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Something to Believe in at Christmastime

Not celebrating Christmas this year seemed like the worst thing in the world. But now we were losing our family too. If only there were angels on earth to help us…

Leigh Wells' illustration of a Christmas tree

It was after 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, but you wouldn’t know it from our house. My twin sister, Barbara, and I pressed our noses up to the big picture window in the living room, searching the Detroit streets for our father’s ’39 Chevy.

“Mom and Dad have got to be home soon,” Barbara said.

“Sure they will,” I said. “They’ll bring the tree, I bet. Then we can decorate. Maybe they got held up in traffic. Or something happened with the car.”

I didn’t look Barbara in the eye when I said it. We were only 10, but this wasn’t the first time we’d been left alone at night, anxiously waiting for our parents. They weren’t stuck in traffic. This late on Christmas Eve the streets were empty. Our parents were surely in a bar somewhere, drinking, not even thinking about us. But they couldn’t forget us completely on Christmas Eve, could they? Of course they could, I answered myself. They’d let us down so many times before. Why believe in them now? Why believe in anything?

We waited and waited, but Mom and Dad didn’t come home. “I’m going to bed,” I said finally, turning from the window. “There’s nothing to wait for.”

Barbara grabbed my arm. “Let’s hang up our stockings,” she said. “We can do that, at least.”

We rummaged around in Dad’s dresser and pulled out his largest pair of socks. They looked sad hanging on the mantel. Sad like Barbara and me. “Tomorrow everything will look like Christmas,” Barbara said dreamily. “When we wake up there will be lights and a tree, presents…”

“And Jimmy!” I said, feeling joyful for the first time that night. “He’ll come early in the morning and be here all day!”

Jimmy was our older brother and the one thing I could always believe in. Even when he got married and moved out of the city, Jimmy was always there when we needed him, with his big smile and even bigger laugh. He made sure Barbara and I had everything we needed for school. He brought groceries by if Mom and Dad forgot to shop. He took us to the doctor if we got sick and stayed with us when our parents left us alone for long stretches. That’s what I would put faith in this Christmas. Jimmy. He’d never let me down.

“When he comes in the door,” I said as we climbed into our beds, “he’ll say ‘Ho ho ho!’ like Santa.”

Jimmy will make it feel like Christmas, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. I don’t need anything else.

A loud noise woke me up. “What is it?” I whispered in the dark. The clock showed it was a little after midnight. A long way from Christmas morning.

“The front door just slammed,” said Barbara. “Mom and Dad are home!”

Loud, hysterical sobs rang through the house. “How could you let this happen?” Mom screamed.

“How could I let it happen?” Dad yelled back. “It’s not my fault!”

Barbara and I clung to each other as the yelling continued. A few minutes later footsteps stumbled up the stairs. Our bedroom door burst open and Mom turned on the light. Her face was streaked with tears. Her hair was disheveled. “We have something to tell you,” she announced, her words slurred. “There will be no Christmas in this house tomorrow. Just stay in bed.”

Dad pushed his way in beside her. “I picked up your gifts from layaway on the way home from work,” he said. “I got them right on time. Your mom and I were visiting friends.”

I squeezed Barbara’s hand. We both knew what that meant.

“Someone broke into the car and stole everything!” Dad said. “Even the tree tied to the roof! Just took it in the street! Of all the low-down, dirty…”

Dad let loose a tirade. I felt like I might be sick. It was a relief when they shut our door and continued their argument in their own room. Barbara and I clung to each other. Even though it was after midnight, Mom called up Jimmy and told him the story. I could hear every word through our bedroom door. How I longed to run to the phone myself, to hear Jimmy’s voice, imagine his kind smile as he found a way to make things better. He was the one person we could count on. But even Jimmy couldn’t fix this. How could he find all that stuff?

“So forget about Christmas this year,” Mom finished up on the phone. “It’s canceled. And one other thing: I’m leaving your father!”

“Mom’s leaving?” Barbara said.

“What’s going to happen to us?” I whispered. “Where will we live?”

