By Stella Whitlock
The weather in late December 1958 stayed chilly and gray, and once the other seminary students deserted campus for the holiday break, the maintenance staff turned down the heat. Our tiny married students’ apartment was so cold I could see my own white breath.
My husband Whit and I weren’t going anywhere for Christmas. It would be the first year either of us had spent the winter holidays away from our homes.
I’d just had a miscarriage, and the doctor had forbidden me to travel for at least six weeks. I’d been five months pregnant when I started bleeding and cramping, and I’d spent two weeks before Thanksgiving in bed, flat on my back, trying to save our baby. But he was stillborn on Thanksgiving morning.
Our insurance hadn’t covered hospital expenses because of a technicality -- a ten-month waiting period for maternity coverage and for uninsured patients, the hospital had insisted that bills be paid in full before release. How could I celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus while I was still mourning the loss of my own baby? Whit had borrowed enough money from the student emergency fund at Union Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, where we were graduate students, to bail me out of the hospital, but there was absolutely nothing left for Christmas gifts or a tree. Since the seminary dining hall was closed for the holidays and our two-room apartment had no kitchen, our meals were skimpy at best -- tomato soup or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Whit had found a part-time job at the Post Office, sorting mail for the Christmas rush, but I stayed in our apartment alone, feeling sick and sorry for myself. I missed the flutters and kicks of the baby we had lost and the comforting conversations with other students, who had gone home to spend Christmas with their families. I dressed in layers of sweaters, crawled into bed under all our blankets and quilts, and tried to catch up on reading for classes I’d missed. But Wednesday before Christmas, Whit surprised me. "Hi, Honey!" He burst into the room. "See what I have!"
He was dragging a freshly cut spruce tree, about three feet tall. A professor had invited him to cut a tree from woods behind his house. It was the perfect size for our bedside table. The evergreen fragrance filled our tiny apartment and began to lift my spirits. But a Christmas tree needed ornaments.
So, while Whit was sorting mail at the Post Office, I got busy. First, I popped corn and strung garlands to drape around the tree. Next, I braved the cold long enough to gather a bag of prickly seed pods from a sweet gum tree. I wrapped these with scraps of bright yarn and hung them up with paper clips. My fingers bled, pricked by the stringing needle and the spines of sweet gum balls, but I had the Christmas spirit at last. I looked around the apartment for anything else to make ornaments. I fashioned lacy snowflakes from white typing paper and bells from empty egg cartons.
When Whit came home, he stopped at the door in amazement. "It’s beautiful!" he exclaimed, as he gave me a big hug. I was already feeling better. But something was still missing -- brightly wrapped presents piled beneath the branches. We had no gifts for our families. I tried not to think about it as we went to bed. The morning mail brought a surprise.
"Look, Whit," I screamed, waving a Christmas card in the air. "$50!"
"Who from?" he asked. I turned the card over and examined it from all angles. "There’s no signature," I said. "Just a cashier’s check."
We stared at each other -- shocked into silence by the generosity of a stranger. It was a gift from an anonymous Christmas angel. We felt rich indeed. We divided the $50 thirteen ways to buy presents for each of our parents, my sister, and Whit’s eight younger brothers and sisters.
It was fun to plan something special for everyone -- a pretty wooden recipe box for Whit’s mom, a shiny lighter for Whit’s dad, delicate floral stationery for my mom, a jigsaw puzzle that my dad had mentioned wanting, a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for my sister, warm woolen caps and gloves in their favorite colors for Whit’s brothers and sisters. Not expensive gifts, but something special chosen for each person on our list.
Amazingly, after a day of careful shopping, we were also able to buy one string of lights, a container of tinsel icicles, and some tiny tubes of gold and silver glitter. We even splurged on a box of twelve shiny "unbreakable" ornaments, on sale for $1.00. But when we bragged to friends and demonstrated by dropping one of the balls onto the hardwood floor, the fragile ornament shattered into hundreds of bright red shards! As soon as we got home, Whit strung the lights on the tree, and I began cutting shapes of stars, snowmen, and angels from the index cards we used for our research papers. With a bit of glue and glitter, these were magically transformed into sparkling ornaments. We added the eleven remaining store-bought ornaments and draped silvery tinsel one strand at a time.
Whit and I have shared forty-seven Christmases since that first one, all full of happiness, but none any more memorable. Each year as we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we remember the warmth and love of our first Christmas together and realize that giving is indeed more blessed than receiving. Each Christmas we find a person or family in need and make our own anonymous gift. And every Christmas, as we decorate our tree, we still hang at least one each of those first handmade ornaments -- sweet gum balls, egg-carton bells, and paper-glue-and-glitter stars. Then we add the eleven surviving unbreakable ornaments plus our original tinsel icicles, and we know that, miracle of miracles, Christmas has again arrived.
Stella Ward Whitlock is the wife of a Presbyterian minister, mother of four, and grandmother of seven. She has been a teacher for forty-five years and is currently teaching at Methodist College, Fayetteville, NC.
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