CHARLES DICKENS would have been proud. The street was like something out of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Actually, it’s not a street, at least, not anymore. The city blocked it off for 6 blocks and turned it into an outdoor mall. The streetlights were made to look like old style lanterns, small trees, park benches and a statue here and there fill the walkways and tiny shops, taverns, and restaurants are on both sides.
A light snow was still falling, having covered the tops of the statues, the little white flakes falling down aimlessly in the still night as children turned in circles with their tongues out trying to catch them. Carolers, dressed in old Victorian clothes, walked up and down the promenade, their voices dimmed by the crowds, but still audible if you were close enough.
Of course, I didn’t notice any of this, at least, not yet. I was much too busy. So much to do and only a few days left till Christmas. I jostled about through the crowds, my bags full of gifts banging this way and that. I don’t like crowds much, I’m too impatient. And the cold weather was getting on my nerves too. I still had to find something for Mom and I hadn’t the faintest idea what to get her. I hate buying gifts for her, she has everything and wants nothing. But if I don’t get her something I’ll hear about it all year.
I was walking by the carolers, oblivious to the sweet sound of their harmony when I noticed the alley. Well, it’s not really an alley, it’s too wide for that, and it’s covered too. The Europeans call them arcades. It’s nothing more than a covered outdoor mall that connects two streets where an alley might once have been. I’d only been to this street once before and I didn’t remember seeing this arcade. It was brightly lit, with what looked like white marble tiles for a walkway. I could see a bench or two halfway down and more shops with brightly lit displays. There weren’t as many people there and I almost didn’t go in thinking there must not be much worth seeing, but as I was still lost as to what I was looking for, curiosity got the better of me and in I went.
I walked along the left side of the walkway. I always go left if given a choice of directions. No reason really, other than I’m left-handed and I have to choose one or the other anyway. The usual assortment of shops was there, clothes, Christmas ornaments, coffee…. and an old book shop. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it normally; books aren’t Mom’s thing. But as I approached it, an old man came out with a young woman. Holding her elbow, he bade her goodbye with a big smile and then turned to me as I approached.
His voice was kind and gentle as he said, “You look like you could use a cup of Hot Chocolate. Come on in.”
Without really giving me time to react, he half tuned and opened the door to the bookshop and held his arm wide, beckoning me inside. Dutifully, I walked in. The heat felt good on my face and I could already feel the snow on my head begin to melt.
“Come here and sit down” he said, moving me to the left where two armchairs and a small table sat, covered with books by the window overlooking the arcade.
He helped me with my coat and motioned to one of the chairs, then rushed off to the back where he said he’d return promptly with hot cocoa. The chair was surprisingly comfortable for what looked like an antique and my legs cried out their approval from muscles I hadn’t noticed were tired. I looked around me at this bookshop and found that it wasn’t what I had expected.
It was small but crammed full of books. Shelves going from floor to ceiling seemed literally to burst with volumes of books. Some were neatly arranged, others simply stacked and yet…. It gave the feeling of comfort. Warm and cozy almost, the way a familiar room might feel at home. A real working fireplace was midway back against the right wall, and it gave off an impressive amount of heat for such a small hearth. I thought it odd that a bookstore should have a working fireplace, but I didn’t have time to ponder it as my host appeared with two mugs in his hands.
“There” he said, putting one of the mugs in front of me, “that should warm you up.”
I took the cup and tasted a small amount of the hot chocolate. To this day, I don’t know what he put in it, but that was the best hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I looked over the rim of my mug and took a good look at my host. He was of medium build. An older gentleman, I would have guessed nearing sixty, though I’m lousy with ages. His hair was Grey, but neatly combed back. His dress casual and smart, with slacks and shirt covered by a thick hand-knitted sweater. What stood out most, however, were his eyes. They were the bluest eyes I’d ever seen, the color of azure water in the Caribbean. And they sparkled. I don’t mean just a little twinkle like jolly old Saint Nick. I’m talking about the North Star kind of sparkle.
He looked up at me and smiled, dimples instantly appearing on both sides. Leaning forward, his expression became suddenly serious. He said, “Have you forgotten about Christmas? I mean I know you know it’s coming, but do you remember what it is?”
