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Peace on Earth (Even in My Home)

We’ve all been there. I was frustrated, stressed, fed up.

What do you buy the child who asks Santa for a flying bicycle? He has everything else he needs. Our daughter spent more time playing with the packaging and boxes last year than with her expensive gifts.

It’s enough to make me wonder why I ever bothered to rush around, trying to create the perfect family Christmas. It always seemed to go unappreciated, with harmony replaced by havoc, presents with pandemonium.

Exactly a week before Christmas Eve, I retired to my bed, exhausted, already fantasising of the finish of the festive period. There were gifts to buy and wrap, unwanted parties to attend and uninteresting friends and family to greet whilst feigning interest in their lives.

The night started like so many others. Despite my drowsiness I could not drift off to sleep. I tossed and turned and used every method to relax my mind and body. No use.

In an effort to improve my chances of sleep, I decided on a glass of warm milk. Leaving my slumbering wife I crept downstairs, thinking first that a bit of dull late night television might help, as it had done so many previous insomniacs. I opened the door to the lounge and stopped dead in my tracks. The room was completely different. I took a step inside, believing my lack of sleep must have already been making me delusional.

I turned around to discover that the door through which I had passed was no longer there, replaced by a solid, smooth, earthen wall.

I had somehow found myself in a small, one room cottage instead of my living room. A humble fireplace with an even more humble log fire burning. An old man was sitting as close as most people would dare get to an open fire in an ancient light green velvet upholstered wingback chair with a few tears in the fabric. Had it not been for the feeble surroundings, I would have felt as if I had walked onto the set of the opening scene of a Dickens movie; the point where a heavily educated man in a dressing gown introduces the first few moments of the first Act in the Queen’s English.

I approached the fireplace. From the light of the flames I could see that the old man in the chair didn’t look like the typical Shakespearean actor. He was frail, and he spoke in a northern English accent, much like my own.

“Merry Christmas!” he offered by way of greeting.

I said nothing. Who was this person and how had I arrived in that place?

“I know you speak English, and that you celebrate Christmas, so why the vacant expression and lack of a greetin’ in return?”

I looked at him, searching his face for something, but I didn’t really know what I was looking for. The man’s face seemed to convey nothing but joy and love.

“I’m just wondering where I am and how I got here.”

The old man smiled and said, “You’re not the first person to wonder about that, and you’ll probably not be the last.”

“There have been others?” I asked.

His countenance changed and he looked at me almost despairingly. “More every year.”

I looked around the room again. I could see everything despite the dim light. “You’re wishing me a merry Christmas and you don’t seem to have a single decoration up,” I said. “There’s no place for a turkey in your kitchen, no presents, no tree, not much of anything.”

He smiled again. “You don’t need those superficial things for a merry Christmas.” He pointed at a small handcrafted wooden object on a small shelf above the fireplace and said proudly, “Behold, my Christmas decoration!”

I walked closer and peered at the item, a small carved object that showed a very basic Nativity scene involving father, mother and child. “Did you make this?” I asked.

“Not all of the best decorations are store-bought, you know.” He paused, no doubt waiting for me to absorb the meaning of his words, before continuing. “They’re only reminders of other things. The decorations themselves mean nothing.”

I wondered where the man was going with all of this, and when I might get the chance to try again for much-needed sleep.

“You have lessons to learn, young man,” he said. “Don’t be thinking about sleep now.”

I rubbed my eyes, keen to learn, despite my lethargy.

“Christmas has become corrupted by winter ceremonies, lights, glitter and loud get-togethers.” the man said, a furrow showing on his brow in the dim light of the fire.

“But that’s what Christmas is these days,” I retorted. “It’s busy, it’s a time to spend with family, and it’s…”

“Exhausting?” He volunteered, a hint of a smile showing on one side of his mouth.

I looked at the old man, and for the first time I willingly gave him my full attention. He was right.

“I can show you a simpler Christmas,” he said, “if you follow me through that door.”

He pointed to a small door through which I would barely fit, behind me as I stood facing him. Having previously inspected the wall in search for a route home, I was sure that the small door had not been there moments earlier.

