “Where?” Weingarten asked. “In prison,” she replied. 

      At this point in reading Mr. Weingarten’s book, one question immediately came to my mind: What could have possibly happened on this day in Sheila’s life that distinguished it from the mind-numbing similarity of every other 24-hour period she spent in jail? (For his part, Mr. Weingarten may have wondered why she was incarcerated, since Shelia wields very sharp objects in her work.)

      As it turns out, on December 28, 1986, Sheila, who was then only 22, was on the front end of a five-to-fifteen year sentence after having been caught with some unsavory individuals in a stolen car with guns in the trunk.  She might have avoided jail time but she skipped her court date and fled to Atlanta. To make a long story short, Sheila had made some very stupid decisions throughout her youth, which had culminated in a lengthy prison sentence. And, true to form, on this date in December 1986, she was in solitary confinement for talking back to the guards. (“Pick that up, Sheila!” “Do I hear a please?”)

      She was, however, allowed visitors that day. And they were her regular Sunday callers: her mother, Shirley, along with her paternal grandfather and her maternal grandmother, all of whom provided a loving support network for her son Willie, who was then five. Willie was in attendance as well. (Willie was the byproduct of a one-time fling with a friend of a friend. Even in romance, Sheila made poor choices.)

      Frequently during these visits, someone would ask Sheila if she was ready to turn her life around, and she would tell them what they wanted to hear: “I’ve had a come-to-Jesus moment and I’m now on the straight and narrow.” Mom would nod and Grandpa would roll his eyes.

      During one of the numerous silences that often punctuated their conversations, her mother mentioned a peculiar thing that had happened on Christmas. A stranger had stopped by the house and dropped off two presents for Willie—a really nice sweater and a toy racecar. Sheila suddenly looked up and asked her mother to repeat what she had just said since such generosity was inconsistent with her view of the world.

      Sheila immediately remembered two women who had come to the prison around Thanksgiving saying they were with a charitable organization that arranged for needy children to receive presents at Christmas. She figured this must be a scam of some kind though she couldn’t figure it out; but her suspicions were only heightened when the ladies asked her if she had a favorite clothing designer—like they were going to go shopping for a black woman in prison. 

      “Ralph Lauren,” she responded, with thinly veiled arrogance and cynicism. She quickly forgot about the entire exchange. Until this Sunday at the end of December in 1986.

      As it turns out, these women volunteered for a faith-based organization called Angel Tree. And they had gone shopping. And Willie’s new sweater had indeed been made by Ralph Lauren.

      It wasn’t a seismic moment in Sheila’s life, but it did introduce her to a totally foreign, but apparently genuine, concept: that even among strangers, and even through institutions, there can be such a thing as unconditional kindness. With this experience came a slight adjustment of attitude, one that led her to rethink her adolescent war on authority. When she was released from prison about three and half years later, she began to get her act together, which eventually led her to Brice’s Barbershop where she was the most popular, and sought-after, hair trimmer on the premises.

      And Willie now volunteers for Angel Tree.

      Our lives may be the only scripture anyone ever reads. The thing we often fail to realize is that they are often being read by others without our knowledge. With that understanding we see the importance of the admonition found in 1st Timothy: “be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” 

      One of the best ways we can be such an example is through acts of unconditional kindness, like the one bestowed by Angel Tree on Sheila’s family. They produce a light that can penetrate even the darkest corners of a struggling soul’s existence, and they personify the unconditional love the Savior exhibited for all mankind during his earthly ministry. And that light emanates from the divine spark that exists within each of us, as beautifully described by Eleanor Farjeon, in her poem, “Shall I to the Byre Go Down?”:

Shall I to the byre go down
  Where the stalled oxen are?
Or shall I climb the mountain’s crown  
  To see the rising star?
Or shall I walk the golden floor
  Where the King’s feast is spread?
Or shall I seek the poor man’s door
  And ask to break his bread?

It matters not. Go where you will,
  Kneel down in cattle stall,
Climb up the cold and starlit hill,
  Enter in hut or hall,
To the warm fireside give your cheek,
  Or turn it to the snow,
It matters not; the One you seek
  You’ll find where’er you go.

His sandal-sole is on the earth,
  His head is in the sky,
His voice is in the baby’s mirth
  And in the old man’s sigh,
His shadow falls across the sea,
  His breath is in the wind,
His tears with all who grieve left He,
  His heart with all who sinned.

Whether you share the poor man’s mite
  Or taste the King’s own fare,
He whom you go to seek tonight
  Will meet you everywhere;
For He is where the cattle wend,
  And where the planets shine—
Lo, He is in your eyes! Oh friend,
  Stand still and look in mine.

Representation of Christ, extracted from the painting “Christ And The Rich Young Ruler,” by Heinrich Hoffmann (1889)

Merry Christmas.

5 thoughts on “A Christmas Story”

  1. This is beautiful, Eric. Thank you. Your observation: “Our lives may be the only scripture anyone ever reads” is so true. Yesterday, as a Boy Scout Communication Merit Badge counselor, I instructed seven badge-seeking scouts about how everything they do, how they appear and not just what they may say or write is the message they are conveying, whether they know it or not.

    Although we are counseled not to judge, we are also trained to observe and to discriminate among the impressions we receive. May the impressions we’re leaving make our heavenly parents proud. How blessed we are that our Exemplar sets a high standard for our striving to love our neighbors.

    It’s more than a seasonal thought, but what a great Christmas message.

  2. Beautifully said, Richard. I wish I had something add, but you perfectly captured the central point of my essay. And you did it in far fewer words!

  3. A lovely reminder of how we never know what may come from the good we do. Sometimes I like to think that in heaven we will meet people that will relate to us how something we did or said, long forgotten by us, made a positive difference in their lives.

  4. I’ve often had the same thought, Jeff. But I also fear encounters with those who were harmed by something I said or did during my lifetime. I can only hope that forgiveness is an eternal, not just a terrestrial, principle.

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