It was the twenty-fourth of December, 1950. Gingerbread-men and chocolate cookies filled the kitchen, the Christmas tree was in full blaze, and the walls were decked with holly and Christmas cards. The house was hued in blazes of gold, red and dark-green; the streets sprinkled with wreaths and lights. To be unhappy on a day like this was considered positively indecent in the Knock family. It was even snowing, for crying out loud.
Jemimah, however, had on a very miserable face. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, she had set her heart on a Vera Lynn record, and she had just come to discover that there was none among her Christmas presents. Secondly, she heard someone in the market say, “I think nine is like a midget. Ten is like a grown-up. I read that in a book so that means it’s true.” This crushed her heart, seeing she was nine, and not ten. The third reason was because her Christmas dress, which, however pretty it was, had a collar which looked painfully like a baby bib. The mortification of wearing it on the best day of the year would be huge.
Being gloomy on the twenty-fourth was a sin in this household, so Jemimah was sent out to the grocery store to buy two pounds of brown sugar and twenty inches of red velvet ribbon.
It was obvious that everyone around her was having a jolly time. Children were building snowmen in their front gardens, young couples were holding hands under lanterns, and some fathers were buying Christmas trees. Laughter and merriment danced around, people were singing ‘T’is the season’ in the snow, unashamed to publicise their untalented vibratos. The Christmas spirit truly had intoxicated the nation, like it did every year.
Then, when Jemimah approached the grocery store, she saw a beggar man sitting on one of the doorsteps. He looked so tired and bony it was impossible to guess his age. He could have been eighteen; he could have been sixty. He was purple and blue, and dressed in a grey, shapeless cloak which was so shapeless and worn it hardly deserved to be called a cloak. Never had Jemimah seen any human so miserable.
Jemimah couldn’t, just couldn’t walk past him without saying anything. So she said, “Merry Christmas.”
Then she walked inside the grocery store and realised she’d said something ridiculous. Who on earth wished a beggar man a ‘Merry Christmas’?! Jemimah looked around the shop and saw the stacks of food, toffees, apples-on-sticks, and warm bread. That man outside would love some of this. He might even cry of happiness if she bought some for him. But she bought the two pounds of brown sugar and the twenty inches of red velvet ribbon and then walked outside again. She was back on the cold, snowy footsteps, where the beggar man sat like a frozen statue.
The beggar man looked at her with his dark, pining eyes. “Miss?” He started. “Would you mind answering a question?”
“No,” Jemimah said.
“What IS Christmas?”
That question surprised Jemimah. She thought everyone in the world knew what Christmas was! Christmas was the best day of the year, when all the girls wore red velvet, and all the boys bowties. When people ate turkey and lighted candles and read Luke 2 and Matthew 2. Why, surely he was joking!
“Christmas is a kind of party,” Jemimah started. “People get presents, and eat turkey. And people put trees in their parlours, and read the Christmas story in the Bible.”
Jemimah decided that this man wasn’t only poor, but also just plain stupid. “You know! The story about Jesus in the manger, and Mary and Joseph and the innkeeper? And the shepherds and the wise men? Everyone knows it. Only, people get things wrong. People think there’s three wise men, but actually we’ve no clue, and there might have been fifty. And Mary probably wore a brown dress, not blue.”
The old man smiled thinly in the freezing cold. “I’m a Jew. I don’t read the New Testament. That’s why I don’t really know anything about Christmas.”
Jemimah stared at him in grim fascination. She’d never seen a Jew before. Did they all look like this? “Why are you so poor?” she asked.
“Well, since you asked; I’ll tell you. It all started when I was a boy, when the War started. My whole family got killed, except me – I had four sisters, seven brothers, and loveable, jolly parents. My house got burnt in the Kristallnacht, and I fled to England. I’ve been a man of the streets for nine years now. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to sleep in a bed.” He chuckled softly.
“And you’ve never ever celebrated Christmas?”
“Would you like to celebrate Christmas?”
“It sounds fun. I’d like some turkey.”
Jemimah said she would ask her mother, and ran home, brown paper bags clenched in her arms. All of a sudden she was filled with excitement and joy – she was going to give someone his very first Christmas – his first Noel. She stormed inside: found mother listening to Bing Crosby while hanging up mistletoe branches; and father mending the radio so that they would be able to listen to Queen Elizabeth’s speech tomorrow. In hasty babbles, she told them of the beggar Jew who didn’t know what Christmas was.
“Can we…can we invite him?” She finished, breathlessly. They had to say yes.
She saw the hesitation in their faces – hesitation which said, ‘Aw. We were just planning on a family Christmas.’ But then they slowly smiled and said, equally slowly, “Of course, Jemimah. What a wonderful idea.”
So that is how Samuel Benson came to spend Christmas at the Knocks’ household. He didn’t just eat plenty of turkey, rich and flaked with spice and gravy. He didn’t just lick off all the whipped cream from the dessert platters, and nibble up all the mince pie crumbs from the table. He didn’t just rub his hands at the fire, and smile when Mr Knock gave him his coat, and a new set of clothes. If he would have only done those, he would have simply had a great day; with good food, amazing warmth, and happy faces. It would have been an amazing day by itself, but it wouldn’t have been Noel.
He experienced his Christmas first when the Knock family took him to Church in his new shoes, his new coat, his new scarf, and a belly filled with the glorious, golden, candle-lit food. He heard carols; the Christmas story; how God sent Jesus to the world in such a humble, quiet way; with the shepherds, and in a stable. He heard it, and he believed.Samuel’s first Noel was the first of many more. He celebrated the rest of them on his own; in the cold, on the streets, in Mr Knock’s coat. Jemimah celebrated many more Christmases too, with her family, in the warm, treat-filled house. There wasn’t much difference between the two. Christmas, after all, is about Jesus. The turkey, the candles, the smell of pine trees and cranberries, and the presents – those are just the celebrations.
Naomi is a British Belgian, who, dodged between procrastination, writing posts on Wonderland Creek (her blog) and reading books in one sitting, likes to type away stories at her two-year-old laptop called Jane. (Jane, after Jane Austen.) Without the magic of words, the swirl of sentences and the thrill of stories, her life would be a dreary thing; (despite the fact that she would have soundtracks and Period Dramas and a bunch of siblings to cheer her up.)