Christmas Was Different that Year
I wrote this for Veritas Press's Christmas writing contest... I didn't win, but that's ok. I just hope that my email didn't do the strange thing it's been doing lately and make my emails get lost in cyberspace.
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My sister’s scissors clicked noisily as she cut a folded piece of paper.
“What do you think of this one, Eben?” She asked, pulling the folds apart to reveal a delicate snowflake. Her dark eyes peeked out from the holes in the paper and her dimples showed on either side of the snowflake.
I looked up from the book that I had been studying for the past three hours. “Here, and here,” I said in Yiddish, pointing to certain parts of her snowflake. “It’s not quite the same as the other places.”
Her smile quickly turned into a frown. “But how do I fix it?”
“Let me see it, Chaya.” Chaya was my sister’s name. It fit her well, for it meant life, and she was full of life. As I snipped the snowflake, I reflected on this year. The first nine months of it had been normal, just like any other year. But this wasn’t just any year. This was 1939, and here in Poland, the September of 1939 will never be forgotten. Perhaps one day the Aryans will remember it the same as any other year, but not us Jews. To us Jews, it will forever be a year of terror, thanks to Hitler and his Nazis.
But what am I saying? We are as sinful as they.
“Here, this is better.” I handed the snowflake back to Chaya. The paper version of snow made me long for the real thing. My eyes turned to the window, which was covered in a heavy curtain so no light would seep out and reveal our presence. I sighed and slipped out of my seat. My footsteps seemed loud in the quiet attic as I pattered across the wood floor. Carefully, I drew back the curtain and peered out into the snowy back alley below.
Yes, Christmas would be different this year.
Christmas? What is a Jew doing celebrating Christmas? Perhaps you are wondering that.
I stood and went back to the table. Chaya had set to work on another snowflake, singing quietly as she folded and cut. Many of her creations already hung from the low ceiling. Taking string, tape, and a finished snowflake, I tacked another paper flake onto a rafter.
My sister and I are only Jewish by nationality. When Nazis killed our parents, our Christian neighbors, the Gorskis, wanted to hide us in their attic – where we are now. They soon understood the opportunity that having two needy young ones in their care provided and shared not only their lives but also their Savior with us. In previous years, they had invited us over to their house for Christmas celebrations, but my father had always refused. Yet even then, Chaya and I loved what we knew of Christmas. When we would visit the Gorskis, they would give us cookies and tell us about their traditions. We would tell them our Hanukah traditions. Then we would drink hot cocoa and go back out into the cold to walk across the street to our home.
Now, we looked forward to rejoicing with our hosts in celebrating the birth of our Redeemer. Mr. Gorski had chopped down a small evergreen tree that we set up in the attic. Chaya and Mrs. Gorski popped popcorn, threaded it on string, and wrapped the garlands around the tree. I made a star and we put it at the top, remembering the star that led the Wise Men. Mr. Gorski told us the story of the Candy Cane, and we hung those on the branches of the tree. Our Hanukah candles brought a warm glow to the room, transforming the small attic from a cold, gloomy dwelling to a cheery abode.
As the sun set, Mr. and Mrs. Gorski climbed the stairs to the attic. Mr. Gorski carried a Bible, and Mrs. Gorski held a few small parcels in her arms. Chaya threw down her latest work of art and ran to Mrs. Gorski, wrapping her thin arms around the large woman and chattering away about her snowflakes. I closed my book and cleared the table so that we could all sit comfortably.
“Do you know what today is, Chaya?” Mr. Gorski asked, a twinkle lighting his eyes.
“Christmas Eve!” She said. I’d never seen her dimples so huge. Even greater than her dimples was the knowledge of why she was so happy. Unlike most children on Christmas Eve, Chaya was not joyful because of the gifts that awaited her in the morning. I don’t think she even knew about the gift-giving part of Christmas. She was happy because she was choosing to look past the difficult circumstances that we were in and instead look at her Savior. It was a profound thing for a ten-year-old mind to grasp, yet Chaya understood it better than most adults.
“Why are we celebrating tonight?”
“Mary and Joseph went to the stable, and Jesus was born, and the shepherds came to worship him.”
“Tak,” said Mr. Gorski. Tak was Polish for ‘yes.’ “Eben, would you read the Christmas story to us?”
I nodded and reached for my Bible – an early Christmas gift from the Gorskis. I opened to Luke 2, where I had been reading that morning. “In those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world…” As I read, my mind wandered elsewhere. It wandered, but that wandering was led by God. I thought about the seemingly useless census. I thought about how in 1 Samuel the Philistines defeated the Israelites and stole the Ark. I thought about how Chaya and I were locked up in this little attic. Then I thought about how God had used it all for His glory; how He uses things that we find burdensome to be great displays of His power and love. Just as the apparently meaningless census was used to fulfill prophecy and Israel's defeat showed God's supremacy over Dagon, so Chaya and I lost our parents, our home, our everything, to find that which could never be lost. As I finished reading, I saw the glint of a single star through the window shade. Like the star that led the Wise Men, God was leading us. The Magi saw the star as a star of hope, as it showed them where they were going and encouraged them to press on. Yet at their destination was the real hope: hope of Salvation.
I turned back to look around the table: the menorah lighting up our little space, a look of joy and contentment on Chaya’s face, Mr. and Mrs. Gorski smiling peacefully… there truly was hope here.
We may have been cooped up in a freezing cold attic. There may have been a war raging outside. Hitler’s men may have murdered our parents. Yet instead of choosing to fear, we trusted in our Redeemer and hoped for His return.
Yes, Christmas really was different that year.
But different was better.
I looked at Chaya and grinned.