Approximately 20 years ago, I collaborated with several authors to prepare a book entitled, A Family Christmas. It consisted of nine classic short stories that will warm your heart. They were illustrated throughout with prints of wonderful paintings by acclaimed artist, and my friend, the late Gerald Harvey. A Family Christmas is no longer in print, which I regret because it captured the soul of the yuletide season. Thus, I have chosen to devote my letter this month to an excerpt from a book that is no longer available. I began with this.
What three words in our language carry more emotionally-laden memories than A Family Christmas? What other simple phrase unleashes such a flood of nostalgia, half-forgotten longings, and well-remembered tastes, smells, sounds, melodies, and images?
A Family Christmas.
Happy or sad, festive or quiet, A Family Christmas carries us from where we are to where we've been. . . or perhaps where we want to be. I have only to close my eyes to find myself in scenes from my boyhood in Texas with my father and mother—scenes that are often interwoven with images from Oklahoma, California, and Kansas, around the fireplace with Shirley, Danae, and Ryan…lights turned down low, the fire popping and snapping on the grate, and the sweet fragrance of Christmas candles filling the room. These are among the most precious memories of my life.
The book also recalled other images that most of us have only seen in literature, art, and film. They represented a time gone by, before most of us were born. And yet, they are part of the heritage of Christmas that is still with us today. Gerald Harvey's paintings focused on turn-of-the-century scenes that were vividly preserved on canvas and in sculpture. Sleighs jingling along snowy country lanes and the clip-clop of horse's hooves on cobbled streets; the soft glow of gas lights around a town square filled with shoppers; and tiny churches on starry nights, light pouring from the windows and the good folks of the village gathering for a Christmas Eve service of carols and praise. It was all there for us to enjoy. You can understand why I feel a certain sadness about the passing of an era.
Whether we speak of our own families or the worldwide family of God, this season is a time of giving and receiving like no other. What I will share with you now is the opening story of A Family Christmas, written by Cathy Miller. She titled it "Delayed Delivery."
There had never been a winter like this. Stella watched from the haven of her armchair as gusts of snow whipped themselves into frenzy. She feared to stand close to the window, unreasonably afraid that somehow the blizzard might be able to reach her there, sucking her, breathless, out into the chaos. The houses across the street were all but obliterated by the fury of wind-borne flakes. Absently, the elderly woman straightened the slipcovers on the arms of her chair, her eyes glued to the spectacle beyond the glass.
Dragging her gaze away from the window, she forced herself up out of her chair and waited a moment for balance to reassert itself. Straightening her back against the pain that threatened to keep her stooped, she set out determinedly for the kitchen.
In the doorway to the next room she paused, her mind blank, wondering what purpose had propelled her there. From the vent above the stove, the scream of the wind threatened to funnel the afternoon storm directly down into the tiny house. Stella focused brown eyes on the stovetop clock. The three-fifteen time reminded her that she had headed in there to take something out of the freezer for her supper. Another lonely meal that she didn't feel like preparing, much less eating.
Suddenly, she grabbed the handle of the refrigerator and leaned her forehead against the cool, white surface of the door as a wave of self-pity threatened to drown her. It was too much to bear, losing her beloved Dave this summer! How was she to endure the pain, the daily nothingness? She felt the familiar ache in her throat and squeezed her eyes tightly shut to hold the tears at bay.
Stella drew herself upright and shook her head in silent chastisement. She reiterated her litany of thanks. She had her health, her tiny home, an income that should suffice for the remainder of her days. She had her books, her television programs, her needlework. There were the pleasures of her garden in the spring and summer, walks through the wilderness park at the end of her street, and the winter birds that brightened the feeders outside her kitchen picture window. Not today, though, she thought ruefully, as the blizzard hurled itself against the eastern wall of the kitchen.
"Ah, Dave, I miss you so! I never minded storms when you were here." The sound of her own voice echoed hollowly in the room. She turned on the radio that stood on the counter next to a neatly descending row of wooden canisters. A sudden joyful chorus of Christmas music filled the room, but it only served to deepen her loneliness.
