The afternoon of Christmas Eve found Sarah Reynolds in her younger sister Annie’s kitchen surrounded by her niece and nephews. Six-year-old Jennifer played on the linoleum floor with her cut-out dolls, two-year-old Jason sat in his high chair, and Jonathan, recently turned four, snuggled contentedly on Sarah’s lap.
“More coffee, Sarah?” Annie asked, tucking a stray strand of her lush dark hair behind one ear. The sisters shared similar features but of the two Annie was the more striking. Sarah was shorter and quieter both in coloring and disposition.
“No thanks,” replied Sarah.
Her sister brought herself a steaming mug over to the table and sat down next to Jason.
Sarah gazed through the window above the sink as large, whirling snowflakes covered the tree limbs promising a beautiful midnight scene. Anticipation and loneliness welled up inside her.
Jonathan, whose favorite Yuletide song that year was “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” twisted around in his aunt’s arms and asked, “Ann-Tharah, ith Thanny Cauth comin’ t’ your houth t’night?”
While Sarah and Annie stifled giggles, Jennifer scoffed and said, “No, silly, Santa Claus only comes to children and Aunt Sarah ain’t got none.”
Sarah gasped while Annie sputtered, “Jennifer, that was not a nice thing to say! Apologize to your aunt.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jennifer automatically without looking up from her dolls.
Jonathan piped up excitedly, “Thay with uth t’night! Then Thanny Cauth will bwing you prethenth!”
Sarah hugged him tightly marveling at how quickly one child could inflict pain while the other could as spontaneously console. Annie immediately seconded the motion. “Why don’t you stay, Sis? We’ve plenty of room.”
Briefly, Sarah considered accepting the invitation. She imagined waking up again on Christmas morning to a chorus of children shrieking, “Wake up everybody! Santa Claus came! Look what he brought us!”
It had been many years since she had experienced Christmas through the eyes of young children—her eyes, Annie’s and their brother Tim’s, to be exact.
Now, Tim had two teen-aged sons and Annie had her own brood. Sarah though, at forty-three, was single and childless, a situation neither planned nor chosen.
A broken engagement, a failed romance later had left her disappointed. Each year the holidays seemed more of a strain than magical. Increasingly, she wished she could avoid Christmas altogether.
“Thanks, Jonathan, but your sister is right. Christmas is for children. Besides, I have pies to bake for dessert tomorrow night at Grandma’s.”
It was a lame excuse and Annie began to protest when Jason blurted out, “Ma, go tee-tee!” The priority of getting the youngest toilet trained put all other matters on hold. Annie whisked him out of the high chair and cheered him all the way to the first floor bathroom.
Sarah had the dishes done by the time her sister reappeared. “Well, that’s one down,” sighed Annie. “Jonathan, you’re next.”
“All-weddy?” he whined.
“Yep. Santa Claus is a firm believer in naps.”
Sarah glanced at the wall clock. “Gotta run. I’ll see you tomorrow at the folks’,” she added, hurrying to the hall closet for her coat.
Annie walked her sister to the door. “Look, if you change your mind—you could always pick up pies at the bakery—why don’t you stay here tonight, honey?”
“Thanks,” Sarah said, giving Annie a hug, “but you and Jay will be up all night putting bikes together and I don’t even have my gifts bought much less wrapped.” After tugging on her boots, she grabbed her purse and left.
Once behind the wheel of her Plymouth duster, she wondered why she had turned down the invitation so abruptly. Something had told her to be on her way and offered no further explanation. She backed out of her sister’s driveway and headed in the direction of the local shopping mall.
Traffic was heavy and she chided herself for once more waiting until the last minute to do her shopping. It was a further sign of her general attitude toward Christmas, the season that stretched from October to December.
That meant being submitted to increased bouts of advertising aimed at romantic couples or ecstatic children and their jubilant parents. Ahead she saw a sign outside the Lutheran church which bore the title of that evening’s sermon. “The Empty Manger,” she read.
That is my heart, she thought, empty and waiting to be filled.
It was two-thirty in the afternoon when she finally reached her destination and the stores were jammed. Christmas fell on a Sunday that year allowing working people like herself a whole Saturday for last minute shopping. The hours raced by while Sarah waited in long lines to make her purchases. By the time she was down to her last gift it was nearly six o’clock.
On the way out to the parking structure, her legs barely able to take another step, Sarah noticed a child standing alone crying.
