The snow lay in a thick blanket all around our small farmhouse. Inside, the warm, cheery lights were a sharp contrast to the cold dreariness outside. It was the first Christmas Eve that our family had spent together in the last five years. My oldest brother had been away at college and hadn’t had the money to return for every Christmas. My older sister, who had been married for three years, was visiting with her husband. For the first time in a long time, our family felt complete.
That Christmas Eve was a special one and has given me many fond memories. Bright lights sparkled on the Christmas tree that blessed the room with its scent. Everywhere festive holly, garland, wreaths, or some other ornamentation decorated the house. The sounds of laughter mixed with the faint Christmas carols that came from my sisters singing to each other in the upstairs bedrooms. From the kitchen drifted the heavenly aromas of turkey, potatoes, and pumpkin pie.
It was in the midst of this happy scene that I heard my mother calling me from the kitchen. Slowly I pushed myself up from the floor, where I had been sitting listening to one of my brother’s stories about college, and dragged myself into the kitchen.
My mother was wrapping up a beautiful golden pumpkin pie.
“James,” she said without looking up. “I need you to run this pie over to Clair. I promised him that I would bring it, but I just don’t have the time. Thank you!”
I opened my mouth to protest, but she had already hustled me out the door so I had no chance to argue. I couldn’t believe it. It was Christmas Eve, all of my family was having a great time, and I was stuck driving alone in the snow to a strange old man’s house to deliver a pie.
It was barely noon, but already a gray dreariness hung in the sky. The icy wind had picked up and the dark clouds hung low, giving every indication of an impending snowstorm. With luck I wouldn’t be gone long, and I’d beat the storm back home. I climbed into the old pickup and started the engine.
Clair was our closest neighbor, but it still took a while to get to his house. I didn’t know much about him, not even his last name. His wife had died before I was born, and all of his children were grown, married, and lived far away. I supposed he was at least 80 years old, just a lonely old hermit. The rest of his farm had been sold a long time ago, but he still lived in the same house, the house he had built himself. My mom said he flatly refused to leave, even when his children begged him to move in with one of them. He even refused to go to visit them over Christmas. He would say, “I just can’t leave my home.” His home now was really little more than a two-room shack. It was old, weak, and run-down—much like the man who lived in it—but he loved it.
When I pulled up to the shack, I wasn’t surprised to see that all the lights were off. After all, I thought, it was the holidays and even Clair must have some friends to visit somewhere, right? Still, I had a pie to deliver, so I decided to make sure no one was home. I knocked lightly and waited. After a few minutes, I tried the door handle. The door opened easily.
“Who is it?” a voice growled.
“It’s James from down the road,” I answered above the rising wind.
“What do you want?” the voice asked.
“I brought you this pie …” I began.
“What kind of pie?” he demanded.
“I think it’s pumpkin.”
“Well bring it in and shut the door. It’s awfully cold outside.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, ducking inside. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dimness. I flipped the switch and the lights flickered on. The small room was a far cry from the cheeriness of my own home. I shivered slightly.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said softly. “Is there a reason it’s so cold in here?”
“Of course there’s a reason,” he snapped. “Would I be sitting here in the blasted cold for no reason? I just don’t have the strength to build a fire, that’s all. And stop calling me ’sir.’ My name’s Clair.”
Without waiting for permission, I started building a fire in the cold fireplace. It wasn’t long before the light and warmth of the fire was spreading all about the small room.
“Much better,” I said.
The fire seemed to lift the old man’s spirits as well. Cheerfully, he demanded, “Well now, James. Let’s cut up that pumpkin pie, shall we?”
I really wanted to get back home and was tempted to excuse myself, but one look at the lonely man’s expectant face, and all I could do was ask where the forks and plates were. As I was serving large helpings for both of us, Clair said, “Of course I would be doing this if I had the strength, but since my illness, some days it’s just too hard.”
I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t even known he was sick.
When we had finished one piece of pie, and I was dishing up another, I finally asked him, “How could you raise five kids in a house like this?”
After I said it, I realized how rude it must have sounded, but he didn’t seem to notice. He thought a moment and said, “Well now, James, just because this house is small doesn’t mean it wasn’t big enough. There was plenty of room for love, and this house has seen a lot of it.”
“But why do you still live here all alone?”
