December 22nd

Scripture: Luke 2:12-14 - "And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Song: "We Three Kings of Orient Are"

Story: "The Christmas I Remember Best" by Rheuma A. West & "Trouble at the Inn" by Dina Donahue

The Christmas I Remember Best:

It should have been the worst, the bleakest of Christmases. It turned out to be the loveliest of all my life. I was nine years old, one of seven children, and we lived in a little farming town in Utah. It had been a tragic year for all of us. But we still had our father, and that made all the difference. Every year in our town a Christmas Eve Social was held at the church. How well I remember Dad buttoning our coats, placing us all on our long, homemade sleigh and pulling us to the church about a mile away. It was snowing. How cold and good it felt on our faces. We held tight to one another, and above the crunch of snow beneath Dad's feet we could hear him softly whistling "Silent Night".

Mama had died that previous summer. She had been confined to bed for three years, so Dad has assumed all mother and father responsibilities. I remember him standing me on a stool by our big round kitchen table and teaching me to mix bread. But my main task was being Mama's hands and feet until that day in June, her own birthday, when she died.

Two months later came the big fire. Our barns, sheds, haystacks, and livestock were destroyed. It was a calamity, but Dad stood between us and the disaster. We weren't even aware of how poor we were. We had no money at all. I don't remember much about the Christmas Eve Social. I just remember Dad pulling us there and pulling us back. Later, in the front room around our pot bellied stove, he served us our warm milk and bread. Our Christmas tree, topped by a worn cardboard angel, had been brought from the nearby hills. Strings of our home-grown popcorn made it the most beautiful tree I had ever seen -- or smelled.

After supper, Dad made all seven of us sit in a half circle by the tree. I remember I wore a long flannel nightgown. He sat on the floor facing us and told us that he was ready to give us our Christmas gift. We waited, puzzled because we thought Christmas presents were for Christmas morning. Dad looked at our expectant faces, "Long ago," he said, "on a night like this, some poor shepherds were watching their sheep on a lonely hillside, when all of a sudden..."

His quiet voice went on and on, telling the story of the Christ Child in his own simple words, and I'll never forget how love and gratitude seemed to fill the room. There was light from the oil lamp and warmth from the stove, but somehow it was more than that. We felt Mama's presence.

We learned that loving someone was far more important than having something. We were filled with peace and happiness and joy. When the story was ended Dad had us all kneel for family prayer. Then he said, "Try to remember, when everything else seems to be lost, the greatest thing of all remains: God's love for us. That's what Christmas means. That's the gift that can never be taken away."

The next morning we found that Dad had whittled little presents for each of us and hung them on the tree; dolls for the girls, whistles for the boys. But he was right; he had given us our real gift the night before. All this happened long ago, but to this day it all comes back to me whenever I hear "Silent Night" or feel snowflakes on my face, or -- best of all -- when I get an occasional glimpse of Christ shining in my 90-year-old father's face.

Trouble at the Inn:

For many years now, whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain little town in the Midwest, someone is sure to mention the name of Wallace Purling. Wally's performance in one annual production of the nativity play has slipped onto the realm of legend. But the old-timers who were in the audience that night never tire of recalling exactly what happened.

Wally was nine that year and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. Most people in town knew that he had difficulty in keeping up. He was big and clumsy, slow in movement and mind. Still, his class, all of whom were smaller than he, had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally would ask to play ball with them or any game, for that matter, in which winning was important.

Most often they'd find a way to keep him out but Wally would hang around anyway not sulking, just hoping. He was always a helpful boy, a willing and smiling one, and the natural protector of the underdog. Sometimes if the older boys chased the young ones away, it would always be Wall who'd say, "Can't they stay? They're no bother."

Wally fancied the ideal of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year, but the play's director, Miss Lumbar, assigned him to a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the Innkeeper did not have too many lines and Wally's size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.

And so it happened that the usual large, partisan audience gathered for the town's yearly extravaganza of beard, crown, and halos and a whole stage full of squeaky voices. No one on stage or off was more caught up on the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. They said later that he stood in the wings and watched the performance with such fascination that from time to time Miss Lumbar had to make sure he didn't wander on stage before his cue.

Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the Inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door sat into the painted backdrop. Wally the Innkeeper was there, waiting.

"What do you want?" Wally said, swinging the door open with a brusque gesture.

"We seek lodging."

"Seek it elsewhere," Wally looked straight ahead but spoke vigorously. "The Inn is filled."

"Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary."

"There is no room in this Inn for you." Wally looked properly stern.

"Please, good Innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired."

Now, for the first time, the Innkeeper relaxed his still stance and looked down at Mary. With that, there was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment. "No! Be gone!" the prompter whispered from the wings.

"No!" Wally repeated automatically, "Be gone!"

Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary and Mary laid her head upon her husband's shoulder and the two of them started to move away. The Innkeeper did not return inside his Inn, however. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakable with tears.

And suddenly the Christmas pageant became different from all the others...

"Don't go, Joseph" Wally called out. "Bring Mary back." And Wallace Purling's face grew into a bright smile. "You can have my room!"

Some people in town thought that the pageant had been ruined. Yet there were others...many, many others...who considered it the most Christmasy of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.

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