The youngster, a girl about Jonathan’s age, appeared to be shivering and sobbing with equal vehemence. Her powder-blue wool jacket and plaid skirt struck Sarah as curiously old fashioned. Her face was nearly hidden by a ragged white knit cap pulled low over her brow and matching neck scarf. Red mittens dangled on strings at her sides. Almost as red were her thin legs, like two cherry popsicles stuck in her boots. Sarah, who could never ignore a child in distress, urged her tired bones over to the solitary figure.
“Honey,” she inquired, “where’s your mommy?”
“She’s lost,” wailed the girl plaintively.
Sarah felt a tug at her heart. She peered up and down the garage’s long aisles for signs of anyone else looking lost. All she saw was the child.
“What’s your name?” Sarah asked.
“Noel,” the girl answered before a hiccup cut her off. “Noel Day,” she stated wiping her nose with one of her mittens.
Sarah almost said, “Were you born on Christmas?” but resisted, due to the child’s palpable distress.
“Please don’t cry, Noel. We’ll find her.” Shifting her packages to one arm, she reached with her free hand into her coat pocket for tissues. She handed them to Noel and said, “Just let me put these things in my car and then I’ll help you look for her.”
Dutifully but not too confidently Noel trudged beside her sniffling every few steps. Cars started leaving the garage in droves. Sarah kept an eye out for anyone who might be the child’s parents as she guided Noel to the security office across from the garage entrance.
A kindly middle-aged man in uniform sat at a desk watching views of the mall on a panel of monitors as they entered. Brisk communications bleated from his walkie-talkie. Other security personnel entered the shack for cups of coffee. The longest day of their year was finally drawing to a close.
“Well, well, what have we here?” asked the man whose badge identified him as “Gus.”
“I found this little girl in the garage just now,” Sarah told him. “She’s lost. Her name is Noel Day.”
“My, my—Noel Day—pretty name,” said Gus. “Tsk, tsk,” he added shaking his head, “your mother is probably turning the entire mall upside down looking for you. How old are you, Noel?”
“Four and a half years old,” she whispered holding up the fingers of one hand.
“Do you know where you live?” he asked her. The patient tone of his voice calmed her.
“Uh-huh. I live in Bethl’hem.”
Gus frowned. “You mean Pennsylvania? That’s a long ways from here.”
“I know,” she nodded gravely as her lower lip quivered warningly.
“Tell you what I’d gonna do: I’ll make an announcement over the P.A. system and tell your mother where you are and then she’ll come get you. How will that be?”
“O-kay!” shouted Noel delightedly.
“If you don’t mind,” said Sarah, “I’d like to stay until her mother arrives.”
“Sure, ma’am, no problem,” Gus said. “Why don’t you both take seats over there near the heater and I’ll get right on this. Help yourselves to the doughnuts and coffee.”
But forty-five minutes later there still was no sign of Noel’s mother. Gus had made repeated announcements while the other guards had combed the mall and garage. Meanwhile, Sarah had searched through three local telephone books under “Day” and was stunned to find only two listings for such a common name. One turned out to be a doctor’s office and the other belonged to a sweet voiced woman who called her husband to the phone to assure Sarah that they had not lost any children that afternoon. Furthermore, Mr. Day informed her, he was a retired judge who didn’t know a soul in Pennsylvania. Strangely relieved, Sarah wished him and his wife a pleasant holiday.
Noel lay fast asleep in Sarah’s arms while Gus leaned on his desk sipping his coffee.
“It happens,” he sighed. “Hard to believe but it happens. Children get abandoned every day of the year, even on Christmas Eve.”
“That’s awful!” declared Sarah quietly so as not to disturb Noel. “I’ll stay till someone comes for her.”
“Trouble is, this office closes in another fifteen minutes.”
“Well, I gotta get the sheriff’s office on the phone. There’s a children’s welfare home in the next town. They might take her till Monday. That means a lot of paperwork but what’s my alternative? ’Course there’s the remote possibility that her parents may yet wake up and figure out she’s missing but they could be hours away by now. The sheriff will know what to do.” Sighing, he reached for the phone receiver.
Gus apprised the sheriff of the situation. Moments later the sheriff called back. He had contacted the Pennsylvania state police and as unlikely as it sounded, no listing for “Day” was found in the Bethlehem white pages.
“What? That’s impossible!” cut in Sarah. Gus scratched his head.
