The clouds hung low and white over the small town of Liberty Bell that twenty-sixth day of December 1908. Sarah Moseley made her way from her family’s house at the end of the street toward the boardwalk, where her new dress would get a brief respite from mud-spraying wagon wheels.
Sarah’s family had been laboring under the stressful effects of no income in recent months, but her mother had managed to rummage up sufficient materials from an old attic chest to fashion a beautiful patchwork dress for Sarah. It was the only gift she had received for Christmas the day before, and she was fitly grateful for and proud of it.
As she continued along the street, she turned the collar of her frayed wrap up around her neck to ward off the biting chill of wind and lightly driven snow. Suddenly someone wearing a tattered sheepskin coat stepped out in front of her. He had a tangle of red hair, and a crooked scowl on his face. Toby Wilder! Last week he had asked Sarah for some answers to a test in Miss Cornaby’s class, and Sarah had refused. Now he looked ready for revenge. “I would have passed that test if you had given me those answers,” he growled.
“There’s a right and a wrong to everything, Toby Wilder,” Sarah said, swallowing hard, “and cheating is wrong.”
Toby glared at her, then pushed her back toward the edge of the boardwalk. “There’s a right and a wrong to everything, Toby Wilder,” he mimicked. “You think you know all there is to know about what is and what isn’t, don’t you little Miss High-and-Mighty.”
He glanced up and down the street through the haze of falling snow. No one was in sight. Shoving her roughly off the boardwalk, he laughed derisively and swaggered away as she pulled herself up from the street mire. Her eyes filled with tears as she wiped at the icy ooze on her new Christmas dress and headed for the store.
The bell above the door jangled as Sarah stepped into John Walton’s Mercantile Store. The man behind the counter looked at her with concern.
“What happened, Sarah?” he asked.
“Toby Wilder,” she sighed.
Mr. Walton nodded. “That’s not the first time he’s done something like that. Warm yourself by the stove there.” When Sarah hesitated, he added kindly, “Go on, child. There’s no sense in all that warmth going to waste, now, is there?”
“I guess not,” Sarah responded. “It’s just that you’ve given us so much these past few months, all our food and such, that I just don’t feel right about taking the only spot in front of your stove.”
“Sarah Moseley,” Mr. Walton declared, “since when did I keep anybody away from my potbellied stove?”
Sarah smiled in gratitude and stepped in front of the stove. Mr. Walton came out from behind the counter and pulled up a chair in front of Sarah. He sat down and spoke privately. “After that boxcar explosion at the depot last September, it’s a wonder your father is still alive. It’ll be a little while yet before he’s up and about.” He pushed a wisp of damp hair from Sarah’s eye. “Your father is a good man,” Mr. Walton continued. “He’ll pay me back when he’s able. Now give me that shopping list I know you have.” Sarah obliged him. “Besides,” he added as he stood with a little grunt, “it’s Christmas time, isn’t it?”
Sarah’s face wrinkled with curiosity. “What do you mean, Mr. Walton?”
“Christ gave His life for you and me, Sarah, not to mention for those that crucified Him. It seems the least I can do is give a can of beans and”—he checked Sarah’s list—“a box of baking soda and the like to people I love. Of course, that’s easy. The trick is giving to, or doing something for, someone you don’t like. Now there’s the real test. The problem is that I like everybody.” He laughed. “Well, almost everybody.”
Sarah watched Mr. Walton climb the ladder behind the counter. A ray of winter sun made his face radiant. “Why is it so important to be nice to people who are mean to you?” she asked.
Mr. Walton reached for a box of baking soda on a high shelf, then looked down at the girl below him. “Maybe because the Savior was. Maybe because it’s part of forgiving. It’s the same thing, wouldn’t you say?” He climbed down the ladder and began placing the few gathered items in a sack on the counter. He pushed the groceries across the counter to Sarah. “I have an idea that charity is what Christmas is all about. And forgiveness. What do you think, Sarah?”
“I guess you’re right, Mr. Walton,” Sarah answered, thoughtful.
It wasn’t until Sarah was outside again that she noticed something extra in her sack. A large candy stick. She puzzled over it a moment, then smiled at Mr. Walton’s kindness.
No sooner had Sarah started down the boardwalk in the direction of home than she spied Toby Wilder just ahead, leaning against a pole. His back was to her, and he was looking toward the sun as if he were aching for a little warmth on an otherwise bleak, unfriendly day.
Bracing herself, Sarah stepped up to him. “Toby?”
Toby whirled around. When he saw who it was, he growled, “What’s the matter, Sarah. Didn’t you get wet enough the first time?”
Sarah handed him the candy stick. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
Toby didn’t answer. He just stood there gaping.
Sarah glanced back in the direction of the mercantile store, where she could see Mr. Walton looking out the window, waving. She waved back, then turned and continued down the boardwalk toward home.