By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, December 24, 1943.
“Do you realize,” demanded Jimmie Frise, “that this is the fifth war Christmas?”
“I not only realize it,” I stated, but I have been worrying about it more than I can tell you.”
“I wonder how many million men – and women,” pursued Jim, “will be absent from their homes this fifth Christmas! Millions of Americans, hundreds of thousands of Canadians, millions of British, millions of Germans, Russians, Japs – not that they care….”
“I’ve been very uneasy this past few weeks,” I submitted, “watching Christmas approach. I’m a superstitious guy. All these December sunsets we’ve been having. I have looked at anxiously for fear I might see a fiery chariot come riding down.”
“We’ve got this on our side,” pointed out Jimmie, “that at least we are fighting to preserve Christmas on earth. If millions of us are blaspheming Christmas by merely being absent from our homes and hearths, at least it is because we are fighting the forces that have openly announced their intention of destroying all that Christmas stands for.”
“I’m sorry, Jim,” I stated, “I can’t agree with you. We did our blaspheming against Christmas in the 20 years this war was brewing. Back in those ugly terrible days when we sat fat and cosy in our little world letting all the rest of the world go to hell. Back in the days when we could not raise enough public funds to give more than a dirty little dole to our own unemployed, right here in this very city. We could not find a few of our soiled millions to give work, in government-owned projects, to a million Canadians quietly starving.”
“Just a minute,” said Jim.
“Just a minute you,” I insisted. “We had our Christmases then, remember? We who were comfortable – and eight million of us were comfortable – arranged through public charities for Christmas banquets for the homeless, down in the big empty hostels in the warehouse district. We gave to the public funds for Christmas gifts and Christmas hampers. But we had our own Christmases! Sure, sure. Around our sacred little burning trees, we cherished our children, and our wives, and the old, old tradition.”
Who’s Hiding It?
“Just a minute,” said Jim.
“But where,” I cried, “have all these billions come from, in little Canada alone, these billions, not millions, these billions and billions of dollars to be poured out into war? Who had those billions? Where were they in 1933, 1935, 1937?”
“You don’t understand,” said Jim. “It is a problem of economies. It is a question so complicated….”
“So complicated,” I sneered, “that even our greatest brains can’t grasp it. All right then, if you can’t say who had all those billions that we have found for war, can you say who has got Christmas? Where is Christinas? Who’s hiding it from us?”
“How do you mean?” inquired Jimmie indignantly.
“All I say is,” I muttered, “that wherever there is an absent man or an absent girl in a house in all this world today, there is no Christmas. We had our Christmases back in those years when we did not care a pin for all the rest of the world. Now our Christmas is taken away from us to pay the debt. Because Christmas is not a thing for individuals. It is not for you and me. Is it for one family and not for another? Christmas is for all mankind. And all I say is, those of us who presume to make Christmas our own personal and private affair are blaspheming it.”
“You mean,” said Jimmie, “that all this mess we are in is our own fault? Our own fault, each and every man.”
“Nothing comes of itself, Jim,” I explained. “Everything is brought. This Christmas is a tragedy to millions of us on earth today only because it was not a little tragic to us in the Christmases past. We celebrate the birth of Jesus in the greatest and most selfish and personal and private holiday of the year. We forget, on Christmas, to remember the death of Jesus.”
“It is not what He was born for,” suggested Jim, “but what He died for that is important.”
“Yes, and so long as we forget that,” I submitted, “I guess we too will keep on dying, on crosses of a kind, through all time.”
“What do you think!” inquired Jim, since we are both old soldiers who have never had much time to think about religion, “what do you think was the one essential thing Jesus taught?”
“That God is our father,” I submitted, “we are his beloved children.”
“The brotherhood of man,” muttered Jim.
“No other faith” I said, “can save us, forever.”
So again we sat and thought, about socialism and Communism and the C.C.F. and the labor movement and all the religions and all the social service enterprises and the Rockefeller Foundation and the countless, countless things men have tried, in centuries past, and in this bloody and grimmest of all centuries, to figure out the brotherhood of man. But we are so choosey.
“One thing,” said Jim slapping his knee, “we’ve got to do some little thing, no matter how late it is, to make Christmas a little less personal this year. For example, soldiers. There are sure to be some kids marooned in town this Christmas in the army or air force. We ought to look after two or three of them.”
“I keep thinking,” I said, “of the kids who have been five Christmases away.”
“That doesn’t make it any less lonely for these kids away for the first one,” said Jim. “How do we go about finding them? Could we call up the ‘Y’ hut at the camp or the Salvation Army hut?”
