It was almost Christmas—just one more day to go. The tree was up, lights were strung around the front window, and a couple of chickens had been purchased for Christmas dinner. (Not the usual fare, but it would do.)
The traditional Christmas family home evening went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. And the ward Christmas party had left the children happy. The gifts that would be exchanged this year were under the tree—all but one, that is.
That gift lay unwrapped in the top drawer of the dresser in Bonnie’s bedroom. It was to have been such a fine surprise. All summer the children had secretly tucked away money that they had earned. Bonnie had spent hours ironing; Stan, Dick, and Elwood had washed windows in the neighborhood; and even little Dennis had fed the bishop’s dog while its owners were on vacation. On Sundays the children had met in Bonnie’s bedroom to count the pennies, nickels, and dimes that were slowly filling the jar, and Dick would tell them how much was still needed for the special gift.
Finally, the day had come to make the purchase—a wristwatch for Dad. No more would he need to finger in his vest for the old pocket watch. Now he could tell time like the other men at church, who only had to glance at their wrists. All the children had walked to the store that day to see the watch, beautiful and shiny in its new case.
The final touch was an inscription on the back. “Let’s just put ‘To Dad, from your children,’ since that’s all the money we have for the printing,” said the oldest brother. And that satisfied all of them.
But that thrilling, exciting day when the Peterson children had bought the watch for Dad now stung their hearts with its memory. Dad had died of a sudden illness on November 2. Despite her own grief, Mom had tried hard to keep the Christmas traditions and see that the things the children looked forward to were still done. The tree had been placed in its customary spot. The Christmas cookie baking had been finished the Saturday before. But the things Dad usually did were left undone: the cards from friends and relatives were not clipped to strings in the shape of a tree on the back of the living room door, and no one had wound the string of lights on the porch railing.
The afternoon shadows were starting to appear that Christmas Eve when a light tap came at the door. Stan answered the door. The boy who stood there must have been about his age. Stan had never seen the boy before. His clothes were unkempt, and his coat seemed very light for a chilly winter day. The boy held out a waxed paper bag that contained a few pieces of homemade chocolate candy. “I’m selling candy. It’s only 25 cents a bag. Will you buy some?”
Stan asked the boy to wait while he went to the kitchen and asked Mom if she would be interested in buying a bag of candy. Sister Peterson peeked around the kitchen door and saw the little boy standing patiently in the doorway. She got her purse from the cupboard and looked first among her change; then, putting the quarter back, she took a dollar from her wallet and gave it to her son. “Tell him he can keep the change, Stan,” she said.
The little boy’s eyes lit up with surprise and delight at the sight of the dollar. He thanked Stan several times, turned, and headed down the street. Stan took the little bag of candy to the kitchen. His mother watched the boy out the window, then turned to her son and said, “Stan, go out and call that boy back. I want to talk to him.”
Stan found the boy a few doors down the block. As he approached, the little boy looked scared. And when Stan told him to come back to the house, the boy seemed crestfallen. Undoubtedly he thought they wanted their money back.
Sister Peterson sat on the couch across from the boy and started to ask him questions. Where did he live? Well, right now he and his family were “kinda camping under the overpass just outside of town.” Where did they come from? “Arkansas.” His dad was to get a job at the airbase here, but when they arrived, Dad was sick, and the job was given to someone else. Did they have any place to go? No, not until his dad got a job and they could find something to rent. Where did he get the candy? His mother had made it over a campfire, and the children were trying to sell it to buy food.
Sister Peterson was overcome with compassion. She began to form a plan. “Go and get your mother,” she said, “and bring her here.”
Later that afternoon, the boy returned with his mother. Sister Peterson greeted them warmly, and began to ask more about the family and their situation. There were five children, about the same ages as her own. The father was still too sick with pneumonia to find work. The children weren’t going to school. The family had been living on half-rotten potatoes they had found in the rubbish behind a market.
“Come stay with us,” Sister Peterson pleaded, “at least over Christmas.” The mother sadly but firmly refused the offer. After much coaxing, however, she consented at least to come the next day for Christmas dinner.
After the mother and little boy left, the Petersons went into action. First, Elwood was sent to the store for two more chickens and a few more carrots; Bonnie scurried to the kitchen to start another Christmas pudding; Dennis was assigned the job of stringing the Christmas cards in the shape of a tree on the back of the living room door; and Stan was set to work winding the lights around the railing of the porch. Sister Peterson hurried out to the local five-and-dime store. Soon she was back with a bag under her arm.
That evening everyone gathered in the living room, and one by one many of the presents under the tree were given new tags—names of the children who were to be their Christmas guests. The few gifts Sister Peterson had purchased that afternoon were wrapped and tagged and placed under the tree. Far into the night the family bustled about, trying to get everything completed by the following morning,
It was hard to sleep that night at the Peterson home. Had any Christmas before been as exciting as this one? Was any family in all of Sacramento feeling the spirit of Christmas as they were? “I think this must be the kind of Christmas Dad would want us to have. I’ll bet he is happy, too,” thought Stan.
The next day proved to be everything they had hoped it would be. Stan’s heart filled with pride when he saw his mother, who thought no one else was watching, give the mother of the family one hundred dollars. (It was at least 20 percent of Dad’s insurance money.) Yes, this was probably their most exciting Christmas.
What, Stan wondered as he matured and started his own family, could they do to bring this special spirit into their lives every Christmas? The answer was easy. That’s why Stan Peterson of Bountiful, Utah, and his wife and children provide Christmas for a needy family each year. They don’t usually find one like the family who was “kinda camping under an overpass just outside of town,” but they find one. And when Stan thinks of how that little family was able to find an old house to rent with the money Mom had given them, and how the father found employment (and eventually was able to buy a small farm near Sacramento), he feels the special Christmas spirit that comes with caring, and loving, and sharing.
Sometimes, too, he remembers that one gift, unwrapped, lying in that top drawer. In Stan’s memory, it lies there still, untouched. For the greater gift had been given. And the greater had been accepted.