Moreover, Noel’s being from out of state posed a problem. The Youth Center in the next town was short-staffed due to the holiday. The administrator refused to take on the added burden of a child whose permanent address lay outside the county limits. Before the sheriff could suggest a suitable option, he was called away to another emergency.
Gus slammed the phone down in disgust. “How do you like them apples? Her folks don’t want her, the sheriff don’t want her and the county don’t want her. What a world. Well, better call the wife and tell her we got company.”
“Oh, no, please let me take her for the night,” Sarah cried impulsively. “It won’t be any trouble. My apartment is near here—I work at the bank—I’m very trustworthy, no traffic violations even—oh, please! Let me do this. She’s used to me by now.”
“Now ma’am, that would be highly irregular. Why, why I could lose my—”
“You have nothing to worry about. I’ll take good care of her. I have a nephew about her age who I babysit for all the time. I’ll give you my address and phone number in case you hear from her family. It’s just for the night. Please Gus, you know you can trust me.”
“Now, I don’t know,” he hedged while squeezing his chin between his thumb and fingers. “I don’t have the authority.”
Sarah tightened her grip on the sleeping child. “I won’t leave her,” she stated flatly. “I can’t. Someone abandoned her once today. I won’t let it happen again.”
Gus glanced from Sarah to Noel and sorely wished he’d worked the earlier shift. As the lights in the mall stores began shutting off, however, he made up his mind.
“Okay miss, you can take her for the night. Christmas, too. But you must have her at the sheriff’s office Monday morning by eight a.m. sharp unless you hear from the sheriff sooner. Got that?”
Sarah flashed him a dazzling smile of gratitude. Carefully balancing Noel in her arms, she stood. After furnishing him with her address and phone number, she carried the child swiftly out of the office to her car. She heard Gus call to her.
“How ya gonna explain it t’ her?” His words were muffled by the thick falling snow. “’Bout her folks not showing up and all….” Sarah bit her lip and, with difficulty due to the burden in her arms, shrugged her shoulders. “I’ll think of something,” she shouted back. He nodded and waved.
The mall was in total darkness by then, all the shoppers having long since departed. The temperature had fallen while the wind had picked up, blowing snow wildly in every direction. Sarah reached her car and got Noel situated in the back seat where she pulled the seat belt snugly around her wool jacket. Her movements caused Noel to stir.
“Mommy?” she murmured drowsily.
Again, Sarah experienced a feeling of déjà vu which was silly as she did not recognize the little girl. Dismissing the thought, she felt around until her hand located a heavy knit sweater which she draped over Noel’s legs to keep out the freezing night air. Once the girl was comfortably settled, Sarah walked around the car, got in and started the motor.
She had driven a car with sometimes as many as ten passengers along when, for example, one of Tim’s boys and his friends needed a last minute ride to a weekend football game. Yet, gazing into the rearview mirror at the slight bundle in the back seat, she felt like a novice behind the wheel as she swung the car onto the highway.
Taking the exit close to home, Sarah spotted her gas station and behind it the dwindling row of evergreen trees for sale. Sarah was not in the habit of buying a Christmas tree. After all, she had no one with whom to share its splendor. The only Christmassy display in her apartment was a small, chipped plaster creche which she kept on top of the bookcase. But how could Noel wake up tomorrow and find no Christmas tree?
Sarah chose a decidedly underwhelming pine and felt giddy watching it being strapped to the hood of her car. Stepping backward, she wondered, why have I never done this before?
“Who’s your friend?” Jerry, the station attendant, asked nodding toward Noel.
“She’s—she’s a Christmas orphan,” stammered Sarah, “and she’s spending Christmas with me. And it’s so late, Jerry, where’m I ever going to find a string of lights for the tree?”
“Hmm,” he considered, stomping his feet to keep warm. “There’s the string in the station. I’ll be closing in an hour, why not take them with you?”
In no time he removed the bulbs from his tree and placed them in her hands. She could feel their heat through her gloves. When she tried to offer him money he gestured to her to keep it.
“Better get along home now. Old Santa ought to be pulling in here any minute to gas up his sleigh. He gave up the reindeer, ya know, too daw-gone expensive to feed.” Chuckling, he opened the car door for Sarah and wished both driver and passenger a Merry Christmas.
It was nearly eight o’clock when Sarah finally climbed the stairs to her second floor apartment. Noel was awake now, rubbing her eyes and sniffling again. When Sarah unlocked the door, she heard the telephone ringing. With misgivings she answered it but it turned out to be Annie, not the sheriff.
