A Panhandler’s Christmas

[first posted December 2016]

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren came to visit.

Merry_Christmas_on_the_Beach

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

panhandler

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Out of work   Homeless   Anything helps   Thank you

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

xmas panhandler

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.

 

The Passing Parade

Santa Claus has come to town again—waving from high atop his sleigh at the end of a cavalcade of clowns, elves, funny-looking animals, fire-trucks, floats pulled by smelly tractors, and quite a number of marching bands—winding his way through the snowy streets.  As usual, he was welcomed by thousands of cheering youngsters and their freezing parents.

santa 2

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a parade?

The first one I remember attending was one long-ago winter when I was about five years old.  My memories are somewhat hazy, of course, but slivers of razor-sharp, colourful images still poke through the mists of time.

It wasn’t snowing, but snow was on the ground, and it was frosty.  I was bundled warmly, so the cold didn’t matter.  My father was with me, my mother home with my brother, too young yet to brave the crowd.  I don’t think I missed him, so happy was I to enjoy the undivided attention of my dad.

Lots of people were huddled in our vicinity, crowding the street, some singing Christmas songs, some sipping from flasks (my dad included), some blowing into their hands with icy breaths.  We were right on the kerb beside a lamppost, and I alternated between sitting on the frozen pavement and climbing into my dad’s arms.  He leaned against the post and seemed quite happy to wait forever.

band

And forever was how long it seemed to take for Santa to arrive.  He was preceded by all those clowns and elves, the marching bands, and several horse-drawn floats—each of which was followed by elves with pails and shovels.  Even at my tender age, I knew that was not a plum assignment.  Those elves had been naughty, not nice, I figured.

We knew when Santa drew close to the corner at the end of the block by the sound of the crowds further down the street, closer to the end of the parade.  Strident shouts of “Here he comes!” merged into one loud, excited hubbub, causing all around us to lean out over the street, craning our necks to be the first to spy him.

When he hove into view, ‘forever’ finally came to an end.  His reindeer were seemingly frozen in flight in front of his gigantic sleigh, and I remember shrinking back against my father’s legs, almost afraid to believe it was true.  Santa Claus really had come to town! 

My dad lifted me high in his arms, and we waved and shouted as loudly as we could.  Santa looked right at us, I was sure, and tossed us a friendly wink.  If my father believed in Santa, that was good enough for me.  I was hooked from that moment on.

It’s almost seventy years now since that eventful day, and I’ve attended more than my share of Santa Claus parades—several with my father and younger siblings, and then much later with my own children.  I’ve also heartily enjoyed fall-fair parades, Easter parades, Mardi Gras parades (with their madly-flung beads), and even, believe it or not, a Stanley Cup parade.  Once. 

stanley cup

They were magical, every one.

As I think back on them, however, it seems to me that the best one of all is the daily passing parade in front of me.  Unlike those Santa Claus parades of yore—which returned every year in one form or another—the daily parade passes us by just one time.  We can never again see its beginning, nor can we slow its progress down.  Once past, it’s gone for all time.

That’s the bad news.  The better news is that each additional day brings another segment of this lifelong parade.  We form our earliest childhood friendships; we trundle nervously off to our first day of school; we fall in love, perchance more than once; we begin a first job, probably nervously, maybe joyously.  With any luck, we meet the one of our dreams and marry (or form a union of whatever sort); we find a home; perhaps we have children; and, if so blessed, we eventually send them off to their own parades.  In this great procession of life, we are all participants, enjoying the journey while we may.

But all the while, as we play a part in this passing parade, we grow ever older.

love

I have grandchildren now, and their parents are the ones who take them to all the parades of childhood.  My involvement is less a partaker, more an onlooker.  Not a passive spectator, mind you, for that’s not in my nature.  Whenever I can, I’m with them at their big events, basking in their excitement and wonder—but from the sidelines.

For example, we join in their birthday celebrations, my wife and I, but we’re the old folks now.  Our children’s friends acknowledge us politely, even warmly, for we’ve known them a long time.  But we’re always on the edges of their conversations, not at the centre, because they’re all marching in their own parades.

