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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

An Unlikely Christmas Gift

By Bob Abplanalp
Aug. 21, 2011

One summer evening, months before Christmas Day, candles flickered from a half-dozen windowsills and a Communion table where they’d been carefully placed. A humble congregation sat quietly, mostly in the dark. It was a little past dusk. I watched my mother being raised by a preacher from the waters of the baptistery. Her face was wet, and it radiated what must have been the glory of God in that small sanctuary full of soft, beautiful candlelight.

I was only 7 then, and I merely saw and felt the scene unfolding before me. There was no comprehension of the transformation taking place in her life. Nor did I understand how Christmas that year had been providentially fitted between Mom’s baptism and another life-shaping event months later that would let me experience the true wonder of Christmas.

Winter finally arrived at Spring Valley trailer court, our mining village of less than 100 persons nestled amid sagebrush, red dirt, and long shadows of the mighty La Sal Mountains of Utah. It was cold enough to freeze bike tire tracks in the barren ground and burst water pipes beneath our trailer houses, yet there was no snow. It wouldn’t be the first brown Christmas we’d had. Besides, the wonderland of Christmas chiefly existed in my imagination, where I colorfully visualized the North Pole, eight tiny reindeer, and the mysterious, larger-than-life Santa Claus (whom I loved).

My older brother was 8 years old, our little sister was 6, and I was the middle child. Early Christmas morning the three of us sprang from our bunk beds, flew down the narrow hallway to the living room, and burst into the presence of our brightly trimmed Christmas tree. Suddenly it was as if someone had played a hideous trick on us. We were dumbstruck. I felt nauseated. There was nothing under the tree! Nothing for us to unwrap. Nothing to play with. All we could do was stare in disbelief at the terrible emptiness.

The year before had been so plentiful: for my brother and me, a miniature model Dodge City with accompanying plastic figurines, a handyman tool kit, and cap guns and holsters. Santa had left a life-sized doll for my sister, which she promptly named Sacajawea. What had we done wrong? How was it possible that Santa Claus had flown past our house? How could he have forgotten us? I wanted to cry.

From their bedroom at the far end of the trailer house, Mom and Dad must have heard us scurry down the hall and felt the heavy silence filling the house like a thick fog. As they entered the living room, I was puzzled by their lack of excitement. Something was going on, but what was it?

Then Mother’s words broke the suffocating silence: “Kids, your daddy and I have to talk to you about something very important.”

She was uncomfortable, too serious. I had never seen her so grim. She mentioned something about God and the little church where she’d been baptized, but for the life of me I couldn’t get what she was talking about until she said these words: “Santa Claus isn’t real.”

It was as if an atom bomb had been dropped. My glorious visions of Santa had been obliterated. In a panic I exclaimed, “Oh, no, Mom! Oh, no!” Then I bawled, as did my little sister.

My brother became more and more angry. The morning had been ripped apart. I felt anxious and kept fumbling for something inside to hang on to, but I couldn’t find it. Being a child, I had felt safe living amid mystery in a world larger than the trailer court existence we lived. I found secret comfort in permitting myself to become lost in an imaginary world. And Santa Claus, with a twinkle in his eye and a finger laid to the side of his nose, had been the dominant figure in that make-believe place.

Suddenly Dad left the room, then soon returned with three small packages. But we were to make no mistake: the presents were from Mom and him. He handed my brother and me our own neatly wrapped pocketknives. I don’t remember what he gave my sister, only that the three of us had held all we received for Christmas in our small, innocent palms.

As the sadness of the morning hung on, I walked outside across the frozen ground, trying to get used to the huge vacuum in my heart, and I came upon a set of animal tracks. Then something in my mind clicked. I made one last-ditch effort to save the day. Those tracks were reindeer tracks!

I quickly ran back to the trailer house, pulled open the door and shouted to my brother, “I found tracks! Reindeer tracks! Santa Claus was here last night! Come on, Jim ... you’ll see!”

He wouldn’t budge. He was finished with the whole idea. “Those are dumb old dog tracks, and you’re so stupid!”

My feelings were hurt, mostly because I knew that he was telling the truth; the tracks were exactly like those made by one of our neighbor’s hounds.

So, that was that. The magic of Santa Claus had been uncovered, and for a while my life felt crummy and vulnerable.

Then one night at camp the following summer I heard a preacher make an “altar call.” A bunch of us boys were sitting together, horsing around, when we all heard the same urgent call to come just as we were, “without one plea.”

My brother took me by the hand, “Come on, Bob, let’s go.”

We soberly shuffled down the dirt path to the front of the rustic outdoor tabernacle. That night I gave my broken heart to someone greater than Santa Claus, and something rapturous occurred inside me; I couldn’t contain the great joy spilling over and over. Songs of praise that I’d learned that week poured into my mind, and later I sang them loudly for my parents.

That night God reached down and took my empty soul into His hands. I didn’t know then how to say what I so vividly felt. I didn’t have the words at the time to describe what I had experienced over and over again. How does a 7-year-old boy go about telling his small world of family and friends, “I am loved! I am loved!”

Although Mother’s words had laid an ax to my vivid images of Santa Claus, it turned out to be an unlikely Christmas gift. The Christ child of Bethlehem lived, died and rose again. Then, from far beyond all time and space, He saw my empty longing. And, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the wonder of Christmas entered my life.

BOB ABPLANALP is a part-time adjunct instructor at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo.

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