“Sis, where have you been all this time?”
“Oh, hi, Annie,” she said reaching for the light switch. “Can I call you right back?”
“Sure. Is everything all right? Listen, Jay insists you come over tonight; he won’t take no for an answer.”
“Let me get back to you. I’ve—I’ve got to change into some dry clothes.”
“All right. But I mean it, we want you here.”
Sarah replaced the receiver and went in search of Noel. She found her still standing at the front door, a frightened look on her face.
“Where am I? Where’s my Mommy?” she demanded.
Sarah knelt down and began unbuttoning the girl’s jacket. Trying to sound matter-of-fact she replied, “Noel, my name is Sarah. This is my apartment. Your mother has been delayed so . . . so you’re staying with me tonight.” She braced herself for another outbreak of tears but instead the child yawned loudly.
“Are you hungry?” Sarah asked.
Noel shook her head no. Patiently, she allowed Sarah to remove her cap, scarf and jacket.
“Will my Mommy come on Christmas?” she asked.
Sarah, at last seeing the child’s features, gaped. For what she saw was a four-year-old version of herself: Straight brown hair, large amber eyes, even the dimple in her chin and yes, the tiny birthmark high on her right cheek. Incredibly, they were all there. Trembling slightly, she examined Noel’s right hand and nearly dropped it. There on the index finger was a tiny scar identical to the one on Sarah’s finger from getting her hand caught in a drawer when she was two years of age. Sarah sat on her haunches unable to move. What was happening? Who was this child? Where did she come from and why was she now in Sarah’s care?
“What’s wrong?” asked Noel.
“Nuh-nothing, sweetie, it’s just that . . . you . . .” Her voice trailed off.
“Where’s your Christmas tree?” Noel asked, glancing around the apartment’s main room.
“Santa’s bringing it,” temporized Sarah. Get ahold of yourself and let the child sleep, she scolded herself. “Come, Noel,” Sarah said, rising resolutely to her feet, “it’s time for bed.” She led the mysterious stranger down the hall mentally searching through her closets for something in which to dress her for the night.
Later, after Noel had been bathed and tucked into Sarah’s bed, she phoned her sister. She didn’t tell her about Noel. She merely begged off saying she was too exhausted to go out in the cold again. Annie yielded grudgingly to her decision.
Then she went back down to her car and in three trips lugged up the manageable tree, the lights and all her packages. First, she anchored the tree in a pail of water as best she could. Late into the night she busied herself decorating the tree. She began by stringing the lights and tried not to feel disappointed that there were only enough bulbs to cover the front branches. She had no ornaments or tinsel so she improvised with foil, colored paper and ribbons. She also cut up her Christmas cards and, using thread, she hung the picture covers for ornaments. For the top she fashioned an uneven tin foil star. To cover the unsightly pail at the tree’s base, she spread around gift wrapping paper around it.
The tangy scent of the pine filled the room. From beneath the boughs, the few lights blazed. Gazing at the tree, Sarah felt young and beautiful.
Next, she found an old leg warmer. Sewing a sock onto one end, she remembered that one of her Christmas cards had NOEL printed on the cover in red letters. She cut around the word and glued it onto the front of the homemade stocking and, as she had no fireplace, hung it on the doorknob of the hall closet.
It was nearing midnight.
Sarah went into her bedroom and adjusted the covers around Noel. The child slept peacefully. Sarah bent down and kissed her forehead and murmured a heartfelt blessing.
She stole back down the hall and into the kitchen. While she scrounged for graham crackers it occurred to her that she had no presents to put under the tree! There were the gifts she had bought her niece and nephews. But they didn’t seem appropriate for a four-year-old girl.
Unsure of what to do, she carried her mug of tea into the main room and sank into her cushioned sofa. Try as she might, she could not keep her eyes open. In the back of her mind she knew something important remained undone but she couldn’t recall what it was. In another moment, her head fell against a pillow and Sarah drifted into a deep, uninterrupted sleep.
Something roused her and she shifted on the sofa. Dimly she perceived it was morning. She heard the noise again, voices, children’s voices.
“Aunt Sarah, wake up! Santa brought you presents! Hurry, it’s Christmas!” Sarah realized someone was at the door. Groggily, she stumbled over and opened it. In rushed Jonathan and Jennifer, followed by Jay holding Jason, and Annie, carrying a shopping bag full of gifts.