Stella had been prepared for her husband's death. Since the doctor's pronouncement of terminal lung cancer, they had both faced the inevitable, striving to make the most of their remaining time together. Dave's financial affairs had always been in order. There were no new burdens in her widowed state. It was just the awful aloneness. . .the lack of purpose to her days.
They had been a childless couple. It had been their choice. Their lives had been full and rich. They had been content with busy careers, and with each other. They had had many friends. Had. That was the operative word these days. It was bad enough losing the one person you loved with all your heart. But over the past few years, she and Dave repeatedly had to cope with the deaths of their friends and relations. They were all of an age—the age when human bodies began giving up—dying. Face it—they were old!
And now, on this first Christmas without Dave, Stella would be on her own. Mable and Jim had invited her to spend the holiday with them in Florida, but somehow that had seemed worse than staying at home alone. Not only would she miss her husband, but she would miss the snow and the winter and the familiarity of her home.
With shaky fingers, she lowered the volume of the radio so that the music became a muted background. She glanced toward the fridge briefly, then decided that a hot bowl of soup would be more comforting fare this evening.
To her surprise, she saw that the mail had come. She hadn't even heard the creak of the levered mail slot in the front door. Poor mailman, out in this weather! "Neither hail, nor sleet. . . " With the inevitable wince of pain, she bent to retrieve the damp white envelopes from the floor. Moving into the living room, she sat on the piano bench to open them. They were mostly Christmas cards, and her sad eyes smiled at the familiarity of the traditional scenes and at the loving messages inside. Carefully, her arthritic fingers arranged them among the others clustered on the piano top. In her entire house, they were the only seasonal decoration. The holiday was less than a week away, but she just did not have the heart to put up a silly tree, or even set up the stable that Dave had built with his own hands.
Suddenly engulfed by the loneliness of it all, Stella buried her lined face in her hands, lowering her elbows to the piano keys in a harsh, abrasive discord, and let the tears come. How would she possibly get through Christmas and the winter beyond it? She longed to climb into bed and bury herself in a cocoon of blankets, not emerging until her friends and spring returned.
The ring of the doorbell echoed the high-pitched, discordant piano notes and was so unexpected that Stella had to stifle a small scream of surprise. Now who could possibly be calling on her on a day like today? Wiping her eyes, she noticed for the first time how dark the room had become. The doorbell sounded a second time.
Using the piano for leverage, she raised herself upright and headed for the front hall, switching on the living room light as she passed. She opened the wooden door and stared through the screened window of the storm door in consternation. On her front porch, buffeted by waves of wind and snow, stood a strange young man, whose hatless head was barely visible above the large carton in his arms. She peered beyond him to the driveway, but there was nothing about the small car to give a clue to his identity. Returning her gaze to him, she saw that his hands were bare and his eyebrows had lifted in an expression of hopeful appeal that was fast disappearing behind the frost forming on the glass. Summoning courage, the elderly lady opened the door slightly, and he stepped sideways to speak into the space.
She nodded in affirmation, her extended arm beginning to tremble with cold and the strain of holding the door against the wind. He spoke again, "I have a package for you."
Curiosity drove warning thoughts from her mind. She pushed the door far enough to enable the stranger to shoulder it and stepped back into the foyer to make room for him. He entered, bringing with him the frozen breath of the storm. Smiling, he placed his burden carefully on the floor and stood to retrieve an envelope that protruded from his pocket. As he handed it to her, a sound came from the box. Stella actually jumped. The man laughed in apology and bent to straighten up the cardboard flaps, holding them open for her to peek inside. She advanced cautiously, then turned her gaze downward.
It was a dog! To be more exact, a golden Labrador retriever puppy. As the gentleman lifted its squirming body up into his arms, he explained, "This is for you, Ma'am. He's six weeks old and completely housebroken." The young pup wiggled in happiness at being released from captivity and thrust ecstatic, wet kisses in the direction of his benefactor's chin. "We were supposed to deliver him on Christmas Eve," he continued with some difficulty, as he strove to rescue his chin from the wet little tongue, "but the staff at the kennels start their holidays tomorrow. Hope you don't mind an early present."
