Healthy Habits

‘Twas the Week Before Christmas

"Captain Jeff Parsons was an officer with a secret: until a week ago, he hated Christmas." by Angela Hunt

Captain Jeff Parsons was an officer with a secret: until a week ago, he hated Christmas. He didn’t hate the idea behind Christmas, of course. He was grateful Jesus came to men by way of a cradle, and even more grateful He brought men to God by way of the Cross. But Christmas had become so much more—kettles, Angel Tree, food and toy distribution on top of shopping and pageants and parades and Santa and an endless amount of whoop-de-do and fa la la…

After twenty years as an officer, Jeff was weary of it.

His family was not jaded about Christmas, not at all. His wife, Captain Shari, worked the Angel Tree, corralled the volunteers, inventoried the supplies, arranged countless parties and distributed gifts through Community Cares to a couple of dozen nursing homes. During the weeks before Christmas she was out ministering, rehearsing, planning, double- checking and keeping the corps’ program going five nights out of seven. Allison, their teenage daughter, had been given the honor of playing Mary in the traditional church play, so she was busy with rehearsals as well as schoolwork. Josh, the four-year-old, was too young to write, so he was creating an ever-expanding illustrated list of everything he wanted to see under the tree on Christmas morning.

But Jeff couldn’t get excited about Christmas. Because he was the corps officer, he had to put in an appearance at every holiday party and gathering. Every service club in town wanted him to come talk about the Army toy drive, and everyone expected him to be as jolly as an elf each time he appeared in public.

Four Sundays fall between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and his congregation wanted four Sunday sermons about the nativity, the prophecies, the star, and/or the wise men. Meanwhile he worked with countless staff, the soldiers and volunteers who discussed who should get food baskets and turkeys – the poor or the shut-ins – and who should receive potted poinsettias.

Every year on Black Friday—and this year was no exception—Jeff fell to his knees and begged God to help him make it through the holidays without a crack in his smiling façade. “Please, Lord,” he prayed, “during this holiday season, help me be what everyone wants and keep me smiling through it all.”

He made it through the first two weeks with few problems. A tense situation arose when he found himself double-booked at the Rotary and Kiwanis holiday luncheons, but he settled the dispute by agreeing to give a quick invocation to the Rotarians and a generic benediction to the Kiwanis Club.

He didn’t know how his wife kept her schedule straight, but Captain Shari seemed to thrive on chaos. A week ago he walked through his front door and inhaled the wonderful aroma of Christmas cookies. He found his wife in the kitchen and Josh at the kitchen counter. The little boy was singing, “Oh, bing us some piggy pudding…”

His interpretation of the song made Jeff smile.

“Hey.” He leaned toward Shari and kissed her cheek. “How goes life on the home front?”

She shook her head. “Not so well at the moment. Our Mary has the mumps.”

Jeff blinked. “Who?”

“Our daughter. Allie’s sick, so you’ll have to find someone else to mother Baby Jesus.”

Jeff gaped at her. “That—that’s impossible. Didn’t she get a vaccination for mumps?”

Shari slid a tray of cookies into the oven. “They’re not always effective. But I’m sure you can find someone else.”

Sure, he could, but what a bother. The youth pastor always had the young people vote on who should fill the role, so they’d have to vote again. Which meant they’d have to wait until Sunday, and that would leave only a couple of days to rehearse with a new girl, a girl who’d have to memorize a lot of lines in record time…

He tousled Josh’s curly hair and slipped onto an empty stool. “I might have to choose someone myself. The kids won’t like that, and I’ll have to deal with the appearance of favoritism, but I suppose the situation can’t be helped.”

Shari lifted a brow. “You might have to ask for volunteers. Mary has to learn a lot of lines, you know, and none of the kids wants to do homework so close to Christmas vacation.”

“It’s not homework.”

“It’s close enough.”

Jeff blew out a breath and propped his chin in his hand. Plenty to worry about tomorrow, but at least the house would be quiet that night. With Shari baking, Allie sick, and Josh heading to bed soon, he’d have plenty of time to make some notes on Sunday’s sermon and catch his breath…

“That reminds me.” Shari checked her watch. “Don’t get too comfortable. The senior saints will be here in thirty minutes.” She pulled off her apron and dropped it on the counter. “They wanted to go caroling, but I couldn’t take them out in this freezing weather. So I invited them here.”

“Here?” Jeff didn’t even try to hide his annoyance. “I was hoping for a quiet evening.” Shari pointed Josh toward the bathroom.

“Sorry. Maybe you’ll get a quiet night after Christmas.”

Josh hopped down from the stool and followed his mother.

While Shari helped Josh brush his teeth and put on his pajamas, Jeff threw a quiet temper tantrum. Why not? He was alone and God already knew he was suffering from his annual bout of Christmas irritation.

“Why?” Jeff lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Why can’t You let me catch a break? Your people are wearing me out and I’ve had it with all this Christmas hooha. Why’d You allow Allie to get sick? You know what a mess that will create with the kids. And why didn’t You do something to stop Shari before she invited the senior saints over here? They could have gone caroling in the mall. They couldgo sing at a nursing home. It’s so hard for an introvert to catch a minute alone, especially at this time of year—”

He clamped his mouth shut when the doorbell rang, then slid from the stool so quickly it nearly toppled. He was not going to be caught in the kitchen. If the old folks pinned him down, he wouldn’t be able to slip away until he’d heard every carol in their repertoire. Better that he pop in later, when they gathered around the table for cookies and cider. He’d smile and listen to a song, then go into his study and lock the door.

He passed Shari and Josh in the hallway. “Your seniors are here,” he said, taking hold of Josh’s shoulders. “Why don’t you see to them while I put the boy to bed.”

Shari gave him a curious look, then moved past him. A moment later he heard her cheery greeting as she opened the front door.

Jeff took Josh’s hand and led him to the side of his bed where they knelt. “Why don’t we say a quick one tonight.” Jeff folded his hands and bowed his head. “How about the Lord’s prayer?”

Josh crinkled his nose. “Which one is dat?” “You know—Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread –”

“I know dat one!” Josh pressed his hands together and squinted in concentration. “Give us this way our daily bwread–”

“That’s good,” Jeff said, hurrying him along.

“And forgive us our Christmases, as we forgive dose who Christmas against us.”

Sometimes God speaks with a still, small voice, and sometimes He clocks us with a velvet fist. The little boy’s words felt like a well-placed punch to Jeff’s left jaw, a wake-up call that knocked the captain out of his self-absorption and revealed his shortcomings in high definition.

“For dine is the kingdom and the power, Amen.” Josh looked up at his father and smiled, then his forehead crinkled. “Are you crying, Daddy?”

“I guess so.” Jeff swallowed hard, then wrapped his son in his arms. “Because God used you to show me something.”

“What did you see?” Jeff managed a wavering smile. He had considered Christmas an unending series of demands on his time. He had used it as an excuse to run from his responsibilities as an officer, father, and a Christian. He had seen the holiday as a month-long trial, when God wanted him to view it—all of it—as a series of occasions to love.

“I saw my Christmases,” Jeff whispered, drawing his son close. “And I will never see them in the old way again.”

He tucked Josh into bed, kissed his son’s forehead, and began to whistle as he walked toward the sound of carols in the kitchen.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of The War Cry.

Illustration by Tim Robinson

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