Christmas magic happens different ways for different people in different times. Take Port Washington, NY, 1931, the beginning of the worst two years of the Great Depression. Typical was Jacob Mertz (everybody called him Jake) who by nature was a confirmed optimist. Unfortunately, optimism was not enough to take care of his wife, Rose, and their somewhat precocious six-year-old daughter, Hope.
It was Christmas Eve. After dinner, Rose and Jake repeated their nightly after dinner routine: she washed the dishes; he dried. Just as they were putting dishes away, Hope pranced into the room. She had a broad smile just like Jake’s; the kind that makes you want to smile back. There were hugs all around and Hope was off to bed without the usual delaying tactics. It was as though she couldn’t wait to go to bed or her mind was somewhere else.
Jake looked after her quizzically. “She usually asks me to read her The Night Before Christmas before going to bed,” he whispered. Then he turned his attention to Rose. She looked worried, but said nothing. Jake, in an effort to cheer up his wife, pulled out the Tribune’s story from the breast pocket of his well-worn shirt, and announced with mocked seriousness, “Rose, don’t you worry. Everything is going to be okay.”
“How can you say that, Jake,” Rose said imploringly. “Here it is again, one more Christmas Eve and we don’t have money to buy even one decent present for our daughter because every cent we have must go for food and anything else we need to stay alive. Yesterday, Hope told me that she didn’t expect Santa Claus again this year because we had moved so much he couldn’t find her anymore. Jake, she even asked me if she had been a bad girl.”
“All I know, Rose, is that it’s always lousy to be broke, but it’s worse to be broke at Christmas time,” Jake said.
“Amen,” Rose said, taking his hand. “Now let’s go to bed and pray to the Almighty for a small miracle.” With that, they climbed the stairs and went into their bedroom, closing the door behind them.
Very early Christmas morning—even before the birds were up—Hope quietly got out of bed and listened outside her parents’ bedroom door to make certain they were asleep. Satisfied they were, Hope returned to her room, picked up a discarded, now loaded, potato sack that held her old toys. Pulling the bag ever so quietly behind her, she went downstairs a step at a time. After she had done what she planned to do, Hope crept up the stairs, tiptoed to her room and climbed into bed.
When the morning had clearly arrived, Hope listened intently at her parents’ bedroom door. When they were about to come downstairs, she hurried down the stairs as fast as she could, holding on to the banister as she went. She got to the living room just as Rose and Jake were at the top of the stairs and on their way down. Pointing at the toys lined up on both sides of the unused fireplace, Hope screamed excitedly, “Oh, Mommy, Daddy, look what Santa brought me! He found me! He really found me! I knew he would.”
Rose and Jake, in pajamas and bathrobes that had seen better days, looked at each other quizzically—both thinking the same thing. Finally, Jake asked his wife, “Those are her old toys, aren’t they? But they look new.” Rose agreed, “I remember when we bought them, in better times. So how could they…”
Jake interrupted her, “Look like new? Can’t be…nah.”
Hope ran from her toys to an end table that was bare, except for a few crumbs and an empty glass that once held milk. “We forgot to leave a glass of milk and some cookies for Santa,” Hope said, “so I came downstairs and filled a glass with milk and put it there”. Then, sheepishly, she added, “We didn’t have any cookies, so I left some saltines. I hope that’s okay.”
Not knowing what else to say, Jake, still puzzled but smiling warmly and, with a slight stutter, said “Ye…ye…yes, that’s wonderful.” Then, bending down with his arms outstretched, Jake said, “Now how about a big Christmas hug for your daddy?” Without hesitation, Hope ran to Jake, and safely in his arms, gave one of those come-and-join-us waives to Rose, saying, “Let’s make this a family hug.”
Said Hope with a big smile, “Isn’t it wonderful! Now Santa knows where to find me next Christmas.” For around the next few moments, no one said a word. They were too busy enjoying the family hug.
You know, when you think about it, everyone needs a little hope.