I was a Christmas Grinch until I realized there are angels everywhere during the holidays.
I finished tying the two-foot, plastic evergreen tree snug across the top of my car. I couldn’t help but crack a Grinchy smile. It looked ridiculous—the perfect expression of how I felt about Christmas. You celebrate your way, I thought, imagining hordes of people crowding into the mall. I’ll do it my way.
I’d never been much of a ho-ho-ho type. Every year when the holiday was over, when the last of the wrapping paper was in the garbage, I felt disappointed. Was that really all there was to it? Comfort and joy? Maybe I just wasn’t going to the right stores. Even the Bible story, with its choirs of angels, seemed foreign. Did angels even exist anymore?
This year more than ever I was dreading the post-holiday letdown. It was the first week of December. At the end of the month I was retiring, after 25 years on the police force. I wasn’t looking forward to puttering around the house. My wife and I had lived there 15 years, but I hardly knew the neighbors.
I got in my car and headed for the mall, anxious to see the reaction of the crowds of shoppers to my tree. I was going to have some fun, whether anyone else liked it or not. I pulled into the lot and drove slowly past the first row of cars with my window rolled down. An older woman was just getting out of her car. I stopped next to her and sung out, “Merry Christmas!” She looked at me. Then at the tree. Then started chuckling.
“That’s hilarious!” she said. “You don’t know how badly I needed that today with my husband in the hospital.” I watched as she walked to the entrance, her steps almost bouncy.
I drove down row after row. Everyone I greeted smiled. Most laughed out loud. Some introduced themselves and told me stories of how they were going through a divorce, how a husband was out of a job, how a son was coming home from Iraq. I couldn’t believe how much time they took out of their busy holiday shopping to talk to me, like we were old friends. Thanks so much, they would say as we parted.
Many people were down on their luck, dealing with issues worse than retirement. It had been fun to brighten their day. I went to Starbucks and bought 10 five-dollar gift cards.
Now when I greeted people I said, “Let me be the first person to give you a Christmas gift.” Then I handed them a gift card. They looked at me surprised. “Merry Christmas!” they said with delight. For me they were words that were taking on new meaning. I was merry.
Driving home that evening I spied a man just down the street from me putting lights on his house. I’d never even said hi to him. I thought about all the people I’d met. How was it possible that I didn’t know the people on my own street?
“Why don’t we invite the neighbors over for a party?” I asked my wife that evening.
She looked at me quizzically. “Are you feeling all right?” she said.
All the next week we knocked on doors around the neighborhood. “Bring your favorite finger food,” we said. “Party starts at seven.” Some looked at us like they thought we were trying to sell them something, but most said they would try to make it.
I counted down the days. But when the appointed hour arrived: no neighbors. Five minutes crawled by. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea. Then there was a knock on the door. The couple next door with a plate of cookies. Right behind them was the man I’d seen putting up lights. I learned he’d retired the year before. He’d been looking for a running partner. Was I interested?
In all, seven couples showed up. I looked around our dining room in amazement as the room buzzed with conversation. It felt so warm and inviting. December 25 was still a week away, but Christmas—the season of comfort and joy—seemed all around, a celebration that knows no end. Angels, I realized, are everywhere. You only have to listen to hear them sing.