He got to his feet and seemed to stumble, reaching for a cane. I rushed forward a step, eager to help.

“Get back!” he shouted, the echo of his stubborn voice bouncing off the small walls. “I can do this without your help!”

I waited for the man to slowly steady himself on his feet and to gradually make his way to the small door. He opened the door and I half expected him to usher me through. Instead he straightened and ran through as if he was forty years younger, without even looking back. Despite the man’s apparent age and condition, I realised I would have to hurry to stay close to him.

I stepped across the threshold, expecting some kind of outdoor weather, but I stopped dead in my tracks when I was standing next to him in some kind of basic, ancient house. A man with a white beard was sitting at a table, writing away hurriedly.

The white bearded man occasionally vocalised the words he was putting on the parchment. We moved closer but the man seemed completely unaware of our presence. I could not understand the words he spoke or the words he was writing. The characters were mostly square or unusually shaped by comparison to the language known to me.

“What is he writing?” I asked in a whisper.

“It’s Hebrew, his native language.” He paused and looked at me and continued. “I don’t know exactly which part he is writing, but it will be something like, ‘Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…’ and you’ve probably heard the rest.

I looked at the writer closely. “So this is-”

“The Prophet Isaiah, yes…” The man seemed to be losing patience with me. He didn’t seem to have the kind, forever friendly manner of the angels and spirits I had read about in Christmas tales of old. I had no doubt that he was such a being, but he did not conduct himself with the decorum I would have expected. He continued to talk in a patronising tone, like a parent hurrying an indecisive child in a sweet shop. “Now you can tell people you’ve seen him. Can we move along now? We’re only at the first stop.”

He lifted back a curtain to my right and disappeared from view. Once again I hurried to catch up and found myself in a different place.

We were standing on the dusty bank of a river with aqua-coloured, slightly milky water. There was a crowd of people gathered, surrounding one man, standing in the water. Once again, he was speaking in another language. I had no chance of knowing what he was saying. Even in the language of the bearded man, I could feel of his passion, his conviction concerning the words he was speaking.

“It’s Aramaic,” said my guide, as if reading my thoughts. “He’s saying that another will come after him who is greater than he, and he is not even worthy to stoop down and unlatch his shoes.”

“John the Baptist?” I asked and received a nod of the old guy’s head and a slight roll of the eyes as if to say, ‘who else would it be?’

Instead of disappearing behind anything or moving swiftly from my gaze, the man grabbed my arm and ran towards the water, as spritely as a teenager.

“No!” I shouted, but to no avail. I was being dragged against my wishes with the dusty ground doing nothing to help my grip. At the waters edge the man jumped in and I had no choice but to jump in with him.

There was no splash. Not a drop of water touched us. Instead we seemed to land in the bedroom of a seemingly desperate man. He was kneeling by the side of his bed, praying.

He was speaking aloud in English. I was in no need of translation on this occasion.

“Dear God, if you’re there, please help me.” the desperate man said.

My disgruntled guide nudged me with his elbow before whispering, “He’s asking for help.”

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “I can hear that much,” I said.

He glared at me before turning his attention to the kneeling man. “He needs help to conquer an alcohol addiction. If he doesn’t succeed, his problem will get worse. He will be diagnosed as being clinically depressed. His family will leave him. He would probably end his own life prematurely.”

A puzzled look was obvious on my face. What did this scene have to do with Christmas?

The old man smiled and looked at me. “You’re wondering why you’re seeing this.”

I nodded, but I did not speak.

“You’ll see, any second.”

He clicked his fingers. Expecting a quiet snap of the fingers, I was astounded as much as I was deafened by the thunderous noise that accompanied that usual, quiet sound.

The room changed as the noise quietened seconds later. The same man was kneeling in the same room, in the same position, but everything was different. This time, he had a smile on his face. His family were kneeling with him. The room was covered in Christmas decorations and lights. The same man was thanking God for his help, acknowledging a Devine hand in all that was now good on his life.

I was nudged again. “Do you understand now?”

I nodded. “He’s a changed man.”