So, I think of myself as a bemused bystander now—alternately pleased or disappointed, excited or disenchanted, optimistic or skeptical—as I observe the passing parade.  Age, I’m finding, requires a degree of withdrawal from youth’s full-bore involvement in the world around.  Yet I have never tired of witnessing the tumult and the shouting.

tickertapeparade

I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a parade?

My Old Friend

I have an old sweatshirt—very old—frayed at the collar, stretched at the waist, threadbare at the elbows.  Its original khaki colour, now faded, is spotted and spattered with stains, reminders of bygone games of a younger day—softball in the summer, flag football in the autumn.  Hardly discernible, though once printed boldly across the front, are the words Property of the Hockey Machine, a team I played for in my long-ago youth.

Despite the hundreds of launderings it’s endured over the years, brownish blotches—long-dried blood from one cut or another—speckle the sleeves.  Grass stains, acquired after multiple falls and spills, add their random pattern to the cloth.  A few holes, too small to stick my pinkie through, but growing, pock the fabric near the neck and waistband.

Fade-Vintage-Rip-Frayed-Cut-Sweatshurt-Khaki-

These days, for eight months of the year, the sweatshirt lies forgotten in the bottom of a drawer in my closet.  But when fall begins to give way to another winter, when it’s too cold to be out and about in a summer-light shirt, I rummage around for it, knowing it will be there, just as it has always been.

There’s no ceremony when I find it, no ritual, no welcome for a long-absent boon companion.  I simply pull it out, slip it on, and go.  Although clean when stowed away each spring, it still surrounds me comfortingly with the faded, familiar smells of male sweat, grass, and liniment.  It’s comfortable, it’s warm, and it fits.  When I put it on for the first time each autumn, it’s as though I had never packed it away.

Some of my acquaintances stare a tad too long when they see me approach, proudly clad in my sweatshirt.  “You still wearin’ that rag?” one might say.

Another might add, “Why don’t you try wearin’ it inside out?”

“I think he already is!” the first might reply, cackling gleefully.

teasing

They probably wish the sweatshirt was theirs, so their raillery bothers me not one bit.

My wife, however, cringes visibly whenever she sees me wearing it outside the house.  Inside, I never leave it where she might get her hands on it.  I mean, why risk what she might do?

This old sweatshirt, this relic of my youth, has become a fond reminder of a time when I was younger, stronger, quicker—when everything seemed possible and within my reach.

I simply cannot let it go.

Similarly, I have an old friend of more than sixty years’ standing.  When we were young and single, still living at home with our parents, we spent uncounted hours in each others’ company.  We played, we went to school, we took summer jobs together.  We talked on the phone—offering advice to one another, confiding our innermost secrets, fears, and dreams to the one pal we knew would never let us down.  We passed from adolescence into young manhood together.

With adulthood, though, things began to change.  We chose different schools to attend after high school, and divergent careers to follow upon graduation.  In due course, we married our high school sweethearts and began to move in different circles.  Children took up a great deal of our time and energy, curtailing the social opportunities we once enjoyed.  We lived in homes far removed from each other.

Parting-Ways

And as a result, we stopped spending a lot of time together.

But faithfully, year after year after year, right after Christmas, we would join each other for a few days with our young families at my old friend’s cottage.  Tucked cosily in the snow-blanketed woods, nestled on the shore of an ice-covered lake, the cottage was warmed by a blazing fire, the laughter of children, and the comfort of a shared friendship with all its memories and love.

It was never the same as once it had been, not with our wives and children sharing the space and the good times with us.  It was only late at night, by the embers of the dying fire, that we seemed to have time to talk as we used to.  With the others abed, we’d hunker down as in days of yore and talk our hearts out.

