THE BEST CHRISTMAS CAROL
©1999 Susan Noyes Anderson
Scott’s fingers trembled as he unlaced a pair of well-worn skates. They’d seen better days, and so had the Hansens. Winter came early that year, and it seemed as if the ice on the family’s pond had entered their hearts. It was hard enough before with two brothers away, but Pop scarcely spoke since the telegram came, and Mom’s smile had gone missing too. Scott’s face twisted wryly. Missing in action. Just like Jonathan. Instinctively, he tightened his jaw to regain control, but his brother’s name was too powerful. Jonathan. John Junior. Where was he? There was still no word. Could he be in enemy hands? Or worse? Scott’s mind snapped shut against the thought. John was so alive it was unimaginable to think of him as anything else. Impossible. Scott closed his eyes and squeezed tightly. He fought to hold back the tears. Grief had made him superstitious––If he gave in, John might do the same. And John never gave in. Never.
Unwilling to open his eyes yet, Scott retreated deep inside himself. He focused mind and will with all his might––and suddenly his brother was there again, out on the pond with all the guys, joking and laughing and wearing that ridiculous hat––choosing up teams for relays and crack the whip. Johnny’d always been the smallest one in his bunch, but nobody’d ever spun him out. And not for lack of trying, either. Geez, could he hold on!
Scott’s face lit up at the memory, then went blank as the moment ended––too soon. Was it dinnertime already? Had that old bell always sounded so hollow? The answer twisted inside him. No...it had been full and deep, its ring as rich and welcome as the good food it heralded. Especially on Christmas Eve. In happier years, that bell had been a promise––of roast beef and rice pudding and pumpkin pie....of bayberry candles and mistletoe and popcorn on the tree...of a crackling fire and a big round table set for seven, with every place filled. Now Jonathan was gone...and Seth too, though at least they knew where he was. Reaching for the back door, Scott didn’t even want to go in. How could it be Christmas? The steady advance of days and weeks and months stopped for no one, and it angered him ... frightened him ... defeated him.
A deep breath pushed the door open on a kitchen that smelled exactly as it should have. The air was alive with what Dad liked to call “eau de Christmas.” “We oughta bottle it,” he’d say, and every year they’d laugh at that same, sorry joke. Scott always thought of it as a mercy laugh, but now he understood that it had been pure joy, bubbling out at the least possible excuse. It was also tradition, which is what the Hansen celebration was all about. They knew how to do Christmas right, and they wouldn’t allow anything to change it.
And nothing ever had, until now. In a matter of months everything was changed, but no one wanted to admit it. Maybe they were afraid a full expression of grief would seal Johnny’s fate...that sharing the pain would not only make the loss real, but final. The family tiptoed around each other in a house so heavy with fear and sadness that even the breathing was hard, let alone the speaking. A touch or a brief hug was all anyone could manage. Even the little girls’ giggles and squeals were somehow muted. It was as if the whole household were holding its breath, waiting desperately for good news...only good news.
“Merry Christmas, Scott.” Mom’s voice was soft, but determined. “We’re ready to sit down.”
He smiled and touched her shoulder. “Sure, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
As everyone took their seats, he looked around the table. “Merry Christmas, Dad...girls.” His eye brushed quickly past the two empty seats, but he saw them clearly. “Merry Christmas.”
Dad took Mother’s hand in his right one and stretched his left arm across John Junior’s empty seat. With a sinking heart, Scott reached his right hand across Seth’s place, barely managing to touch his father’s thick, calloused fingers. The rest of the family joined hands as usual. A long moment passed before Dad carefully cleared his throat to say grace. He prayed, as always, for the safety of his two sons, but tonight his voice was trembling, and it broke when he said Amen. No one moved. Scott heard the clock ticking in the background and shivered.
“Let’s eat!” Mom’s voice was too loud, and she quickly adjusted it. “What would you like to start out with?” She’s really trying, noticed Scott, and all at once it felt important to help her. More than important.
“Hey, pass me summa dat beef,” he growled, baring his teeth menacingly. The girls tittered.
“Mashed potatoes for me,” chirped one, “and I want lots of gravy with only a little meat.”
“I’m going to eat dessert first,” insisted the other.
“Not at my table, you won’t,” answered her mother, “but it does smell yummy, doesn’t it? Especially the cinnamon.”
“Eau de Christmas,” Father added gamely. “We oughta...”
“Bottle it,” finished the girls in unison. “It smells so good we oughta bottle it.”
“Oh, I wish we could,” Mother sighed. “I wish we could bottle it... and then send it to all the boys on the front line...and to our boys...to Seth and...”
“To Seth and Johnny,” Father continued, picking up where she left off.
“Yes,” Scott said.
Once again silence prevailed, but this time it was a little warmer, the clock’s ticking a bit friendlier. The family ate slowly, then took their places in the living room. Every face was lit by the fire’s glow, but no one could forget there were two faces missing. They couldn’t stop wondering when and if they’d see them again.
But tradition was tradition. It was Christmas Eve, they were in their usual places, and they would do their usual program. A nod from their mother and the girls began singing Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, followed immediately by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells. They finished with a recital of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The usual level of hilarity was missing, but they did the best they could. Scott wondered absentmindedly if Dad would still take his sisters outside after the closing prayer to look up at the stars for Santa and listen for his sleigh bells. He probably should; they were just little kids.