“It’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Downtown it will be jammed and crowded. Among the throngs will be sure to be some kids in uniform wandering about pretty forlorn, trying to capture, from the very multitude, some feeling of Christmas – maybe looking for one face from back home. Do you know what my hunch is? Let’s drive downtown and walk in the crowds and pick up two or three of them and bring them home.”
“On Christmas Eve?” inquired Jim. “I thought of having them to share Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
“Christmas Eve is the best,” I explained. “Don’t you remember Christmas Eve when you were a kid? Let us go and pick up two or three of these youngsters and use them as symbols for all the others in the ends of the world. It was Christmas Eve, mister, that there was no room at the inn.”
“H’m,” muttered Jim.
And into the night we backed Jim’s car, which is in better shape than mine, besides he having seven more gallons left than me, and we drove down along the waterfront and up Yonge St. into the last-minute throngs of Christmas shoppers. We parked and went on foot into the midst.
But such is the mystery of human nature, eternally in hunger for whatever joy is offered, we could find no sad young men. We saw any number, in fact hundreds of young fellows in uniform, brown, blue and navy. But they were far from looking lonely. Most of them had a girl on one arm and a pile of parcels in the other. For all the war, there were no unhappy faces here. Up at the main corner between the two big department stores, we saw two soldiers leaning against the wall watching the throngs boil by. We spoke to them.
“How are you boys fixed for Christmas?”, I inquired heartily.
“Pretty good,” they said. “Why?”
“Well, we are a couple of old soldiers,” explained Jim, “and we just thought we’d take a last-minute look around downtown to see if we could find any of the boys that were left out in the cold that we could give a little Christmas cheer to.”
“Thanks very much,” said one of the two “But the fact is, we’ve been sent down by our families to try and pick up somebody the same way.”
“Good hunting,” said Jim.
“Good hunting, sir,” replied the boys.
It is pretty tough going in these Christmas Eve mobs, so Jim and I took the inside track along the store fronts, and shoved our way patiently along, because after all, a high resolve is not to be so lightly abandoned. And presently, I leading against the wind and hastening herd, we were held up by a small figure flattened against the bricks of one store front.
“Christmas cards,” he said, in the gloom. “Christmas cards.”
We, too, flattened ourselves against the bricks.
“Christmas cards,” said the weak voice. “Christmas cards, five cents.”
We could see him now, a small elderly ragged little man, his hat pulled down and his collar up so that he seemed to be calling out from a cave.
Nobody but us paid any attention.
“Speak up, man,” I said to him quietly. “Make them hear. Like this: CHRISTMAS CARDS!”
And I let it go good and round.
But nobody even looked.
“There’s Your Answer”
I saw the little man smiling out at me from the cave of his hat and his collar.
“See?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “anyway, I’ll take a few. How many have you got?”
“A dozen,” said he.
“I’ll take the whole lot,” I said, “I was just going in to buy some. You always forget somebody at the last minute.”
“They’re not much good,” said the little man, drawing a frowsy packet from his pocket.
“Call it dollar,” I said, handing him the bill.
“Thanks,” said the little man eagerly. “Thanks a million.”
We could now see him quite distinctly as the three of us huddled in the falling dusk amid the whirling throngs. He opened his ragged overcoat to secrete the dollar somewhere within his clothes and my eye caught a glint of a button on his lapel.
“Hey,” I said harshly, seizing the old boy’s coat. “What’s that!”
But I knew what it was. It was the bronze button with the Union Jack in the shield, the proud old bronze button that we got in that other war, and which marks us as veterans…
“Old soldier?” demanded Jimmie sharply.
“Oh, yes,” said the little man, buttoning his coat. “Oh, yes.”
“Listen,” I said, dropping my grip from his coat front, “we’ve got a proposition to make to you, brother. We’re old soldiers ourselves. We’ve got an idea….”
But just as I started to fumble with the idea, a great, a strange, a hard, a disturbing Idea, an idea shaking my Christmas to its very core, from the white Christmas table cover, from the bright candlesticks, the red crackers, the steaming turkey on the blue platter, the little man, like a gnome, vanished. Somebody jostled us. And when the jostle ended, he was gone.
Jim fought upstream, I fought down. I ducked in and out of the mob. I came back along the curb, outside the throng. I heard Jim call me.
“He was gone,” said Jim.
Together we hurried up the block and watched. Together we went and watched the main corner. But he was gone.
“Mister,” and Jim to me, “there’s your answer, whatever it is.”
Editor’s Notes: The C.C.F was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which became the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. It was a socialist-labour party in Canada.
The Rockefeller Foundation is an American private foundation for philanthropy that was created by the Rockefeller family in 1913, and still exists today.
They used Jimmie’s car since he had more gas, as gasoline was rationed during the war.