Interestingly, there was never any emotion-charged greeting between us when we arrived—no boisterous welcome, no demonstrative renewing of the old relationship.  We seemed, simply, to resume an ongoing conversation that had been briefly—but only temporarily—interrupted.  The flow of friendship followed a familiar pattern every time we were reunited, a veritable rhythm of life.

rhythm

My old friend is warm, he’s time-honoured, he’s absolutely trustworthy.  He’s always been there, and he abides to this day.  I slip into his comfortable embrace as easily as into my old sweatshirt—and with the same joyfulness.

Eventually, I know, both will be lost to me, or me to them.  But until that time, I will rejoice each time we renew the bonds.

I love that old sweatshirt.

I treasure my old friend!

It Matters to Me

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

From as far back as I can remember, the Christmas season has always been my favourite.  And it’s true even more now, in my mid-seventies, than it was as a child.

When I stop to think about the reasons for that, I suppose it has to do with the different meanings that Christmas has for me.  Although I can think of many, there are three significant beliefs that stick out.

…with the kids jingle-belling, and everyone telling you, “Be of good cheer…”

None of the three has anything to do with the endless sparring between the commercial and religious aspects of the season—where we find Santa Claus in every shopping mall, serenaded by traditional carols blasted over a tinny sound system.  Or coming to town on a huge sleigh pulled by plastic reindeer.  Were I to dwell on that, the whole season would be spoiled.

santa 2

Neither are my feelings affected by the view of Christmas as a pagan festival, the embodiment of which is old St. Nick, rather than as a true celebration of the birth of Christ.  For me, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.

It’s the hap-happiest season of all…

As a matter of fact, Santa Claus is one of the things I like best about Christmas.  For the record, I still believe in him.  Every Christmas—under the somewhat curious stare of my grandchildren, who are all sophisticated now to the point of pretending to pretend—I hang up my stocking, just as I have for more than seventy years.

“Gramps, you don’t still believe in Santa, do you?” my youngest granddaughter asks.  She watches me closely as I frame a reply.

“Sure do,” I say.  “I mean, I don’t know if there really is a Santa Claus, but it’s more fun to act as if there is.  Believing in Santa is one of the things that make Christmas so much fun.”

stocking

I don’t know if she agrees with me, but it’s reassuring to note that she still hangs up her own stocking.

The second thing of significance for me about the Christmas season is the good feeling prompted by memories of Christmases past.  It’s always been a time for family members to come together.

With those holiday greetings and gay, happy meetings when friends come to call…

For years, my parents’ house was the destination on Christmas Day, eventually giving way to my home, where my wife and I raised our two daughters.  Grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and friends would all drop in, often staying for the opening of the gifts, and dinner afterwards.  And, without fail, they would reminisce about their own childhood Christmas seasons, sharing their happy, nostalgic memories with us.

…tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…

It’s different today, of course, because our daughters have children of their own.  Theirs are the homes we gather at now, with in-laws and friends of their generation.  And, to my everlasting surprise, we have become the old folks—observers rather than directors of the goings-on around the tree.

Worst of all—as the oldest one gathered there, I have to wait ‘til the very end to open my stocking.

…parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow…

christmas_carolers

But, regardless of where we are, the things that haven’t changed are the feelings of love and joy we all share at this time of year.

The third thing of importance to me is the fact that Christmas does mark the birth of Christ.  I believe the question of historical accuracy is irrelevant.  The very fact of his birth, whatever the actual date, is a symbol of our hope for peace on earth.  It stands as a beacon of the promise for salvation in a world fraught with danger and despair for many.

I have absolutely no difficulty in integrating these three different notions of Christmas.  For me, they come together nicely—the fun and excitement of Santa Claus, the love and laughter of times with family, and our renewing joy at the birth of Christ.

There’ll be much mistletoeing and hearts will be glowing when loved ones appear…

Perhaps the thread that ties the three together is the idea of faith, the idea of choosing to believe.  Christmas is my favourite time of the year, but for reasons that are neither irrefutable nor provable.  Faith doesn’t abide proof.

nativity_Bloch

My beliefs are valid only because I deem them so.  I want to believe in them, so I do.  And, therefore, Christmas represents a magical time for me—especially now, knowing I have more of them behind me than ahead.

