On a cold, dark Christmas Eve a hundred years ago, there sat a beggar by the banks of a river. From the distant streets he could hear the sounds of laughter and families celebrating, but it was nothing but a painful reminder to him of what little he had. To a beggar, Christmas was the coldest, longest, darkest day of the year, and he tried what he could to forget about it. He clutched his simple red and green blanket, the only possession he had other than the clothes on his back, around himself, and braced himself for the cold night.
It was then that he heard jingling footsteps along the river, and looking up he saw someone he didn’t expect to see. It was Santa Claus!
Full suit and hat, carrying a large sack and strutting along the river and whistling a happy tune to the beat of his tinkling footsteps. The beggar stared, and Santa, staring back, paused in front of him. “What are you doing all alone in the dark tonight? Shouldn’t you be getting home?” he asked. “Nobody should be without their family on Christmas.”
The beggar kicked a small tin can at St. Nick’s feet, half in reply, and half hoping the old man would have something to give. “I see,” said Santa. “You have nowhere to go?” There was silence for a moment as the two looked at each other, until St. Nick broke it with his next question. “Would you like to join me and my family for dinner?” The man couldn’t believe it. Really? A real Christmas dinner? An actual meal? He nodded exuberantly.
Santa laughed. “Then come along! We’ve got to go help get things ready.” The beggar stumbled to his feet, still holding tightly to his red and green blanket, following the big man in the red suit.
They walked by many large houses, with bright lights and beautiful decorations. The man looked around in wonder, thinking to himself that Santa’s must be the largest, most beautiful in the entire city. But his anticipation turned to disappointment as they wandered away from the town’s light to a poorer part of town. And there they arrived at an old, crumbling home with broken doors and boarded up windows. It looked like nobody had been home in a long time.
The beggar looked at St. Nick with bewilderment and indignation.
This wasn’t a home! And it certainly wasn’t the old man’s home.
“Now, don’t look at me like that, Brother. I admit it hasn’t been lived in for a while, but I assure you that this is my home. Give it a little time and we will have things back in order.
“But,” he said, now reaching into his bag, “now it’s time for your first toy.” He pulled out a hammer and nails handed them to his new friend, who still looked confused. “Take that and see if you can’t fix the doors. Should just need a few nails in the hinges.” Santa was going to have him clean his house! The beggar couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t someone who could just be called upon for manual labor at a heartbeat. “Now,” continued the old man, “while you do that, I’ll get the food and guests and then we will be ready. Good luck!” And the old man marched away.
The beggar weighed the hammer and nails in one hand, and the chances that Santa was lying and there was no food in the other. Deciding, though, that his conditions couldn’t get any worse, he walked up to the doorframe and started fixing the home.
The doors ended up being easier to fix than he expected, and as soon as he finished, Santa arrived with another poor-looking figure in tow.
“Oh good! You’ve finished. Now you can start on the windows too.
Here.” He gestured to the new man who the beggar recognized as a scavenger from across the river. Looking down, he saw the man’s feet were bare on the cold ground. He had no shoes. Santa pulled out a crowbar and gave it to the man. “You two go get to work together. I’ll be right back.” And he was off again before the two could ask him where he’s going.
They talked little, and worked hard, the promise of food still sharp in their minds. Santa returned again with a man who had recently lost his shop. After they finished the windows they were set to work clearing old, broken furniture out of the home and sweeping the floors. It was then that Santa brought the first crippled man.
It was a man with a twisted leg and a single crutch that the old man helped stumble along to the house. “Clean the fireplace and get a fire going.” The three began to protest. Where was the food? Why was Santa bringing them a man who couldn’t even help clean? What was he playing at? But the good saint wouldn’t hear their complaints. “This is my house and my feast. Before we get started we need a fire and a nice place for my friend to sit.”
And so they did as he said. Next Santa brought a freezing boy, who sat warming himself by the fire with the crippled man at his side. The other three went about lighting the lamps inside the house and wiping the windows.
Then they began to get food.
It started with a baker who had bread too stale to sell and needed a place for Christmas Eve. Then Santa brought a man selling soup on the street corner. Then a family selling chickens. Santa brought them all, but told them not to eat. “We don’t start eating until all the guests have arrived.” The beggar groaned, but he was warm and feeling better now inside the house. They kept on cleaning, setting the table and chairs, dusting, putting on hot water, preparing the food.
The guests kept on coming. Still, Santa brought them the beggars and the men on the streets, but there were others now too. Small families, street performers, travelers. They all arrived and helped along.