Shock had stolen her ability to think clearly. Unable to form coherent sentences, she stammered, "but. . .I don't. . .I mean. . .who. . .?"
The young fellow set the animal down on the doormat between them and then reached out a finger to tap the envelope she was still holding.
"There's a letter in there that explains everything, pretty much. The dog was bought last July while her mother was still pregnant. It was meant to be a Christmas gift. If you'll just wait a minute, there are some things in the car I'll get for you."
Before she could protest, he was gone, returning a moment later with a huge box of dog food, a leash, and a book, Caring for Your Labrador Retriever. All this time the puppy had sat quietly at her feet, panting happily as his brown eyes watched her.
Unbelievably, the stranger was turning to go. Desperation forced the words from her lips. "But who. . .who bought it?"
Pausing in the open doorway, his words almost snatched away by the wind that tousled his hair, he replied, "Your husband, Ma'am." And then he was gone.
It was all in the letter. Forgetting the puppy entirely at this sight of the familiar handwriting, Stella had walked like a somnambulist to her chair by the window. Unaware that the little dog had followed her, she forced tear-filled eyes to read her husband's words. He had written it three weeks before his death and had left it with the kennel owners to be delivered along with the puppy as his last Christmas gift to her. It was full of love and encouragement and admonishments to be strong. He vowed that he was waiting for the day when she would join him. And he had sent her this young animal to keep her company until then.
Remembering the little creature for the first time, she was surprised to find him quietly looking up at her, his small panting mouth resembling a comic smile. Stella put the pages aside and reached down for the bundle of golden fur. She thought that he would be heavier, but he was only the size and weight of a sofa pillow. And so soft and warm. She cradled him in her arms and he licked her jawbone, then cuddled up into the hollow of her neck. The tears began anew at this exchange of affection, and the dog endured her crying without moving.
Finally, Stella lowered him to her lap, where he regarded her solemnly. She wiped vaguely at her wet cheeks, then somehow mustered a smile.
"Well, little guy, I guess it's up to you and me." His pink tongue panted in agreement. Stella's smile strengthened, and her gaze shifted sideways to the window. Dusk had fallen, and the storm seemed to have spent the worst of its fury. Through fluffy flakes that were now drifting down at a gentler pace, she saw the cheery Christmas lights that edged the rooflines of her neighbors' homes. The strains of "Joy to the World" wafted in from the kitchen.
Suddenly Stella felt the most amazing sensation of peace and benediction washing over her. It was like being enfolded in a loving embrace. Her heart beat painfully, but it was with joy and wonder, not grief or loneliness. She need never feel alone again. Returning her attention to the dog, she spoke to him, "You know, fella, I have a box in the basement that I think you'd like. There's a tree in it and some decorations and lights that will impress you like crazy! And I think I can find that old stable down there, too. What d'ya say we go hunt it up?" The puppy barked happily in agreement, as if he understood every word.
I'll close my letter with these thoughts about the meaning of Christmas.
Love is stronger than death and reaches into eternity with gifts of kindness, coming from loving hearts that can warm the coldest winter and bring light into dark and lonely places.
And once upon a dark night in a little village called Bethlehem, every one of us received a Gift like no other. It was a Gift of surpassing kindness and enduring love. . .a Gift that to this day warms hearts, releases captives, pushes back the shadows, and delivers hope and joy to transform desolate seasons of our lives.
God's great Gift, delivered just when we needed it most, will walk with us through every trial, every hardship, every lonely day, and every starless night. And one day we'll all be together in the presence of the Gift, where loneliness and death and separation and tears will fade like a distant dream.
The Gift is ours, right now. And his name is Jesus.
"Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"
—2 Corinthians 9:15
P.S. Through the generosity of several close friends of the ministry, we have a matching grant for December that will double the impact of any gift while the grant lasts. If the Lord has positioned you to give at this time, I assure you that it will be used to fight the good fight that lies ahead of us. Thank you for standing with us, and may you and your family experience the amazing hope and joy of the Christmas season.
This letter may be reproduced without change and in its entirety for non-commercial and non-political purposes without prior permission from Family Talk. Copyright, 2021 Family Talk. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Printed in the U.S. Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk is not affiliated with Focus on the Family.