Softly-falling snow, gaily-twinkling lights, the wonderful music, the excited laughter of grandchildren, and a peace that surpasses all understanding—all join to herald the coming of another Christmastime, a time to celebrate, to remember, to rejoice and give thanks.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…

And it matters to me!

 

A Panhandler’s Christmas

After we retired to Florida some years ago, we discovered that Christmas there is as jolly a season as any we enjoyed up north, enveloped by snow.  It was especially joyous when our grandchildren come to visit.

One evening during our last Christmas season in the sunny south, we all went out to dinner—my wife, our daughter and her husband, and three of our grandchildren.  We’d spent the afternoon shopping at a large, regional mall, and were looking forward to enjoying the cheer of the season and the pleasure of each other’s company.

During dinner, we talked of our plans for their holiday with us.  Unlike the north, where tobogganing, skating, snowball fights, and warm fires were the order of the day, in Florida the beach, the pool, and the golf course were all on the agenda.  We were looking forward to an old-fashioned holiday with lots of singing, plenty of fresh air and exercise, good food, and family to enjoy being around the tree with.

By the time we finished dinner, sharing our happy plans, we were all feeling very fine—warm, full, comfortable.  We left the restaurant, chatting amiably, and began the walk back to the parking lot where we had left the car.

As we waited to cross the intersection, guided by flashing green and red traffic lights that added to the festive Christmas air, we were accosted by a stranger.  He meant us no harm, but his sudden approach startled us out of our contented state.

He was tall and quite thin, and his face jutted out from under a worn cap.  His beard was unkempt, his eyes red and rheumy.  He wore faded jeans, tattered and patched, and an old, plaid shirt with the collar turned up.  The children huddled behind their parents, afraid of being so close to such an apparition.

smiling-homeless_21165970

When he spoke to me, I could hardly hear him in the hum of the passing traffic.  He mumbled through that scraggly beard, through missing teeth, his words coming in disjointed phrases.

“Hey, can you….you got anything….any change?  A bus ticket, maybe….got any…?”

He was clutching a misspelled sign on a scrap of corrugated cardboard that read:

Vetran  homeless everthing helps

“No, sorry,” I muttered, watching for the green light that would allow us to escape.  And we walked away, slightly embarrassed, but relieved to leave him behind.

“Who was that guy, Daddy?” one of the kids asked.

“Did he wanna hurt us?” another chimed in.

Their parents reassured them that he had meant no harm.  He was just a man asking for money.

“Is he sick, Mummy?  Will he be alright?”

None of us could really answer.

When we reached the car, we clambered in silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts.  The kids soon put the episode behind them, immersing themselves in their gaming devices.  As I drove back through the intersection, heading home, the stranger was still on the corner, huddling around himself, approaching passers-by.  He looked pathetic, and utterly alone.  I hoped he didn’t see me staring at him.

Later that night, after everyone was in bed, I thought of him again.  At first, I chastised myself for not giving him something to help him out.  From somewhere, the scrap of a Bible verse teased a corner of my mind—Whatsoever ye do unto the least of these, ye do also to me—something close to that, I think.

But then I rationalized that a token from me would not likely have helped him anyway.  He was obviously past the point where a solitary handout was going to make much of a difference in his life.  He’d probably have wasted whatever we might have given him on booze or drugs, I told myself self-righteously.  At one point, I got angry that he had put me in such an uncomfortable position.

Still, underneath it all, I felt a nagging guilt.  ‘Tis the season to care for one’s fellow-creatures; yet we, so full of the Christmas spirit, had kept on walking.  Because we were fearful, because we hadn’t known how to respond…or because we didn’t care.

Was it best to have ignored him and walked on, I wondered?  Or would it have been better to have given him something, in the spirit of Christmas and with the hope that it would have helped him?  I didn’t know.

As I think about it even now, almost a year later—sitting warm and safe at home at the onset of another Christmas season, surrounded by people who love me—I wonder where that stranger is and whether he’s okay.

And I wish I knew what I should have done.

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