I looked at him with what must have been a frown from confusion as he continued, “Now, I’m not talking about the so called ‘meaning of Christmas’. There are people fare more qualified than I who can educate you on the religious history and significance of this time of year. And while that’s important too, it’s not what I want to tell you about.”
Needless to say, I was speechless. Tell me about? You mean he didn’t just want to offer me a cup of hot chocolate to get me into his bookshop? The though barely had time to enter my head as he went on.
“You see, lots of folks think that Christmas is a thing. A tree you buy or decorations that are pulled out of a box and dusted off once a year. Or it’s a list of presents that need to be found and then wrapped.” He shook his head from side to side as if recalling a sad event, “Maybe it’s cards to be signed and put in the mail. Parties to attend, songs to be sung, kisses under mistletoe and wreaths on the door.”
His voice was still soft and gentle but filled with passion. “Some folks grow up and see Christmas as a chore. Traffic jams, long lines at the counters, and endless advertisements everywhere they turn. Screaming children, stressed out parents and obligations they don’t want to fulfill or unpleasant memories they’d rather forget.”
He looked down at his hands then, pausing only slightly. “It saddens me when I see them walking by. I see their faces and I know that they too have forgotten what Christmas really is.”
His description had hit too close to home and I admit I was having trouble looking into his face. Still, I was curious where he was headed, and he didn’t keep me waiting long.
“It’s not very easy to put into words because Christmas is not a ‘Thing’. If I were being forced to give it a label, the only one I can think of that even comes close is……” he looked up, as if trying to find the right way to say it, “…well,…. Is that Christmas is a feeling. More precisely, it’s a Magical feeling.”
He looked up and caught my eyes when he said it. The sparkle in his eye was in full force. His smile was back, and the wattage could have lit up all the Christmas Trees in town.
“The good news is that it’s a feeling we all have” he said. And then, like a little boy too excited to sit still, he squirmed closer to the table and leaning his arms on the edge he continued his narrative. “Or perhaps I should say had. Most of us had it strongest when we were young. Remember how you would always look forward to the holidays? You’d know it was close when all the shops put up their decorations. The toy departments were always the best because they would have trains set up with lights and fake snow. Teddy Bears and dolls on all the shelves? Some even had race cars and toys out so you could try them.”
“You’d get in the car with your parents to go and find the perfect tree. It seemed like everyone was out to get their tree at the same exact time and you’d always be afraid there wouldn’t be any left for you. Your mom would bundle you up until you couldn’t even let your arms hand down by your sides” We both smiled at the memory almost every child has.
“Finally, you’d see the tree lot, people walking everywhere looking at the trees. Your dad would hold them up and shake them until he found the perfect one.” He paused again, looking me straight in the eyes, then softly, as though telling me a secret, he said, “That’s Christmas Magic”.
Raising his voice again he said, “Do you remember the first day each year when you would wake up and look outside your window to find that overnight it had snowed? You’d eat your breakfast faster than ever. Finish your chores in record time and get dressed like your house was on fire just so you could go out and play in it. Your mom would always make you wear an extra sweater and wrap a scarf around your neck so many times you’d think it was holding your head on. And then came the mittens that were twice as big as your hands, and the hat that came down to your nose, but you wouldn’t care. Once you were outside playing in the snow, building a snowman, and having snowball fights, nothing mattered.” Again, his voice lowered. “THAT’S Christmas magic”.
“Remember when the whole family would sit down by the fire to watch ‘A Christmas Carol’? You’d hold on to your mom’s arm when the Ghosts first appeared to old Ebaneezer. And sure enough just about the time the Ghost of Christmas Future came you’d start to fall asleep. Then, as Tiny Tim’s famous “God Bless Us, Everyone” filled your ears, you’d feel your Dad’s arms lifting you up, blanket and all. He’d carry you to bed, your Mom would pull back the cool blankets and your Dad would lay you gently down. Remember how you’d shiver at first from the cold sheets, then you’d nestle down into the soft pillow and sleep better than you ever had? That’s Christmas Magic.”
Leaning back into his chair, he took a sip of cocoa and then continued. “Of course, we all grow up and many of us forget that Magic. Oh, occasionally we see a glimmer of if now and again, especially those days in which we find ourselves nostalgic. But mostly we’re too busy or too tired. Too caught up or worried to remember the magic and before long…. It’s too late. We get to the point where we can’t remember what IT was like at all.”
