By Muyiwa Adetiba
A very moving Christmas story came my way via WhatsApp this week. It was the story of an old man who couldn’t find a reason to celebrate Christmas since his wife died. He didn’t hate Christmas. Just was indifferent. In his mind, Christmas is supposed to be celebrated with loved ones and since his loved one had died, that was it. So as usual, this Christmas eve found him in his small office at his gas station.
For companionship, he had a flask of hot soup which he made himself and some beverages. He had barely settled in when he heard a hesitant knock on his door. In came a ragged looking man who was obviously seeking an escape from the cold outside.
George, the old man, instantly welcomed his strange visitor to a seat and offered him food and warmth with the hot soup and some coffee. He had barely settled this stranger when he heard a car being pushed into his gas station.
Outside was a broken down car, a woman with child and a man desperately in need of help to get his expectant wife to the hospital. George realised the car could not be fixed quickly and offered his own car to the man so he could get to the hospital in time.
He had just gotten to his office when he heard a gunshot nearby. He got out to find a half open door of a police vehicle and a policeman by it bleeding. He attended to him, found that the wound was not as bad as it first looked, and brought him to his office. The policeman, grateful that he had not been left to die in the cold, was about to warn George that the shooter could still be around when the door was pushed open by a young man with a gun.
He pointed it at George and demanded money. But his hand was shaking. George offered him all he had on him while gently prising the gun from his hand. The young man started sobbing. In between sobs, he explained his predicament and his desperation.
He had lost his job, his rent was due and his car got just dispossessed the previous week. It was Christmas and there were no presents and no food for his young family. He just could not face them that night with out anything. George instantly offered him a job at the gas station, went to a corner to rummage inside a box and came back with a piece of jewellery. It was one of his wife’s favourite jewelleries that he had kept in memory of her.
Well, he reasoned that the man now needed it more than him and in any case, he would always have his wife’s memory. It was an incredulous, but deliriously happy young man that left him. Soon, a police vehicle came to take the policeman to the hospital. It was also, a deeply grateful policeman that left him.
He became aware once again, of the presence of the stranger who now asked him why he never celebrated Christmas. George shrugged and replied that baking cookies hadn’t been the same since his wife died and putting up a tree seemed a waste of good pine tree. The stranger put a hand on George’s shoulder and said: ‘But you do celebrate Christmas. I came in cold and hungry and you gave me hot food and drink to warm me.
The woman with child you helped to the hospital will bear a son who will become a famous doctor who will save lives. The policeman will save 19 people from the hands of terrorists. That young man you gave back his dignity will work for you diligently and will make you rich. That is the spirit of Christmas and you keep it as good as any.’George was about to ask how the stranger knew all that when he saw him moved towards the door. George watched as the ragged jacket and torn pants the man was wearing turned white. A golden light began to fill the room….
Christmas is just three days away. The air is drier and colder. The sky is white with haze. The streets are wearing their seasonal lights. Homes are getting cleaned out and decorated. Offices are shutting down for the year. Shops are busy. Traffic is heavy. The air is expectant. It is a season of advent. The coming of Christ. The churches tell us it is a joyous season. Society tells us to celebrate this joy. So we plan parties. We plan excursions, movies the lot. We exchange gifts either out of love or out of obligation. A season of love slowly becomes a season of commerce. The few who make money are happy.
But not the many who don’t; especially the many who feel obliged by the season to spend but can’t. For them it is a season of debt; especially since it is also a season of school fees. The conviviality of the season, the sharing of gifts and presence only make sense to those who have people to share them with. Otherwise the season only heightens their loneliness.
For those who found or solemnised their love during a past Christmas, for those who found new, great jobs or new meaning to life, the season serves as an anniversary of good things. But the reverse can also be the case for those who lost love, jobs or loved onesduring previous Christmases. I know a fine lady who always feels low at the approach of Christmas since she and her husband divorced.
Although she has since moved on in many other ways, Christmas reminds her of what she once had; of children coming from school, of the family plans and outings – and, I am sure, of love.
What the story of George the old man says is not so much a story of love as of empathy. In one night, he saved at least four lives literally and figuratively just by being there. People get robbed at Christmas. People fall sick. Houses get burnt. Catastrophes happen. People need help to get to the next bus stop, or just through the night.
That is life and life happens. Even at Christmas. To celebrate Christmas properly is to show empathy, to feel the pain of those around us. Like the words of the Bill Withers song ‘We all need somebody to lean on.’ Be that shoulder. Celebrate Christmas unusual by celebrating humanity through empathy and care.
Then that stranger can say to you as he said to George: ‘This is the spirit of Christmas and you keep it as good as anyone.’