It's snowing this afternoon. According to the forecasters we weren't supposed to have any snow on Christmas Eve but the puffy, white flakes that have been falling since morning have proven them wrong and it looks like we'll have a white Christmas after all. A snowplow makes its way through the center of town blowing huge white piles onto the side of the street. I pull out onto the road and drive in front of it, waving at the driver as I pass. I glance in my rearview mirror and see that two-year-old Mia is happy as she bounces a small Elmo doll up and down on the car seat. I turn up the radio and listen as Mel Torme singsThe Christmas Song. Mia is squealing at Elmo. She has no idea what tomorrow is but she'll find out soon enough when her mom and dad take her out of her crib and show her the tree that will be swimming with gifts for her and her sister. I smile and turn the radio up louder. I drive through the town square and slow down as I pass three beautiful fir trees decorated with enormous green, red, and gold ornaments and magenta ribbon. Large, dazzling stars are perched on the top of the trees and they glitter in the sun. For as long as I can remember Norma Holt has decorated the trees. It started when she was a young woman in her twenties. She just took it upon herself to dress the trees each year when Christmas rolled around. That was long before there were formal city council meetings so no one opposed someone decorating city property. Somehow, over the years, no one ever objected as Norma worked her magic on the southwest corner of the city square. I never actually spoke with Norma, few people did. She was reclusive and chose to do her work alone but I would always pass, honk the horn and she'd look up and wave. When Norma began her work it always seemed that the Christmas season had finally begun.
When I was a child it felt as if it took years for Christmas to arrive. The last few weeks would crawl by as I awaited the time to decorate the tree, bake cookies with my mom and write out a detailed list for Santa. When the tree finally went up inside our family room and the lights on the outside of the house were hung I could barely contain the anticipation swelling inside me. Christmas was almost here! It was during those two to three weeks before Christmas that my brother Richard and I would draw a line in the sand and put all grievances aside. We couldn't run the risk of being found on Santa's naughty list. There were just too many gifts at stake. It seemed our home pulsed with happiness and joy during the time leading up to Christmas and I never wanted those feelings to end. No one could have told me then that those feelings would diminish as I got older or that Christmas would come around again in the blink of an eye or that I'd say things like, "it sure doesn't feel like Christmas this year." Somehow I got old and the wonder was lost.
I turn off the radio so I can hear Mia sing. She's attempting Jingle Bells but with the exception of "jingle" and "bells" I can't make out any other words. Her performance takes on a burlesque dimension as she grabs hold of her foot, raises her tiny leg and belts out another chorus. "Where we going?" Mia asks when she catches me looking at her. She attempts to rise up out of the car seat to get a better look at where I'm driving. Mia has been in two foster homes in the past year. I don't know how many times I've heard little voices ask me questions from that backseat in my 17 years as a social worker. How many times did I drop a child off at a foster family's home a few days before Christmas because his mother was arrested or put back into rehab? How many times have I taken a child back to his biological parent because his father met the goal set by the state and found a job and a place to live or his mother has a clean bill of health from the substance abuse program she'd been in for the last four months? I've traveled these roads many times with tiny passengers just like Mia in my back seat asking where we were going.
I drive beneath a banner stretched across the street that reads, "Peace on Earth." There was a time, not so long ago that I could not imagine peace in my heart, let alone on earth. My joy was gone, happiness was a memory and there was no reason to celebrate Christmas because there was no hope. At least that's what I thought. It wasn't always that way. Despite what happened I had a happy childhood.
I was seven years old and my brother Richard was four when my father left. I saw hope drain from my mother. She was left with two small children and nowhere to live and no way to support them. I'd see her hunched over past-due bills on the kitchen table and tears would fill her eyes. There was no way to pay them. If there was a God it seemed He wasn't aware of my mother or her circumstances. "We'll just keep the faith," she'd tell me, repeating words she'd heard once in an old movie. But my problem was I didn't know what faith was so I had no idea how to keep something I didn't know about in the first place.
During that Christmas after my father left, my mother took Richard and I to church and we sat on the back row. "Hope came down dressed as a child," the minister said. "That Hope is the greatest gift the world has ever known." I stood in my seat trying to see the child in the manger. How could a child come dressed as hope? "This child taught us how to love and forgive." I strained to see the squirming baby. How in the world could a child teach anybody how to love and forgive? "God can use anybody or anything," the minister said. "Don't ever underestimate who or what he'll use to get something done. But the choice to believe that is always yours to make." I didn't understand what he meant about choosing to believe at the time but I would eventually and so would my own child. Years later, however, after my son was grown I would no longer believe. It was too painful. So I walked away.
For some reason I had always assumed that when God wanted our attention that He would do something big that would rouse us from our sleep to bring us back to Him but I was wrong. God is always speaking. We are the ones who are hard of hearing. God is always patient, waiting for us to believe. We are the impatient ones, demanding to be convinced. We want something real, something we can touch and see to help us believe. The mountains, oceans and skies aren't enough. Our babies who smile and laugh and reach for us aren't enough. We need more. And we have it, all around us, every day. If we would just take the time to listen and see we would walk toward God and believe or at least some of us will. Some like me.
Although this is my story, it may be similar to yours. I still haven't filled in all the gaps. Perhaps I never will. But I have met many people along the way who have helped me put the pieces together; people who helped me to believe and hope again. At one time I said there was no hope but now I know that Hope is alive.
It just took me a few years to believe that.
Excerpted from THE CHRISTMAS HOPE © Copyright 2011 by Donna VanLiere. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.