He looked at me with that sad expression again. As if he knew what I was thinking. And he would probably have been right if he did. Did he know that he was describing me to a tee? Had we met somewhere before?
His voice broke up my thoughts. “It doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to be a child to see the magic. It’s all around you” He said, sweeping his arm in a wide arc. “If you can’t see it, just look for a little boy or girl near the toy stores and then look in their eyes. You’ll see it there” he said. “And here’s the amazing part. When you look in their eyes, they will pass on a little of the magic to you”
Now I don’t know if you’ll believe this or not, but when he said that, and that North Star sparkle flashed in his eyes. I swear something happened. It was like someone sprinkled water droplets in my face. I could FEEL it.
With a mischievous expression he said, “Be careful though, it’s very contagious. You may find yourself passing it on to someone else.” Then, he smiled that warm, welcoming smile as he continued, “Sometimes, you’ll see it happen. At the checkout counter, for example, the one whose had a long day dealing with fussy customers. The one who has a frown and doesn’t even look up when they say, ‘Hello, did you find everything alright?’. And when they hold out their hand for your money in exchange for a receipt, you may find yourself pausing just a bit. Holding on to your money momentarily after they grab it just long enough for them to look up. And then, you’ll look them straight in the eye and say, “Thank you. And Merry Christmas”. That’s when you’ll see it. You’ll know by the smile on their face that you just gave a piece of Magic to them. That’s how you know they have it. It’s the smile.”
“Of course, sometimes it won’t be quite as clear. Say when you’re in the middle of traffic and no one’s moving. It takes you fifteen minutes to move two blocks. The radio is playing Christmas music and you’re smiling because it’s Magic and you know you’ll get through in time. Christmas Magic does that to you, it makes you feel different than everyone else. You’ll look up and see them. That car trying to get out of the parking lot, and no one will let them in. Ten minutes go by and you’re just getting up to the parking lot. They’re still there. Blinker on, looking frantically for a space to squeeze into. It’s perfect. So, you stop and wave them in. You watch, and THEY DON’T EVEN WAVE to say thank you.”
Pointing his finger at me he said, “Now you might think that the magic didn’t pass but you’d be wrong.” And then smiling he said, “It did. With some people it just takes a little longer to show up, but make no mistake about it, they’ve got it.”
“You know, sometimes, you never get to even see it happen at all. Have you ever dropped money into one of those Salvation Army buckets?” he asked
After nodding my head, he said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s ten dollars or a penny. Every little bit really does count you know. But when you do it, you don’t get to see the magic appear on the face of the person it helps. You probably won’t even get to see the person. Funny thing is, you’ll feel it though, and the best part is you don’t have to wait until the magic hits that person. You get the feeling even before the Magic gets to them. It’s sort of like payment on faith. Try it next time if you don’t believe me. Next time you’re walking by one of those dressed up Santa Clause’s, reach into your pocket and put whatever change you have in the bucket. And then stop! It will hit you as you walk away. Magic!”
“Next time you see a Christmas Tree all lit up, STOP! Look at the tree as if you’d never seen one before. Look at every ornament, smell the scent from its needles. Close your eyes and just for one second feel it. It will hit you I guarantee it. Magic!”
“When you’re in the middle of throngs of people bustling with their packages, noise coming at you from every direction. Shoulders hitting you this way and that way….. STOP! Step over to the side and look around. Watch the people as they go by and see how many people you can spot who still feel the magic. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones with the smiles on their faces, giggling and laughing as they go by. Then, close your eyes and listen. Listen to the sounds, the people, the music. Take a deep breath and smile because it will hit you. MAGIC!”
I don’t know how we got there but suddenly I was standing at the front door of his bookshop. His arm was gently on my elbow. He smiled as he said goodbye.
I walked out of the arcade smiling like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. That was when I noticed the Dickens-like street. The air was crisp, not cold. Where once I had seen crowds, I now saw people. People of all shapes and sizes, Carolers with beautiful voices, snow like something from a painting coming down in the starlit sky. And smiles….. Magic…. as far as the eye could see.
Behind me I heard a faint voice, soft and gentle; “You look like you could use a cup of Hot Chocolate. Come on in.”