Advent, Day 20: When Christmas Past Is Present

On this, the 20th day of Advent, Norman Vincent Peale shares some inspiring memories of Christmases gone by.

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26 Days of Advent with Dr. Norman Vincent Peale

My memories of Christmas around the turn of the century in the town of Lynchburg, Ohio, are still crystal clear. My father used to boost me up so I could crank my grandmother’s doorbell, and everybody inside came running. I can smell the warm tallow of lighted candles on the tree and the aroma of homemade candy bubbling in a pot on the wood stove.

It was a thrill to wake up and find an orange in my stocking, and I’ll never forget how excited I was the year I got a banana! We were a country preacher’s family, and we were poor. But we had a mighty good time.

One year my brother Bob and I dreamed of getting a bicycle. For months we haunted the stores looking at wheels and argued long about the color. At last we agreed: It had to be red.

Christmas morning we crept downstairs. There were small gifts under the tree—but no bicycle. Then Mother said to us, “Let’s go down to the railroad station. Maybe Santa Claus forgot something, and perhaps it will come on the morning train.”

So down we went to the old B&O station to meet the train. The door of the baggage car rolled open, and there it was—a bicycle with a light on the front. It was secondhand, and we boys had to share it, but it was ours and it was red! Later I learned that Mother had made her threadbare coat last yet another season so we might have our dreamed-of bicycle.

When I was seven or so, we lived in Cincinnati, close to the tracks where the streetcars screeched around corners. A special car came along to grease the rails, and we children, I’m sorry to say, made fun of the grimy old guy who ran it. “Greasy Dick,” we shouted when he came by. “Hey, Greasy Dick!”

One day right before Christmas my father asked me to come along on one of his hospital calls. “Someone you will recognize isn’t feeling well,” he said. Propped up in a bed was Greasy Dick! My father introduced him by his real name, just as he would the finest gentleman, and when he shook my hand, it didn’t feel greasy at all.

“I hope you grow up to be a fine man like your father,” he exclaimed. My father gave a prayer and patted his shoulder. When we left, my father said, “Remember, Norman, he’s not Greasy Dick; he’s a friend of ours. And he’s a child of God.”

As I grew up, I came to appreciate what a precious gift Dad had given to me. He’d taught me to look for the good in people, always. It was a Christmas present that affected my whole life, and one I’ve always prayed I might pass on to others.

When I became a pastor myself, I started out as the minister of a small church in Brooklyn; and since I was single, the ladies were always feeding me. One Christmas Eve I went to the home of some church members for dinner, and on the door of the house across the street were a pair of wreaths—a traditional Christmas wreath and a somber funeral wreath.

I had a feeling I should see if I could help, but I wondered: Were the people who lived there Catholic or Protestant? I didn’t want to go anywhere if I wasn’t wanted, so I hesitated before deciding what to do. Finally I went and knocked, and when a man came to the door, I explained who I was. The man had tears in his eyes. “Come in,” he said.

Inside the front room was a casket containing the body of a girl who couldn’t have been older than four. “My wife is upstairs with our son,” the man said. “Please go and talk to her.” I went with trepidation. What could I do? What could I say? I was just a new, young minister and hadn’t had much experience with family tragedies.

Upstairs I found a lovely woman and a boy. As I fumbled around for what to say the woman spoke up. “God gave us our little girl,” she said, “and then took her home.”

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She went on to tell me that God understood her grief because he had lost his son. We prayed together, and later on, that family became members of my church. I’d gone in anxious and unsure about how to comfort them, and they’d ended up comforting me. That was nearly 70 years ago, but ever since, I’ve been constantly amazed by the ways in which we interact to help and heal one another.

Once, a young lady from Switzerland, Ursula, lived with our family in New York City. As Christmas approached she wondered what she could give us in gratitude.

She went to a children’s shop, bought a beautiful baby dress and had it gift wrapped. Then she approached one of the Salvation Army people on a corner. “Sir,” she said, “I have a dress for a poor baby. Do you know of one?”

“More than one, I am afraid.”

Together they hailed a cab and the Salvation Army man gave an address uptown. When the taxi pulled up in front of a rundown tenement, the Salvation Army officer took in the package. “Say it is from someone who has been blessed and wants to pass those blessings on,” Ursula told him.

When the cab driver finally delivered Ursula back to our home, he told her there was no charge. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve been more than paid for this.” Ursula told us about her present on Christmas morning. It was one of the nicest we ever got.

After our three children grew up and had families of their own, there came a time when my wife, Ruth, and I found ourselves in London for the holidays. We were determined to have a Charles Dickens adventure. On Christmas Eve we had a hearty dinner and then went walking, our footsteps echoing in the deserted streets. It was gloomy going, and just about the time it seemed our Christmas spirits might never get off the ground, we heard singing from far away.

As we walked along, the sound of trumpeting brass and the chorus of jubilant voices got louder and louder. “O Come, All Ye Faithful!” “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear!” We heard them all. As we neared Trafalgar Square, we could see it was packed with thousands of people. A Salvation Army band was playing on a platform. It was bitter cold, but those people were having the time of their lives, singing “Joy to the World” at the top of their lungs.

There we were, so many miles from home, and yet fight at home because of the spirit that surrounded us. We felt the same way several years ago when we took all our children and grandchildren on a trip to Africa, and sat outside our tent under glittering stars as we read the story of the Nativity from the Gospel of Luke.

There’s a story that’s always meant a lot to Ruth and me. The story was about an African boy who gave his missionary-teacher an unusually beautiful seashell as a Christmas gift. The boy had walked a great distance, over rough terrain, to the only place on the coast where these particular shells could be found. The teacher was touched. “You’ve traveled so far to bring me such a wonderful present,” she said. The boy looked puzzled, then his eyes widened with excitement. “Oh, teacher,” he explained, “long walk part of gift.”

Sure, there have been plenty of times over the years when all the pre-holiday shopping and sermon writing and schedule arranging seemed to be too much, and my wife, Ruth, and I have been tempted to throw up our hands and say, “It’s just not worth the effort!” But then we’ve looked at each other and said, “Long walk part of gift.” And we’ve laughed and gotten back to work.

These stories are part of a golden thread that weaves us all together, strengthening us for the years ahead. Christmas is the ongoing affirmation of the greatest ideals and truth that anybody ever came up with. People feel reborn, invigorated, whole. Over and over, through the ages it goes.

Backward glances don’t make me nostalgic and sad—not at all. They give me a burst of excitement for going forward. And they add to the richness of celebrating Christmas now. 

This story first appeared in the December 1993 edition of Guideposts.

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