The house was changing quickly. The lights were on. Somebody had found a guitar and handed it to the crippled man, who surprised them all with his favorite Christmas carol. There was a street performer teaching the boy how to juggle. The dishes were ready and the table was set. Santa brought the shopkeeper’s wife and children with more food and the brother of the scavenger, who happened to be a butcher, and came carrying a large flank of beef.
Last of all was the Christmas tree. Mr. Claus went to the lot owner, who decided to join them with the last Christmas tree in the lot. It was a humble tree, but they brought it in and surrounded it with tinsel and decorations that the old man conjured from upstairs. They placed the Christmas star, a gift the scavenger had found in the trash a week before, on the top of the tree, and everything was ready.
Finally, it was time for the Christmas feast, but the house was no longer a broken down shed. From the chimney poured warm smoke. From the windows poured music. And from the windows poured light. The crowd of people that had gathered therein sat or stood or crouched wherever they could as Santa stood on a chair to address them all. “I’d like to thank you all for coming to my Christmas feast at such short invitation! You are always welcome under this roof and with these, my friends, my brothers and sisters. There is no better way to spend the most sacred, the most holy night of the year, with one’s loved ones. With one’s family.”
He said grace and they began the feast. The beggar, lost amid the crowd, couldn’t remember, even before his life went to pieces, a brighter Christmas in his entire life. The feast ended and Santa began passing out presents, as is his tradition. He started with the butcher and the shopkeeper’s son, and continued passing out gifts with red bows and bright paper. Nobody was sure where he was getting them from, but they unwrapped them to find toys, warm clothing, chocolates, books, and other needed items. A crutch. A coat for the boy. Shoes for the scavenger.
He laughed and smiled and hugged his guests as they received their gifts with tears of gratitude and words of thanks. Seeing this made the beggar smile, and he curled in his blanket, eagerly awaited his turn.
But it didn’t come.
Surely the old man hadn’t forgotten about him. But he made no effort to approach his first invitee. Perhaps he couldn’t see him. The beggar tried to make himself seen, but Santa was moving away from him, through the guests and towards the staircase. When he arrived at the first step he turned around sharply and looked straight at the beggar, catching him off guard. Good St. Nicholas’ disposition was suddenly changed. Before it had been all laughter, but now his eyes turned serious as he gestured for his friend to follow him upstairs.
Walking away from the lights and the noise, the beggar made his way up the stairs. There was a door at the top, and it opened into a very plain room, with a single candle burning. Santa knelt in silent prayer at his bedside. The beggar approached him silently.
Santa was shivering. “I’m cold.” he said. “Do you have anything warm? A coat or a blanket?”
The beggar’s hand shot immediately to his only warm red and green blanket. No. Not that. Anything but that. Surely not. “Everybody else has brought something.” He had worked for hours. He had been there from the start. It was the only thing he had. A gift given from a stranger long long ago. It had saved his life winter after winter, year after year, from the winds and storms and from the bitter cold.
It was his.
And then he saw the pattern of the bedsheets. There was no blanket on St. Nick’s bed. Only red and green sheets. It had been that way for years. Looking back between the blanket and the sheets, he knew they were a matching set. The beggar looked at the old man and knew know who the stranger had been all those years ago.
“I’m cold.” said the old man.
The beggar took the blanket from off his shoulders and draped it over the old man’s. “Here you go.”
Santa smiled again. “Thank you.” he said. “I have something for you now too.”
He walked to the closet and pulled out another package, wrapped in red paper and tied with a bow. The beggar took it and unwrapped it gingerly. Inside the paper was a box, and inside the box was a brand new coat. A big, red and white coat that matched the old man’s. He held it up, not sure what to say. The old man just laughed. “Go on!
Put it on! It’s my favorite style, in case you couldn’t tell.” The beggar put the coat on. It enveloped him like a huge cloud of warmth and softness. It was so thick and warm not a gust of cold could enter it, and the beggar began to worry he would start to sweat if he wore it too long. “I…” he couldn’t speak. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Santa just nodded, and said “Merry Christmas, Brother. Merry Christmas.”
“I’m going away for another year, but I’ll be back next Christmas.
Until then I need you to watch and take care of what we’ve done here.
I’ll leave you the keys and directions, but I need you to keep this house open. Full of light and food and shelter for whoever needs it.
Can you do that for me?”
The beggar was shocked at such a trust. “Directions?” he asked.
Santa nodded. “They’re simple enough, and you can figure out how you can best do it, just as I’ve tried to figure out how I could.
The directions are simple.
‘That which ye have seen me do, even that shall ye do.”
Elder Dallin David Albright
Japan Kobe Mission