The Christmas Project


We didn’t think Nickie was excited about our project. Then he showed us how he’d caught the spirit with a glove.

The Christmas Project

Crouched and shivering behind the hedge, I watched my little brother Nickie do his best rendition of an Indian scout sneaking across Brother Henry’s front lawn. First he edged his way around the power pole that held the street light, and then he skittered to the locust tree. He paused for a moment before dashing for the corner of the house where he waited a long time, listening, I suppose, for crunching leaves or whatever ten-year-old Indian scouts listen for.

Since there aren’t many crunching leaves in December, and there was apparently no danger, Nickie made his final sprint to the door. He laid his gift on the step, rang the bell, and dashed back to the hedge.

“Did they see me?” he gasped.

“Not unless they can see through the door,” I whispered. “They haven’t even opened it yet.”

We crouched behind the hedge in the yard next to the Henry’s and waited. It was cold, but not bad. Maybe it would snow. I hoped so. What snow we’d had so far had melted a couple of weeks earlier and now, three days before Christmas, the trees and lawns were bare, bleak, and un-Christmaslike. To me, Christmas just wasn’t Christmas without snow.

I was puzzled as I watched Nickie, sitting beside me on the cold, yellow grass. All of a sudden he seemed so excited about our Christmas project. His attitude had practically done an “about face” in the last hour.

Playing Santa to the Henrys was Dad’s idea. At home evening two weeks earlier he asked if the family wanted to do a Christmas project again this year. We did our first project about six years ago; I was Nickie’s age. We took some toys to the Sub-for-Santa program, and I remember that I wasn’t very excited about giving away my toys, except for a few old broken ones that I thought I could part with. Then at school I heard a man talk about how much some gifts had meant to his family. He cried, and I barely managed not to. I went right home and wrapped up my biggest Tonka truck. It was only two years old and still in great shape.

Every year since, our family has contributed to Sub-for-Santa. When Dad asked about this year’s project, I thought that he intended to do the same. “There’s a family in our neighborhood who could use some help,” he said. I was surprised; I never thought that there were people in our own neighborhood who would not have a good Christmas.

“Who?” the family asked, almost in unison.

“Well, you know the Arnold Henry family, don’t you?” Dad started.

I knew the Henrys only slightly. They had moved into the ward in September or October. There were three or four kids, all young. The oldest boy was about eight or nine. That’s all I knew about them, but some of my little brothers and sisters were acquainted with the Henry children.

“Brother Henry had a job at the steel plant, but they had a cutback,” Dad continued. “The bishop mentioned last Sunday that Brother Henry hasn’t yet found work.” Dad paused long enough for us to get his message, and unanimously we adopted the Henry family as our Christmas project.

The grass was damp, but Nickie and I continued to peer through the hedge at the house. “Why don’t they come to the door?” Nickie whispered impatiently.

“Did you hear the bell ring?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“The first rule of successfully rousing people,” I sermonized, “is to listen for the ring. You were in too much of a hurry.”

“I’ll do it again,” Nickie said.

I guessed that he wasn’t sorry to have to repeat his dramatic approach. I watched him go again. This time he crawled to the locust tree like an infantryman under fire. Too much TV, I figured, had programmed him against simply walking up to the door, ringing the bell, and then running. I thought how silly he would look to the Henrys if they opened their door and saw this ten-year-old boy elbowing his way across their lawn. And I thought again about the change I’d seen in Nickie in the last hour.

From the time that we had decided as a family to assist the Henrys, the bulk of the work had fallen on Mom. She’s a good organizer—or maybe prodder is a better word. Every day she’d ask, “Who has an idea for the Henry’s three-year-old girl?” or “What should we do about a tree? Will they have one or shall we take one?” She kept us interested and excited.

On the first day my littlest brother, Tommy, age four, ran to his room and came back with a toy car he wanted to give. I suggested that we take a small decorated tree, whether or not they already had one. Since I had an after-school job and was earning a little money, I offered to buy it as my contribution. My two sisters, Ann, 13, and Tricia, 7, started working together to make presents.

Everyone got involved except Nickie. I don’t know why, unless ten is a selfish age or something, but he just wasn’t very interested. When Mom pressed him for a commitment, he said he’d put in a “quarter or something” on a present. I could tell that she was disappointed because he wasn’t catching the spirit of the project. But I remembered how I felt at his age on our first Sub-for-Santa, and I couldn’t be too hard on him.

It wasn’t that Nickie wasn’t a good kid. Once when he was about three, a neighborhood friend complained to Nickie that he was hungry. Nickie went to the refrigerator, stuck his hand into a bottle of home-canned fruit, and carried a dripping peach half to his buddy. He can be generous all right. So Mom didn’t push him; I think she knows that sometimes good deeds just can’t be forced.

Finally, the big night arrived. The excitement mounted as we gathered the things together to take to the Henrys. Even Nickie seemed a little more interested, but I don’t think he felt as much a part of it because he hadn’t really contributed.

