It was the night before, and Susan was now certain that no one from her family was going to show up to spend Christmas at her home. They'd promised before and she should have known better than to listen to their lies, but this year was different. This was the first year any of them had spent Christmas without Mark. And it wasn't going to be easy.
Susan lived in a small town outside of Seattle, with her two boys Liam and Alec, and her daughter Kate. She and Mark had been married for seven years before they started their little family. It was a family they were both so eager for and so very proud of as, one by one they filled all the bedrooms in their home. Their home was where Susan felt she belonged, and so she had stayed at home to mother, home-school the kids, and be a wife to Mark when he came home from work at the end of his long hard days.
That was back when Mark was still coming home after work. At first Susan accepted that he had to work long hours. After all, that's how they afforded for her to stay home. However little things started cropping up that Susan regarded as suspicious-phone calls late at night, hushed whispers on the phone when she entered a room-it was more than she could take simply beating around the bush, or pretending not to see what was happening right before her eyes. Finally she confronted him.
"Are you having an affair?" she asked Mark boldly one sunny fall day.
Without so much as a cringe of his facial expression he simply answered, "Yes, I am."
Two days later he moved out, leaving Susan on her own with no paying job, and a house and three children to fend for. Her family had always been distant. Susan had disappointed them many years ago by not becoming a doctor or lawyer like the many long lines of Kendall's before her. She had chosen instead to become a school teacher, and while she truly loved her job, she was far happier homeschooling their children than she was when she taught at Berkshire Elementary School.
When Mark left, she had managed to find a job substituting at the school. She hated putting the kids back into public school, but she had no other alternative. They were bored. As homeschooled students they were all miles ahead of where the students in their new classes were.
Money had become so tight that Susan had swallowed her pride and accepted the box of food and gifts that the local social services agency had offered. She wasn't sure who had alerted them to her situation, but she assumed it must have been someone at school.
And so now on Christmas Eve she had wrapped the few gifts that came in the box -- a fashion doll for Kate, with a compact mirror and powder just like the one the doll was holding, a basketball and basketball socks for Liam, and an art set and large pad of drawing paper for Alec. It was obvious that whoever had chosen these gifts knew something about their little family. Liam had been playing basketball since he could walk, and just recently had patched the last possible hole in his old one, only to watch it deflate within a half hour. Alec loved to draw and paint, and was quite good at it, too. And Kate loved her dolls, but had informed her mother this year that it had to be a fashion doll.
"I'm too old for baby dolls," she had told her mother indignantly.
Susan had smiled, as she remembered how she'd played with her baby dolls until she was almost twelve. At eight Kate was far more mature. It saddened Susan to think that their dad's leaving had made all of them grow up in a hurry.
At least there would be a delicious meal for Christmas dinner. A twenty-pound turkey was thawing in the refrigerator. A few more hours and it could be stuffed. The fresh vegetables would last them the entire week.
Someone had baked a pumpkin pie, too. And an extra box containing loads of kitchen staples was included, too. Susan was amazed as she pulled out peanut butter, jelly, coffee, cans of tuna fish and soup, and toiletries like soap, shampoo, and toothpaste. Someone knew just how difficult things had been, and they had made sure it was just a bit easier at Christmas time.
"Bless their hearts," Susan said out loud, as she put the generous donations away.
This evening was going to be a difficult one. Susan could feel it already. She put on some Christmas carols, and lit a fire in the small wood stove. Thank God she had had the good insight to have the stove installed last winter. It would cost her far less to heat the house with the stove than it would if she had to buy oil for the winter. Plus it was cozy. Nothing warmed the room-and the heart-like a warm crackling fire. It would help to make the atmosphere a little more festive tonight, too.
The tea kettle jerked Susan out of her daze. She had put it on the stove for hot chocolate. She thought she'd give the children each a large candy cane tonight, and they could stir their hot chocolate with it. Susan remembered doing that at her grandmother's house when she was just a little girl. She loved spending time there, as Grandma had been the only person in the whole world who loved Susan just for being Susan. She didn't have to pretend to be someone else, or better or smarter than anyone else -- Grandma just loved you the way you were. But Grandma had died when Susan was seventeen, and her own children never got the privilege of meeting her.
Setting the steaming mugs of hot chocolate on the kitchen table, Susan called the children from their rooms.
They eagerly sat down and began stirring the candy canes into the rich dark chocolate. Susan had fixed them crackers with peanut butter, and they were on a festive decorative platter than had been her grandmother's. She still cherished so many treasures that had belonged to her. And she had made her seem real to her children by constantly telling them stories and sharing recipes of things they'd made together.
"What time do you think Santa will come?" Alec asked.
"Not until he knows that everyone in the entire house is sound asleep," Susan warned.