“Meowy Cwithmith, Ann-Tharah!” cried Jonathan.
Jennifer dashed past him agog. “Oh, Mommy, look at Sarah’s tree! Ain’t it the most beautiful in the whole world?”
Sarah, her back to Jennifer, heard Annie say, “Sis, as long as you wouldn’t come to us, we decided to—” when Jay cut in and quipped, “Hey, woman, you haven’t been filching the bank’s funds, have you? Get a load of that loot!”
Sarah then turned and nearly lost her balance. There, in the main room was a scene too startling to behold.
The tree was barely recognizable. Her hand-made ornaments had somehow doubled in size and glittered with intricate designs. The lights seemed to have multiplied and the tree itself appeared to have grown taller and shapelier overnight. It was crowned by a twinkling star of rapturous beauty. Around the tree’s base lay a shimmering gold cloth partially covered by the pile of gifts Sarah had purchased the previous day, augmented by a few more gifts. Jason with Jennifer’s help gleefully began to spread out their gifts around the tree, too.
Annie’s jaw dropped. When she finally found her voice she croaked with bewilderment, “But Sarah, you never used to even buy a tree!”
Sarah wasn’t listening. She crossed to the bookcase. Candles now flickered on either side of the creche which now looked brand new. She stood gaping at it, trying to wake up.
She then turned and raced down the hall calling, “Noel . . . Noel!” She ran into the bedroom but the bed was empty and neatly made. She also checked the bathroom and kitchen; they, too, were empty.
There was no sign of Noel anywhere in the apartment.
Sarah rushed back into the main room and was about to pick up the phone to call the sheriff when from out of the corner of her eye she saw Jonathan lift a bulging red velvet stocking off of the hall closet door knob. Slowly he carried it over to her. Stitched on the front in shamrock green needlepoint was the name SARAH.
As Jonathan handed it to her, something fell out of it to the carpet. Sarah rapidly blinked back as she tears reached down and snatched up the shiny object.
It was a bell, a silver Christmas bell. Engraved on the front of it were some words. She took a deep breath and read:
CHRISTMAS IS FOR YOU TOO,
EVER RING OUT A JOYOUS
Her hand shook causing the beautiful bell to tinkle.
Watching her, Annie had to laugh. “Sarah, what’s come over you? You look as though you’ve never seen that bell before.”
“I’m seeing many things for the first time,” granted Sarah breathlessly. Then gently, then harder, she rang the bell until its clear music filled the corners of her apartment. The children’s eyes gleamed and Jason clapped his hands.
Suddenly, Sarah could see in her sister’s eyes and in Jay’s the joy that transcends age. She could see in the children their vulnerable need to love and be loved and it made her want to dance. She now knew that Gus and Jerry would never inquire about the little lost girl and that the sheriff would never come looking for a missing child from “Bethlehem,” Wherever.
Her spirits soared with an infectious excitement she hadn’t felt for close to forty years. She felt precious and loved by the Child who came on the first Christmas.
From that day forward, Sarah celebrated the Christmas season with generosity and flair. She opened her heart to disadvantaged children, too. When her church proposed starting an orphanage, she left her job at the bank to become director. Through her work, she met a man who shared her love and concern for abandoned youngsters. They married and became foster parents and their home was famous for its cheerfulness and hospitality, especially at Christmastime.
And throughout her long, inspiring life Sarah never tired of letting people ring the silver bell. Nor of telling anyone who’d listen about the little lost stranger who came into her life one Christmas Eve and helped her find joy again.
About the Author:
Sheila Cronin received a master’s degree in mental health sciences from Hahnemann Medical Graduate School of Philadelphia. She practiced art therapy for ten years before relocating to Los Angeles to pursue creative writing. Her short romance, “Airport Love Story”, appeared in the WritersNet Anthology of Fiction: Prose, Writers Club Press, 2002. In 2003, Sun-Maid Raisins hired her to compose “sayings” for the outside flaps of their lunch size raisin boxes which are published worldwide. Sheila’s stories have also appeared in Woman’s World Magazine, The Golden Domer (2017) and Good Old Days Magazine (May/June, 2017). She now live in Chicago and has composed “The MS Walk Song” for the Chicago chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Her Christmas novel, The Gift Counselor , was published in 2014. It won the Beverly Hills Book Award for Holiday Fiction and was shortlisted for the UK Wishing Shelf Book Award. The sequel Best of All Gifts, was published this October.
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