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Sunday, December 25, 2016

The greatest gift of them all

Christmas Eve, the most magical night of the year, and the night my family and I had been preparing for and eagerly anticipating for weeks.   

We had braved the elements and trudged through snow and ice to find the perfect presents. 
We dragged bags and boxes home and painstakingly wrapped each gift in glossy paper, decorating it with a name tag and colourful ribbons and bows.

We went in search of the perfect Christmas tree, and then spent hours decorating it with colourful lights, delicate glass painted balls and silver tinsel.  We festooned the house with additional red and golden balls, candles and holly.  In front of the tree a pile of presents were waiting to be opened.  On the one side of the tree a nativity scene was displayed, complete with angels and miniature barn animals.  My mom and I went grocery shopping for our family of four and several invited guests.

And now, now the night was finally here.  I remember wearing my best dress, then looking around the living room and thinking how everything looked so beautiful and festive.  The lights had been turned down; soft music was playing; candles were flickering and the Christmas tree twinkled in all its splendour in front of the window.

In the dining room the table was set for dinner.  Mom’s beautiful china and crystal glasses sparkled on a white damask table cloth.  Silver candelabras, set among holly were waiting to be lit.  Delicious smells came wafting out of the kitchen, where my mother was preparing pot roast, carrots, peas and sautéed potatoes. 
“Can I help, Mom?” I asked.
“Everything is done and warming in the ovens” Mom smiled.  “I’ll go and get changed now.”  She took off her apron and wiped her hands.   “When your father arrives tell him to get dressed right away.  Should Paula, Hector, Francois and Lillian arrive, show them into the living room and offer them a glass of wine.  I won’t be long.” Paula and Hector and Francois and Lillian were friends of the family, each couple bringing their two sons.

Within minutes Mom was back down again, resplendent in a new wine red cocktail dress, a triple string of pears gleaming at her throat. 

When the phone rang, Mom, in a rustle of skirts, hurried to the entrance hall.  “If that’s your father telling me he’ll be late I’ll wring his neck,” she called over her shoulder.  “He promised he would finish early today.”  When she came back into the living room she seemed upset.
“Was that dad?” I asked.    
“Yes, he’s been delayed in Brussels,” she said.  “He’ll be home as soon as possible.”

Paula and Hector with their sons Gerrit and Gino were the first to arrive.  While Mom was busy hanging up coats and tucking away scarves and gloves, my brother came home.  “Dad home yet?” he asked. 
“Not yet,” Mom said.  “He’s delayed, but he’ll be here shortly.”
“Where is he?” my brother asked.
“He’s in Brussels.” 
My brother pulled a face.  “In that case it could take a while Mom,” he said.  “It took me half an hour to get across town.  If he’s coming from Brussels it will take him at least an hour if not more.  The roads are full of black ice.”

While Mom busied herself with drinks and snacks for the guests, the doorbell rang.  Francois, Lillian and their sons Patrick and Bart had arrived.  “Oh but it’s nasty out there,” Francois commented, stepping into warmth of the living room.  “We almost changed our minds about coming.  The roads are slippery, it started snowing, and it could turn into a blizzard.”

Snow on Christmas Eve!  I grew even more excited because, in my eleven years of life, I had never seen a white Christmas.  While everyone gathered in the living room I stood in front of the window facing the garden.  It was indeed snowing.  In the light of the moon I saw millions of big flakes come tumbling down, transforming the bleak winter scene into something magical and serene. 

Yet somehow this charming landscape didn’t excite me as much as it did other times.   The excitement I felt earlier at the thought of a white Christmas began to fade.  My dad was out there somewhere, trying to get home.  My brother had mentioned black ice and Francois predicted a blizzard.  Black ice covered with snow would make driving even more dangerous.

“Perhaps we should start dinner,” my mom suggested an hour later.  Her suggestion was greeted with little enthusiasm.  Everyone agreed that we would wait until Dad got home.  Another hour later, there was little or no conversation.  Dad hadn’t made it home yet, and although nobody said so, we all suspected that something had happened.

The shrill sound of the phone broke the silence, and my mom rushed to the entrance hall to answer the call.  When she came back she didn’t have to say anything, we could see something was wrong.  “That was the police,” she announced.  “There’s been an accident.”

Mom related that someone had called for help when they had seen a car skid off the highway, tumble down the embankment and hit a tree.  Dad, and his colleague Ben had been taken to the hospital.  In that moment Christmas instantly lost its shine.  Dinner was forgotten, the tree and other decorations became invisible, and presents were no longer important.  All I could think about was ‘Please let my dad be okay.’

I thought about this over and over again as I sat in front of the nativity scene alone in the dark.
I don’t know why I stayed there.  There was no real reason for it, but being in the company of these serene looking holy people and angels somehow made me feel better.

I woke up from a light being switched on in the living room and my mom and dad walking in.
Dad had a bandaged wrist and a band-aid on his forehead.  “You’re okay,” I said, flinging myself at him.  “If you ask me it’s a miracle,” my mom said.  “Skidding off a highway, then rolling down a hill and hitting a tree.  Yet, there’s hardly a scratch on him.”

In that moment I didn’t care if I never got another Christmas present.  I had just received the greatest gift of them all.  

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