"Aren't Aunt Emily and Uncle Jake coming?" Kate asked, her voice and face still hopeful.
"I don't think so, Honey. If they were coming, they certainly would have been here by now."
Disappointed looks on the faces of all three of her children nearly drew the breath right out of Susan. She was tired and disappointed herself, but had tried so hard to put up a good front for the kids. Now sensing their disappointment was almost too much to bear. She took her mug and walked into the living room while the children finished their snack. The sparsely decorated tree with only a very few presents underneath made her sink to her knees on the rug and weep.
"Please, God," she prayed silently. "Please let this be a happy Christmas for my children. They deserve so much more than this past year has brought them. And I'm trying so hard to fill all of their needs. I just don't think it's working."
Slowly getting up and sitting on the couch, Susan picked up the morning newspaper she'd barely had time to glance at. There, as if in a direct answer to her prayer, was the answer she'd been looking for.
"The Church of the Good Shepherd, Christmas Eve Services at 7:00 and Midnight."
How she'd always loved attending church with her grandmother. And especially on Christmas Eve! It had often been the highlight of her entire holiday season! Yet sadly, she'd never even brought her own children to church. They hadn't been baptized either. Mark had said it was all nonsense -- just foolishness to keep people coming back week after week and giving away their hard-earned money. Susan had never believed him, yet had given in to his wishes.
Now she knew exactly what is was that they would do.
"Alec, Liam, Kate?" she called to the kids in the kitchen. "Tidy your rooms up. I'm coming up to find some nice clothes for you to put on. We're going someplace very special!"
"Where?" they cried in unison.
"You have to wait and see," she said with an air of wonder on her face and in her voice.
"But Mom, it's so late!" Liam exclaimed.
"Yes, it is," she replied. "And that is part of the magic of Christmas."
Before long Susan had found enough decent clothing to bring the kids to church looking dressed for the holidays. Kate wore a red corduroy jumper a neighbor's daughter had outgrown and handed down to Kate. A white turtleneck and a red bow in her hair made her look like she was ready for a Christmas portrait.
Liam and Alec wore dark colored pants. They, too, had white shirts, and Susan spent twenty minutes cutting and hemming two of their father's old neckties to fit them. They looked very grown up in the shirts and ties. Susan was so proud of all of them.
Thankfully Susan hadn't gained or lost much weight while she had been homeschooling the children. Her wardrobe of clothing she wore while teaching still fit her perfectly. She chose a black velvet skirt and a bright red sweater. What a picture their little family would make!
Ushering the kids into the cold car at 11:30, they left for their fifteen-minute drive to church. Still eagerly anticipating their destination, they asked their mother questions constantly. Yet Susan's resolve wouldn't allow her to divulge the secret.
As they pulled into the parking lot of the church, its bright lights and illuminated manger scene were instant attractions to the children.
"Wow," Alec said. "Check out those lights!"
"Who are the people, Mommy? And why are they out in the cold?" Kate asked.
"They're very special people," Susan explained. "We're going inside and you will hear their story."
Slipping quietly into the church, they chose a pew near the back of the Sanctuary. An usher had handed Susan and the children bulletins, so they could follow along and see where the preacher was reading and what songs the congregation would sing.
"I know these songs," the children cried.
"Of course you do," Susan answered. "I'll bet you didn't know they were church songs, though."
They joined the congregation in singing "O Come All Ye Faithful". The organ music and voices reached the high ceiling in the church. It was a wondrous sound, and Susan recalled the feeling of sheer joy she used to experience when she and her grandmother attended this very church. It had been the most important part of Christmas to both of them. The joining of hearts and voices for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ was a powerful and overwhelming feeling that had often brought tears to her eyes.
The children sat mesmerized as the pastor began reading the story of Mary and Joseph from the Bible.
"And the angel said unto her, "Fear not, Mary. For thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shall carry in your womb and bring forth a son, and he shall be called Jesus."
Susan smiled as she watched the intent faces of her children.
"And she brought forth her newborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
And the angels of the Lord appeared to the shepherds tending their flocks and said, "Fear not: for 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."
"Mommy, is this really true?" Kate whispered.
Susan nodded silently, and continued listening to the pastor read.
When the story was finished and the choir joined the congregation in singing "Joy to the World", Susan felt the first true joy she had felt inside her heart in a very long time. She wanted desperately for her children to know this same joy-the joy she knew so well when Grandma was alive and attending church was commonplace, and not reserved for special occasions.
As the congregation filed out of the church, the pastor approached Susan and her children. He was a young pastor, not at all like Pastor Martin who used to preach when Susan was small.
"Merry Christmas," he greeted them. "I haven't seen you here before. Are you new to the community?"
"No, pastor. In fact I came to church here when I was just a little girl," she said.