“Oh, I’m not alone at all,” he sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Sure I could go live with my children or grandchildren and be surrounded by people. But here I’m surrounded by memories. This house has seen better days, happy days full of laughter, love, and joy.
“Christmases were never this dull before. We’d have a large tree in that corner with all the children’s presents underneath it. Their stockings would hang above the fire, and in years when the farm was doing well, there would be twice as many presents and a big turkey dinner as well.”
Clair paused and leaned forward intently. “But it wasn’t the turkey, the presents, the tree, or anything else that made Christmas special, James. It was having our family together, sharing our lives and love. That is what made Christmas a happy time. The outside world could go on its merry way, or even end for all we cared. When we were close together nothing else mattered. And now that everyone close to me is gone, I can still sit alone remembering those happy times and it’s like they’re all here.
The silence that followed as I thought of what he had said was suddenly broken by a fierce howl of the wind. It startled both of us, and I hurried outside. The storm had hit suddenly and viciously. The snow swirled all around so that I could barely see a few feet in front of me. I walked a few feet away from the house and tripped over a large pine bough that had broken off in the wind. I ran back into the house with the branch in my hand.
Clair looked at me in puzzlement, but I didn’t say anything until I had the branch standing up in a corner, supported by some books.
“There!” I said with satisfaction.
“What is it?” Clair asked.
“It’s your Christmas tree, of course.”
Clair looked at it, frowning. Then he started to laugh. It was a wheezy, tired laugh; but it grew steadily stronger, as if he were just out of practice. I couldn’t help joining him.
And so, with the wind shrieking outside, the snow piling up deeper and the day growing later, Clair and I set about decorating the tree. Clair had given his decorations away to his children, so we cut paper snowflakes and strung popcorn. Then I draped them over the little branches according to Clair’s directions. I tried to get Clair to sing Christmas carols with me, but he protested, saying he was too old. No amount of coaxing seemed to work, so I sang twice as loud.
When we were finished, we sat in silence, admiring our work. The sorry little tree only stood three feet high. No fancy presents lay beneath it, and no lights shone from its branches. But we both agreed it was the prettiest Christmas tree we had ever seen. It was even more beautiful to me than the lavishly decorated tree at home.
That thought gave me an idea.
“Clair,” I asked, “how would you like to come home with me and spend Christmas with my family?”
Clair looked almost angry. “James, I already said that I didn’t want to be surrounded by a bunch of people when I’m perfectly happy here.” He paused for a moment. “I’m not going to burden your folks when I’ve got my own home.”
“You won’t be a burden,” I said. “They’ll love it.” When I saw that he wasn’t going to budge, I added softly, “And besides, no amount of memories can replace the love of living human beings.”
Clair looked away in silence. For a few minutes he sat stubbornly still. Then I saw tears fill his eyes and he asked, “What about our tree?”
I grinned. “We’ll leave it here and it will be waiting when you get back.”
“All right, I’ll go, but just for an hour or so.” He sighed heavily, but I could see the twinkle in his eyes.
In the increasing dimness of the dying firelight I gathered a few things that Clair wanted to take so that he could still have his memories with him for Christmas. By now the snow was so bad I could hardly see my way to the truck and had to use the wall of the house to guide me. As we pulled away from Clair’s house, I looked in the rearview mirror. Through the snow, the house was just a dark form, a place where, minutes before, Clair and I had shared a pumpkin pie. The little house that had been built with such loving care was just a house, I realized.
But for some reason, I felt a strange sense of peace—glad that the little house could have had one more happy memory. Clair must have felt this same peace, for he began to sing softly, “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
All the way home we sang Christmas carols. Despite the slow treacherous drive, we were home sooner than I had expected. It was late and I knew my mom was worried, but I quickly explained what had happened. The family welcomed Clair as if he were one of us.
The next morning, Clair’s daughter arrived unexpectedly with her husband and children. They had come to surprise him for Christmas, and after a few days of pleading, he gave in and went to live with her family. Before he left he said something to me about thanks for showing him that love comes from people, not places. He telephoned Christmas Day every year until he passed away. And now, when I look back at my favorite Christmas memory, it is not one of a big Christmas feast, a bright Christmas tree, or even the beautiful sound of my sisters singing carols. Rather, it is the memory of eating pumpkin pie in a small, lonely shack, a humble three-foot branch decorated with paper and popcorn, and the memory of a lonely old man singing “Silent Night” that fills my heart with love.