The Henrys live only four blocks away; and we thought it would be fun to walk. But because we had quite a few things to carry, including a decorated tree, we loaded the station wagon instead. As the holder of the family’s newest driver’s license—only—six months old—I took my now-unquestioned place behind the wheel and drove past the Henry’s house. Only the porch light was lit. “Great,” said Dad, who was facing backwards in the third seat, holding the tree out the rear window. “They’re not home. We can take our time.”

I made a U-turn and drove past the house from the other direction. Still no sign of life, so I coasted to the curb two houses away, and we unloaded. We must have looked comical strolling down the sidewalk like a Christmas parade in the dark. We were quiet, so as not to draw attention from the neighbors, and we kept an eye out for cars, hoping the Henrys wouldn’t return too soon.

After everything was positioned on the front step, right under the porch light, we went to the neighbor’s yard to watch through the hedge, but we weren’t very well hidden. It was cold enough that it wasn’t fun staring at the porch, and we were just about to leave when a car turned in the Henry’s driveway.

“Come on,” Mom said. “They’ll see us when they get out of the car.” We tried to look casual as we strolled down the walk to the car. But Nickie, his spying instincts aroused, insisted on staying.

“Dad, can I stay?” he pleaded. “I won’t let them see me. I just want to watch while they find all that stuff. Then I’ll run home. Okay?” Dad consented, so Nickie crawled back to the hedge while the rest of us got in the car and drove home.

We’d been home about ten minutes and were sitting around the Christmas tree talking about our adventure when the front door flew open. In ran Nickie, all out of breath. It was obvious that he was excited about something. Without saying a word he went straight to the tree and pulled out a square box wrapped in shiny red paper.

“What’s up, son?” Dad asked.

“I want to take this present to the Henrys, Dad. I … didn’t give very much,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it! Everyone knew what was in that package. Nickie’s Little League baseball mitt, which he had inherited from me and which had already snared more than its share of fly balls, had seen its day. Since the end of last season Nickie had been talking about getting a new one. “And if I happen to get it at Christmas,” he had hinted with ten-year-old subtlety, “I’ll have plenty of time to break it in before spring.”

When Dad and I handed Nickie the wrapped mitt for him to put under the tree until Christmas morning, we could tell from the grin on his face that he knew what it was. And now he was going to give it to a family he hardly knew! Up until ten minutes ago he was only willing to give them a quarter! It didn’t make sense.

“They’ve got a nine-year-old boy, Dad,” Nickie said quietly. Dad swallowed and looked at Mom. She had a strange expression on her face. I wanted to say, “Hey, man, you can’t give away your new mitt!” but Mom just said, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Nickie?”

“Yea, Mom, I’m sure,” he replied as he ran out the door.

No one said anything for a minute, and then Dad asked if I would go with Nickie. It was a little late for him to be out alone, and I knew that Dad wanted me to find out what was going on—if I could. By the time I grabbed a coat and ran outside, Nickie was already a block away. I couldn’t catch him, and by the time I reached the hedge, he was doing that Indian scout thing across the lawn.

Nickie was now back with me behind the hedge after his second dash to the door. This time, results. Brother Henry opened the door, saw the red package, and shouted, “There’s more!”

Suddenly the doorway was filled with little faces, all wearing expressions of disbelief at finding yet another gift on the doorstep. We watched them pick up the package, shake it, and pass it around. They even came down the steps and looked around the yard and down the street. Then they went in and turned off the porch light, and we started home.

Nickie wasn’t running this time; he was quiet. After walking half a block I asked him what had changed his mind.

“Well, after you left for home,” he began, “I sneaked up to the hedge and watched while the Henrys started into their house. They stopped dead when they saw the stuff on their step. Then the kids ran up the steps. They shook every present, walked around the tree, and looked up and down the street. Finally, they gathered up everything and went inside.”

Nickie stopped talking, and we walked a while without saying anything. It was getting colder.

“Then what?” I finally asked. What I really wanted to say was, “What changed you? What made you give away your baseball mitt that you’ve wanted for so long?” but I refrained.

“They’d all gone in except the oldest boy and his dad,” Nickie continued. “They were starting to bring in the tree when I heard the boy say, ‘Dad, do you think the Lord blessed us with these things?’ His dad said, ‘I’m sure he did, son, but what do you mean?’ Then the boy—his name’s David—said the funniest thing. He said, ‘Well, it’s just that these things were brought to our house while we were taking Christmas to some poor people.’”

My feet stopped. I looked at Nickie.

“They were what?” I gasped. “Taking Christmas presents to other people? Why … why, they don’t even have a job! I mean, they’re supposed to be the poor people!”

“That’s what he said,” Nickie went on. “Then his dad said that even though they didn’t have much money right now, they wanted to share what they had, and that these presents must have come from people who felt that same way.”

“Right then I decided,” Nickie continued,” and I’m glad I did. I’ll bet David Henry never had a you-know-what before.”

He grinned at me, and I knew the secret was out. It was all right to talk about it.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s run.”

I could have beat him home, but instead I kept an even pace. As we turned in our driveway and leaped up the front steps together, I noticed that it was just beginning to snow.

[photos] Photography by Jed Clark and Philip Shurtleff; photo manipulation by George Gruber