The old man nodded. “Some people call it fate. Some call it a mysterious higher power. I think you know what it is that changed this man and his future.”

All at once I felt this man’s previous pain and his new-found joy in equal measure. I felt overwhelmed by the feelings of this stranger as tears formed in my eyes. Before I could answer, we were whisked away to another place. We were standing in an ancient cave-like room. I could not tell where the walls ended and the ceiling began. The whole place looked like a cave, carved into the hard stone at the side of a hill. The place was warm, with straw all over the dirt floor. The air smelled of the unwashed animals occupying every crevice.

Huddled in the middle of the room, next to a feeding trough, sat a young woman and a man, dressed in the clothing of two thousand years ago.

I had heard about the humble birth of Jesus for many, many years, but I could not believe that such an important person could have been born in such a dirty, unwelcoming place. There was nothing glamourous about this. There were no glittering gifts, no star shining brightly on them, no angels singing glorious songs of praise. It was just a man, a woman, and a baby in a dirty place, smelling of animal waste, his lullaby accompanied by the buzzing of a dozen flies. Surely, that baby could not been born into poorer circumstances.

“It’s about as far away from commercialism as you could get,” said the old man. “Where’s the tinsel? Where’s the tree? The lights?”

I cleared my throat. “Those things, the gifts, everything are meant to celebrate this,” I said, hearing the hollowness in my words as they left my mouth.

The old man shook his head. “They used to mean something. Now they’ve taken on a new meaning.” He waited until my eyes met his. “I think you know what I mean by that.”

I turned away to look at the young couple, only to see my own living room. I looked to my right and to my left. My guide was no longer by my side.

Then I heard a laugh behind me. “Hah! I bet you’d thought I’d gone, just like that!”

I scowled at him.

“People always seem to expect these things to end suddenly, like a book, but you’re hardly Ebenezer Scrooge, and I’m not the Ghost of Christmas Past.”

Grateful to be home, I wanted to offer my guide a drink, a chance to talk more about the things I had seen. Alas, there was no time for such a visit.

“Time is short,” he said, “and mine is too. I can’t hang around with you when there are so many others to see.”

I felt a lump in my throat. How had this brash, barely friendly man come to mean so much to me in just a few moments? “Who are you? How can I repay you for showing me these things?” I asked, expecting a shrug or a dismissive wave of his hand as he might have disappeared into a wall or something.

He smiled. There was no sign of sarcasm or rudeness anymore. “You’ll help me when you find a homeless person a warm bed and a full meal, or when you visit someone on death row.”

I looked at him, puzzled. That wasn’t any kind of an answer, however sincerely he spoke.

“When you feed the hungry, defend the down-trodden and visit the sick, I’ll be more grateful than you can understand.”

I had no words to offer in response, as he pointed at the small, aging Nativity set above the fireplace. “You’ll be wanting to upgrade that to something more… fitting.”

I smiled. “I certainly will,” I said, turning to look at him, and then around me. He was gone for good this time, unless he was hiding behind a sofa.

I turned on the light and took a seat on my sofa. In front of me, on the coffee table, was a Bible, open on a passage I had heard and read so many times.

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I wondered whether this messenger, angel, guide, or whatever, would be well-received by his next guest. I smiled when I considered how others would respond to his methods.

As my eyes fully adjusted to the light, I look around. My living room, which I had thought nicely decorated hours earlier, seemed over-the-top and distracting.

I thought about the words of numerous Christmas carols, declaring peace on earth and good will to all men. I realised that the only way to bring that peace to the earth was to generate it ourselves by being the bringers of goodwill to everyone we met. Chaotic Christmases were focussed on the superficial elements. Peaceful, meaningful Christmases happened when we remembered those humble servants who had come before us, who had looked for the King of Kings. That King of Kings, when he arrived, gave His time and His life for others.

That baby, lying in a bed of animal food was the first Christmas gift. The miraculous birth, as humble as it had been, and the subsequent life, death and resurrection, had changed the world. Now I needed to let it change me and my family for the better. I would start the next morning with the purchase of a newer, more prominent Nativity set.

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