"I'm Don Marden, and you're?"
"I'm sorry, pastor, I've forgotten my manners. My name is Susan Kendall, and these are my children Alec, Liam, and Kate. Say hello, children."
"Hello," they replied in obligatory unison.
The pastor sensed something about this little family, but couldn't exactly put his finger on what it was. On a hunch he made an invitation.
"Several of the church members are gathering downstairs in the church hall for Christmas cookies and more carols. Why don't you come, too?"
"What do you think?" Susan asked the kids.
Nods of agreement made the decision for her, and they followed the pastor down a steep flight of stairs. The church hall was decorated in bright Christmas colors. A tree in the center of the room had to have been ten feet high. The Sunday School children had decorated it with handmade ornaments. The smell of the tree and the cookies baking made for a very pleasant scene, one that was far removed from the little house they'd left less than two hours before.
Susan and the children were welcomed by many members of the congregation. They all seemed so eager to invite them to sit down. Someone filled mugs of hot cider and passed plates of cookies. They were delicious, and the mulled cider warmed them. They were introduced to many people by the pastor, and introduced themselves to many more. When they finally noticed that only about a dozen people were left, they decided it was best to go home.
Entering the kitchen, they asked a lady washing dishes where the pastor had gone. They wanted to wish him a Merry Christmas and thank him for including them in their celebration. It had been a wonderful evening for the children. Susan remembered so many evenings like this one when she and Grandma had walked to church, and after the services they entertained and joined in the merriment downstairs in the church hall. The evening had confirmed to Susan what she had felt true for so long -- that her children needed and deserved to grow up with the love and care of an extended church family. She knew what she had to do.
Disappointed that they couldn't find Pastor Marden before they left, they thanked everyone else around them for the lovely time, put on their coats, hats, and mittens, and headed outside to their car. A light snow was falling and the moon was bright.
"What a beautiful night!" Susan exclaimed to no one in particular.
"It was beautiful in there," Kate said, pointing to the church. "Can we go again sometime?"
"Yes, in fact I think we might just make a habit of it."
The four rode home in silence. The wonder of Christmas with a new meaning had struck the children, and they were buried deep inside their own thoughts.
Returning home a few minutes later, Susan had to carry Kate into the house. She had fallen asleep almost as soon as the car began moving. Alec unlocked the door for his mother and Liam turned the lights on inside. Running up the stairs ahead of Susan, the boys turned down Kate's bed.
"Goodnight, Sweetheart," Susan said as she planted a kiss on Kate's forehead.
Returning back downstairs, the boys asked their mother if they could go outside on the front porch and watch the snow fall.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked. "You know that Santa won't come when we're still awake."
"Oh, come on, Mom. You don't think we really believe that stuff do you? We just go along with it for Kate's sake."
Overwhelmed with the sweet gesture her boys had made, Susan allowed them out on the porch to enjoy their Christmas Eve. Putting the kettle on the stove, she decided a cup of tea before bed would hit the spot.
"Mom, come out here -- quickly!"
Fearing it was alarm she heard in Alec's voice, she dropped the box of tea bags and ran out the front door.
There in the far right hand corner of the front porch was a red velvet sack. It was decorated with a green velvet bow and was bulging from the inside.
"Where did it come from?" Susan asked.
"I swear, Mom, we don't know," Liam answered for both boys. "We just came out here and went to that side of the porch to scoop up some snow. That's when we found it."
"Let's bring it inside!" Alec exclaimed.
The boys dragged the heavy sack into the kitchen, and began emptying its contents onto the kitchen table and floor. There were a dozen or more wrapped gifts, and some apples, oranges, and a large bowls of nuts. A handsome nutcracker was tucked in a drawstring cloth bag.
"Just like the one in the ballet Kate loves so much!" Liam exclaimed.
"These presents have our names on them, Mom!" Alec cried.
And indeed they did. There were twelve packages-three addressed "To Kate, From Santa, three "To Liam, From Santa", three "To Alec from Santa", and even three for Susan, too.
At the bottom of the sack was a book. Large and heavy, it took both boys to pull it from the bottom of the bag to the kitchen table.
"A Bible," Susan said in amazement.
"What's a Bible?" the boys asked.
"It's God's Word," Susan explained. "It includes the story of Christmas that we heard in church tonight."
And suddenly Susan thought she knew. The pastor at the church must have run out and delivered these presents while she and the children were enjoying everyone's company downstairs. That's why he hadn't been there to say goodbye.
But how did he know their needs?
That didn't require an answer, though. Susan remembered something her grandmother had told her many, many years ago, and she recalled the prayer she had said earlier in the evening.
"Ask and you shall receive."
Their Christmas blessings that year were far more abundant than the mysterious gifts on the front porch -- so very much more.