I can’t tell if it feels like Christmas or not, Gwen pondered as she crunched her way home from school through the snow-blanketed city park. It seems so different from other years.
Her younger brother Peter walked silently at her side. The playground equipment was covered with snow. It was still and quiet away from the city sounds. The two children slowed their steps; it was a good place for thinking.
Peter stopped walking and said softly, “It feels different this year, doesn’t it? It isn’t an unhappy feeling or anything, just different.“
“Yes,” Gwen agreed. “I’ve been thinking the same thing. You know, it makes me feel kind of important that we’re doing something worthwhile.”
They were remembering the unusual family meeting their father had organized the day after Thanksgiving. At the beginning of the meeting they all sang “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.” After the opening prayer Dad said, “Children, I want you to tell me what it means to be faithful and what it means to adore Christ, the Lord.”
Peter said he thought that faithful meant to do the right things.
“Yes, Peter,” Dad agreed. “That’s part of it. When we’re faithful, it means we can be trusted to keep our promises and to do our duty.”
“And when you adore Jesus, you love Him,” offered Gwen.
“That’s right, Gwen. It also means that we honor Him.” Then Dad added, “This Christmas I want our family to be among the faithful ones who really come to adore our Savior.”
From behind his chair, Dad pulled out a sheet of white poster board with the outline of a large green Christmas tree drawn on it. There were no lights or ornaments or icicles, just the tree.
“Our prophet,” Dad explained, “has told us to store a year’s supply of food and necessities. Your mother and I feel that it would be wise to spend up to 50 percent of the money we ordinarily spend for Christmas on our year’s supply.”
“What’s percent, Dad?” asked six-year-old Ted.
“I know what percent means,” Gwen said eagerly. “May I tell him?” Dad nodded.
“It means that out of every dollar we have saved for Christmas presents that we would spend up to 50 cents on things for our year’s supply.”
Father smiled his agreement and then in a firm voice challenged, “Can we do that? Can we be faithful ones, by following the wise counsel of our prophet?”
Then he explained about the plain Christmas tree that would be in the place where a gaily decorated one had been on previous Christmases. “The more we are faithful and store food and needed items for our year’s supply, the more decorations we can add to our tree.
“For every five pounds of powdered milk we store, we can draw a light on our tree. We’ll add an ornament for every three pounds of salt. Each loop in a garland will represent any nonfood item we add to our storage.”
“If I buy a box of salt, may I wrap it up?” Ted asked eagerly.
“You can if you want,” laughed Dad.
After the meeting Peter planned to take 25 cents out of each dollar he had saved for Christmas for the year’s supply, but as he thought about it, he decided to give more than that.
Now, as the children started walking again, they continued to mull over in their minds their different Christmas. Nearing the northwest corner of the park where they had to cross a busy city street before the last two blocks home, they heard above the traffic sounds the wailing of a fire engine siren.
Suddenly, Gwen stood still. She gripped Peter’s hand, and he looked up at her questioningly. Down the street an unnatural brightness made a pulsating glow in the sky, and flickering, hideous shadows jerked up and down the outside walls of the apartment buildings.
“Look, Gwen, fire!” Peter cried. “We can’t go down our street!”
On the street, roadblocks had been erected and policemen standing by cars with flashing red and blue lights redirected traffic. Behind the barricades were firetrucks and men with hoses spraying silver streams of water up through the smoke toward the flames.
Despite the panic that made her heart hammer, Gwen made herself move forward, praying silently that she and Peter would find their father and mother and Ted and that they would all be safe.
Suddenly Gwen and Peter heard a voice calling their names. They pushed their way through the crowd that was beginning to gather at the edge of the park, to see where the voice was coming from.
Mom and Ted were across the street calling their names, looking first down the street at the fire, and then over at the park.
“Mom!” the children shouted together. “We’re over here!”
Mom spotted them and waved with relief.
“Wait there!” she called.
Once across the street Mom wrapped her arms around them tightly.
“When we couldn’t find you,” she said, “we became worried. Fire broke out on the third floor of the building facing ours. Dad is helping to evacuate the buildings in the area. We can’t go home until the fire is out and the danger is past.”
Their own apartment was not damaged, but the next four days until Christmas Eve were not days filled with the usual Christmas shopping, package wrapping, and cookie baking. They were busy days of sharing their home and food with friends and strangers.
On Christmas Eve the family all dressed in winter coats, caps, and scarves. Everyone had an armload of Christmas gifts, food storage items, and personal Christmas gifts. These were all being given away to someone else in need.
“Before we leave,” Dad said in a husky voice, “I want everyone to look at our Christmas tree.”
The tree had a few lights, two short paper chains, but there were lots of ornaments. “The tree doesn’t look very grand, does it?” Peter asked.
“To me,” his mother answered, “it’s beautiful.”
“This is the best tree we have ever had. It deserves a real star decoration,” Dad said as he held up a star made of sparkling silver and gold. “Ted, you may put it on.”
The family was hushed, and tears glistened in Mom’s eyes as Ted crowned their Christmas tree with a star. Then, with the wondrous spirit of their different Christmas, they left on their Christmas rounds of caroling and giving gifts.
In the back seat of the car Gwen whispered to Peter, “Remember the song? The thing that’s different about this Christmas is that it really is joyful.”
“If you ask me,” Peter said quietly, “it’s triumphant too.”