I’m not foolish, just old—which is why I laughed like a loon when the Reverend Lawrence asked me to write a Christmas Letter to all of you at the church. Of course, after I stopped laughing I told him, “No—I couldn’t possibly do that!” He laughed too and said, “Well, you think about it, Mabel,” and then went on preparing to give me my Christmas Communion. You may find it hard to believe but I could recite almost the whole Christmas Story as he read it from the Gospel. “In those days a decree went out… And Joseph also went up from Galilee… And she gave birth to her first born son…. And in that region there were shepherds…. ‘Be not afraid’….” It still amazes me what my mind holds onto and what it lets go of. The words of the Gospel story fit in my mind like my feet in these old slippers I’m wearing. Well, after we finished our communion he packed up his kit, chatted awhile over a cup of tea and got up to leave. As he took hold of the door knob he turned and said, “Now, Mabel, you think about writing that letter”—and I cackled once again like some old cooped up hen, or worse yet some silly school girls to whom I used to try to teach English composition.
After he left I looked around this lonely apartment and gazed at the little Christmas tree and the silly Christmas figurines I’ve not yet let go of and once again put out this year. “What in heaven would I tell all those people down at the church? Would they even care to hear what some 90 year old widow has to say about Christmas?” I thought to myself, “Is he asking me to do this because he thinks it will be my last Christmas?” I don’t know. When you get to be my age you think about that. You think about a lot of things. I think mostly about how long I’ll have this dear old forgetful mind with me. It scares me when I catch myself telling the same stories over and over—and sometimes to the same person.
Well, I then said to myself, “Mabel, maybe you need to write a letter, not for them down at the church, but for yourself.” Reverend Lawrence often says he likes to hear my stories because it helps him know who we are at the church. I just laugh and tell him, “I’ve got a lot of them.” I used to almost live down at that church. I don’t regret it—just a statement of fact. I belonged to the Resolute Club and the Alpha Club. You name it and I was in it. I even remember singing during Christmas with the choir up at Coxes Department Store. I don’t know if anyone at the church even remembers the British War Relief Fund. How we worked our fingers to the bone for those poor boys at the Front. Well now I’ve gone to rambling with my stories.
Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking a lot of Daniel, a Hungarian boy who lived across the street from us in the third ward. His father had died late one fall from tuberculosis. My mother was determined we were going to make Christmas special for him. She kept telling us children “You be really nice to that boy. It’s hard for him to lose his father at Christmas.” That was the first time I realized that Christmas is wonderful for everyone except those who are sad. Then it can be the loneliest time you can imagine. Whenever I was having fun I’d remember poor Daniel whose father had just died and I would feel so empty. I learned that lesson all over again twelve years ago when my husband Hank died.
Well, after the rector left on that Monday afternoon I said, “Mabel, you couldn’t possibly write such a letter” and laid down on my bed and took a nap. I dreamed of Daniel. I was back at the old family home in the third ward. The entire backyard had become an ocean. It was tossing wildly; waves heaving and beating on the back steps. Mother told me Daniel was out in the boat in the stormy waves looking for his dead father. She said if I didn’t go get him he would miss Christmas altogether. She told me to take a ragged and torn umbrella and swim out to the street lamp that was sticking out above the waves and hold the umbrella there for him to grab a hold of. I was half-scared out of my wits and of poor resolve on the matter, standing paralyzed on the back steps with the water rising to my knees. The last thing I remember before I awoke was Mother saying, “You’d better hurry up, Mabel, it’s getting late!” Well, after I was awake, I knew I needed to write this letter to you.
I was born near Essex, England on March 25, 1904, and moved here to McKeesport in June of 1911 with my parents, two sisters and a brother. They’ve all died. I’m the only one left. I was seven years old when we moved. My father had a job at the Iron Works. I don’t remember too much about Christmas in England. All those memories of the old country are foggy and mingle together like the filling in a mince-meat pie. My favorite memories of Christmas as a child are right here in McKeesport. I remember sledding with my sisters and brother, kicking the snow from our galoshes on the front porch and racing into the house, the warm air fogging my glasses, and the smell of my mother’s plum pudding baking in the kitchen. In those days we didn’t decorate the house until Christmas Eve and one or two presents was enough to keep a child happy for a month of Sundays.
Maybe I’m just getting old but I think all the stuff people do and buy today only makes them enjoy it less. My granddaughter Sharon, God bless her, took me shopping last week. She pushed me all around the mall in a wheelchair. There was so much that all looked the same that I couldn’t find anything for anybody. I finally just gave up, bought some cards and put some money in them. Now tell me, what kind of Christmas is that? But I guess what else can an old lady do? How different it used to be! Oh, I don’t mean to sound like one of these silly old gals around here clucking and cooing about how things used to be. It is not that we were always happy. There’s been plenty of sadness in this life I’ve lived. More than one Christmas Eve I spent at home with a sick child or husband, or went to the Midnight service with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat while my son, Gordon, was overseas in that awful war.
Now when I remember Christmas I think of the trees and lights and decorations and I recall all the busy shopping for presents. But most of all I remember my friends, most of whom have died or are as feeble as I. And I remember my family, my father and mother and sisters and brother, and my dear darling husband, Hank, and of course my children, grandchildren and great grand children spread out over this great country of ours. And I remember singing carols at the church. Oh how I used to love that Candlelight service. But mostly now I think of my Lord.
I don’t know what people do who celebrate Christmas without the Lord Jesus. They must feel terribly empty when they wake up the next day with presents unwrapped, the food eaten and life back to normal. No wonder the doctors say so many folk get depressed during the holidays. I think people have forgotten that Love came down at Christmas. God’s Love! God’s Son—our Savior! He did not grow up out of this ancient world of ours as if he was the best we had to offer. No, dear friends, He came down from heaven—God looked down and saw our need and so He sent His Son. That is why we call him, Immanuel, “God with us”. It is odd how you learn new things about that. Twelve years ago when my husband died it was my first Christmas in 54 years without my darling Hank. I was all alone in my living room and I said, “Lord, I don’t think I can go on. I’m so alone.” Then the room seemed to grow unusually quiet and the Lord seemed to say to me, “Mabel—you are not alone—always there will be two of us. Others may leave but I will stay.” That’s what Christmas means to me. God is with us—God is with me.
So go ahead. Decorate your trees and houses. I suppose it puts us all in a more cheerful mood. Give the children their gifts. Fill your stomachs with all the delicious foods. But listen to an old lady, if only for a moment. Sooner or later a person has to realize he is not going to live forever. No matter how hard we try to live upstanding lives there is a lot we do in this life for which we need to be forgiven. When we stand before God’s judgment everyone needs a Savior. Besides there is more than once in a man’s or woman’s life she stands before a crossroad and doesn’t know what path to take. If you don’t have a Savior and Lord at these times you’re rudderless. You’re like a boat adrift on the open sea. You’re like that boy, Daniel, out in a boat in the wild ocean waves looking for his dead father. Look—I’m swimming out to the lamp post to hold out this rambling letter to you like some ragged and torn umbrella for some poor soul to grab hold of ‘less he miss Christmas altogether. It is the least I can do for my Lord who is with me even when Christmas is over. I know I’ve rambled on but I do want to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a God-filled New Year!
Your old friend,
(Edited sermon given by The Reverend Mark Lawrence on Christmas Eve in 1994)