A moment ago no Christmas seemed like the worst thing in the world. Now we were losing our family too. Jimmy couldn’t fix this either. I pulled the covers over my head. There was nothing to go downstairs for. I thought about praying to God and telling him I didn’t need any presents or decorations or Christmas tree. That I just wanted my family back. But God was just another thing I couldn’t believe in. The next morning I woke up early. Barbara was already sitting up.

“We’re not supposed to get out of bed,” I mumbled, pulling the covers back over my head.

“Well, I am,” Barbara said. She climbed out of bed and put on her slippers. “I’m going downstairs.”

“There’s no Christmas down there,” I reminded her, but I pulled on my robe and followed. The house was so quiet, every creak of the staircase echoed off the walls. Mom and Dad were fast asleep in their room. Barbara and I crept to the bottom of the stairs, into the living room and then she grabbed my hand. “Look!” said Barbara.

There, in front of the picture window we’d stared out for so long the night before, stood a magnificent Christmas tree. Big glass balls hung from its branches and underneath were dozens of brightly wrapped packages. Even the old socks on the mantel were stuffed with fruit. It was like a dream.

“Do you see what I see?” I breathed. Maybe I was dreaming.

“Come on!” she said.

We rushed up the stairs into our parents’ room. “You were wrong!” Barbara yelled, jumping onto the bed. “We are having Christmas! Come and look! Hurry!”

Mom and Dad stumbled down the stairs, and stopped short when they saw the Christmas lights. One look at their faces proved they hadn’t provided any of this. But then who did?

Barbara ripped the paper off the biggest box. “It’s a farm set!” she shouted. “Look, animals and everything.”

I went for a big red package with my name on it. Funny, none of the presents were wrapped like the way they usually were at Christmas—haphazardly. Like someone had done it as an afterthought. These presents were so perfect, I almost hated to tear the paper. But I did! “I got a doll house!”

“It’s beautiful, Anne,” said Mom. Her voice was different. Softer. She was truly amazed by the scene around us. She was sitting beside Dad on the couch. She reached for his hand!

Usually, being twins, Barbara and I got identical gifts. This year we didn’t get a single present the same. More proof that nothing about these gifts was ordinary. They were special in every way.

As wonderful as the gifts were, they were all forgotten when we heard Jimmy at the front door. “Ho ho ho!” he called, just like we knew he would. Barbara and I pulled him into the living room and showed him all the presents.

Jimmy looked at my parents in surprise. “I thought…?”

“We don’t know how any of this happened,” Mom said. She moved closer to Dad, and he put his arm around her. “How could all these things just appear?” Dad said. “It’s impossible.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Jimmy said, with that chuckle I loved so well. “Christmas is a time for miracles. That’s your explanation.”

Miracles? I thought. I didn’t believe in miracles. But what other explanation was there? Maybe God really did send angels to bring us our Christmas and answer the prayer I’d been afraid to make. Maybe there were more things in the world I could believe in. Mom didn’t leave Dad that day—or ever. Together, the two of them got help for their drinking problem. Somehow that Christmas miracle was the push they needed.

In the many years since, I’ve retold the story to my children and grandchildren. I never could figure out any other explanation for all those decorations and presents. “If Mom and Dad didn’t do it, how did it happen?” I said to Jimmy finally during a visit.

He chuckled. His face was lined now with age, and he was not in the best of health, but he still had the same smile and the same laugh. “I guess I can tell you now,” he said. “When Mom called me that night and told me what happened, I knew I had to do something,” he said. “So I called some friends. I still remember going door-to-door in the middle of the night collecting decorations and presents people had to spare. We even found a leftover tree in a vacant lot. Once we had everything I drove to the house. I pried open the basement window, and my friends and I squeezed in. It was just before dawn when we slipped out again. I only wish I could have been there to see your faces when you came downstairs!”

I had the answer to the mystery after all those years. “But we never thanked all those people. Why didn’t you tell us it was you?” I asked, but I realized I already knew the answer. I had always believed in Jimmy, but Jimmy wanted me to see there was something more to believe in. Jimmy gave us our Christmas, but God gave us our miracle.

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