Now it was time for the religious part. Mother led off with “The First Noel,” and afterward Dad said it was her turn to pray. She went on for a long time, but nobody minded. Then she began reading the nativity poem Grandma had written so long ago. It told the story of Christ’s birth, and Scott had heard it every single year since he was a baby. They all knew it pretty much by heart, but this time it surprised him. Or maybe he surprised himself. Somehow, he heard it differently than he had in other years. He could sense Joseph’s despair at being so far from home and finding no safe place for Mary to rest. He felt her struggle to comfort Joseph, to be brave and strong about a cold, lonely journey in a far and distant land, to trust in God and have faith that her child would be well and whole. He was relieved by the kindness of a stranger who offered what little he could provide...a lowly manger. His heart and mind clung to the words, but then it was over; and his mother fell silent, looking at Scott in a wordless plea. The family gift for writing had been handed down through Seth, and this was the time he usually read something of his own ... something he wanted to share. Remembering suddenly, Scott jumped to his feet.
“Just a minute,” he said, and returned with a letter Seth had sent him in November. “This last part was for all of us. He asked me to read it to everybody on Christmas Eve. I’d forgotten.” (For a moment, no one could speak. It was as if Seth were in the room.) Almost as one, the family let out a sigh of relief as tradition prevailed.
The time had come for Scott to sing. He and Johnny had the best voices in the family. Well, Mom’s was okay too, and the girls did fairly well, but Seth and Dad were hopeless and only did speaking parts. Scott’s song was “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and he was hoping he could get through it. They were doing okay so far, and he didn’t want to be the one that messed things up. He wouldn’t be the one. And so he began, “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay ... for Jesus Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day...” It wasn’t easy, but he did sing it. He sang for himself, and he sang for his brothers. For his whole family, actually. “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy...oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”
Hope filled Scott’s heart. We’re gonna make it, he thought. And, God willing, Seth and Johnny are gonna make it too. Father opened the scriptures to Luke and gave hope substance by reading the history of God’s greatest gift to us:
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Peace. Good will.
Father closed the book and shut his eyes in a silent prayer. Scott knew the rest was up to him. This was where Johnny always stood up and sang “O Holy Night” in his warm, rich tenor. No one could touch his voice, but Mom’s eyes, bright with unshed tears, urged Scott to his feet. He was a baritone, but who said the song couldn’t be sung a couple of octaves lower? This was tradition, and they couldn’t break it. Not now. It was as if his brothers’ safety depended on him...on all of them...on their love and their traditions...on getting through this program any way they could. Scott opened his mouth to sing, but no sound came out. His mother’s hand flew to her heart; and the girls, for once, were completely still. Father had risen to his feet. He who never sang, who adamantly refused to sing, was standing ready to sing John Junior’s song. Confused, Scott sat down. How on earth was Father going to sing “O Holy Night”? Did he even know the words? Would he be able to get the job done?
Dad’s husky voice broke through Scott’s concerns. “You’re expecting to hear ‘O Holy Night,’ and if Johnny were here, he’d be singing it for us. That’s our tradition, and tradition means a lot to the Hansens. Maybe it’ll come to mean even more, because loss and longing are powerful teachers. Having Seth and Johnny so far away can teach us something valuable, but we must be willing to learn. I bear testimony as your father that families are eternal, and I pray this night and others like it will help us remember that tradition is more than the games we play or the foods we eat. It’s more than the jokes we tell, or the stories we read, or even the songs we sing. Traditions like these do bring us together, but it’s a much more important tradition that holds us together...What holds us together is a tradition of belief...Belief in ourselves as sons and daughters of God, belief in each other as members of an eternal family, and belief that we have a Father in Heaven who loves us, and that our Elder Brother and Savior is His Son, Jesus Christ. Our family is forever, and what will keep us together is actively using His atoning sacrifice to draw closer to Him and become His.
“It truly was a Holy night when He was born, but singing that beautiful song or any other will not keep our loved ones safe, not in this world and not in the next. Tonight we need to do more than rejoice in His birth; we need to remember what it means. We need to covenant that we will always remember. That’s where our safety lies.”
Scott had never felt the Spirit more strongly, but when his father started singing, the truth seemed to burn in his heart:
“I know that my Redeemer lives; what comfort this sweet sentence gives. He lives, He lives who once was dead. He lives, my ever-living head.” Scott had heard his Father sing before, but never like this. His voice hadn’t changed, but something else had. Something in Scott.
“He lives and grants me daily breath. He lives, and I shall conquer death. He lives my mansion to prepare. He lives to bring me safely there.”
At last, Scott was able to put Johnny and Seth where they had always belonged, in the Lord’s hands. And the Lord did bring Seth and John Junior safely home, Seth to his earthly abode and John Junior to his heavenly one. Despite their grief, or perhaps because of it, the Hansens never lost sight of the truth they learned that sad and splendid Christmas Eve, for it was a simple and eternal one. No matter where they were, no matter how far apart they might be, no power could ever truly separate them, for they were of one heart and one mind. They were, as Paul promised the Galatians, “all one in Christ Jesus,” and would always be together, in this life and for eternity. They were a family, and nothing could ever change that.
As for tradition, “O Holy Night” took back its place of honor in the Christmas Eve celebration. Everyone wanted it that way, and so that’s how it was. Seth often spoke about the power of that simple Christmas program, and how a lonely winter night in war-weary France turned warm and peaceful at the memory of home and family, Grandma’s poem, and––yes––even Scott’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” But it was remembering Johnny singing “O Holy Night” that brought and would always bring the Spirit of Christmas to his heart. And so, in this way and countless others, John Junior’s presence continued to be felt; and in sacred moments family members whispered that they often heard his tenor mingling with Scott’s baritone on the chorus. Scott joyfully affirmed that this was true.
Afterwards, of course, Dad would conclude the festivities by singing what eventually became the Hansen’s favorite Christmas carol, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” And Johnny lives...and all the Johnnys.
And a very merry Christmas to every one of you.