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      The Spirit of Christmas

      The Spirit of Christmas

      Two angels suddenly appeared in a bar and, after getting their bearings, sat down in a booth by the far corner. Business was light if you called Murray the bartender and Sal, the only other patron, light business. But then it WAS 11:15 pm on Christmas Eve and Murray was gently prodding Sal to understand the significance of this so that he could close. Now he had to deal with these angels too!

      Not that he had anything against angels, but it wasn’t often that two long-haired guys (girls? Hard to tell) in long robes with actual wings walked into his bar. And they’re not ordering anything; just sitting there arguing about something and looking at Sal occasionally. Murray was as open-minded as the next guy, but it’s a bar; order something for cryin’ in a bucket!

      Murray sauntered over to the booth and asked as casually as he could, “What’ll it be?”

      The taller (and maybe older, if angels actually aged) angel raised his finger to his pursed lips and motioned, “Shhh”, then nodded at Sal, as if the three of them were having a private conversation. Nodding his understanding and without further ado, Murray backpedaled to the sink where be returned to washing the glasses in preparation for closing.

      The senior angel looked at Sal for a while, who was watching the Yule Log on the TV and finally said, “Sal?”

      Slowly turning his gaze from the TV, Sal finally said, “How ya been Titus?”

      “Fine, Sal. You?”

      “The usual, you know. Gettin’ by. Who’s your little friend?”

      “Sal, this is Mara. Mara, Sal.”

      Mara and Sal nodded at each other politely and when Mara rose to shake Sal’s hand, Sal turned back to the Yule Log.

      Ignoring the slight, Mara said, “Titus and I were hoping you could settle a bet.”

      “Sure,” said Sal, still watching the log.  “He’s taller.”

      “What?” Mara replied in confusion.

      “Titus is taller than you.”

      “But that’s not … “

      “He’s just busting your chops. Let it go,” said Titus. Turning back to Sal he said, “Actually Sal, we were hoping you could tell us the true meaning of Christmas. You know, from a mortal perspective.”

      “Whoa!  Didn’t see that one coming!” said Sal. “Why me?”

      “Well, we were in the neighborhood on a training mission for Mara when we got word that the Lord/God wanted to know how the team was doing regarding getting the Word out. And I thought of you.”

      “You thought of me?”

      “Yeah, you. You’re more of an Everyman type, you know”, Titus shot back.

      “You – were – in – the – neighborhood,” Sal spoke the words slowly, trying to absorb them as if these five little words had some vast, deep, inner meaning.

      “Sal, it’s not a big deal.  If you don’t know the answer, you don’t know.”

      “No, no! It’s not that! I’m still wondering why you’ve been ‘in the neighborhood’ for the past four Christmas Eve’s and now you’ve even got a trainee.”

      Titus looked at Mara, then back at Sal and finally in mock desperation said, “All right, you’ve got me. I was going to tell you sooner or later but it may as well be now.” He took a deep breath and continued. “I’m your Christmas angel. If you answer this right, I get a promotion.”

      Sal stared blankly at Titus, then at his empty mug. He looked up at Murray, who was busily capping bottles. Sliding his mug expertly to Murray’s end of the bar, he motioned for a refill. Murray pointed at the angels inquiringly. Sal looked at them and after looking up briefly for guidance, they shook their heads “no”.

      “My Christmas angel? What the hell is a Christmas angel?”

      “Well. It’s kind of like a Guardian Angel … only just at Christmas time.”

      “A Christmas Guardian Angel,” Sal repeated. “I get it.  NOT.”

      Titus glanced at Mara, then back at Sal and said, “All right, let me try it this way. Sometimes people who’ve had a, uh, loss during the Christmas season, become a little more, uh, shall we say, vulnerable, and so one us of is assigned to look out for them and try to make sure they get back into the fold, so to speak.”

      “Gotcha,” said Sal.

      “Really?” Titus said softly.

      “Sure.  You’re my babysitter.”

      Mara exclaimed, “Kind of. We like to think of it more like your Protector since people can get desperate during the Christmas season and … you know. Think of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and Clarence.

      Sal laughed and said, “Well, you must be doing a great job because this is the fourth Christmas Eve we’ve spent together and I’m still here.  And you’re even up for a promotion!”

      “Yo! Last call, Sal. People to see, places to go, things to do.” implored Murray.

      “Right on, my brother,” Sal mumbled.

      “What can I do for you, Sal? You’re looking kind of … sad today. And this is the first time I’ve found you in a bar on Christmas Eve.”  Titus needed to get back on track.

      “You tell me. What IS the true meaning of Christmas, ‘cause I don’t have a clue?”

      Sal turned his gaze back to the Yule Log and slowly said, “Why is it people never get tired of watching a log burning in a fireplace?”

      Mara ignored the log comment and looking for an opportunity to move the conversation forward, chimed in. “I’ll bet you DO have a clue. I’ve done my homework and you don’t strike me as someone who’s lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas.”

      Titus looked silently at Mara, then back to Sal. They stared at each other for a moment and then almost as if on cue, they both said, “Kids”, and broke into laughter. The bond they had developed over four Christmas seasons may not be quite as evident tonight, but it was there.

      Sal sipped his draft and stared sadly at Titus. “How’s Laurie?”

      “Couldn’t be better, Sal. Sal Junior and Melissa too.  Everyone sends you their love.”

      “Good.  Back at them, please? Tell them I really do miss them.” This was a conversation Sal wanted desperately to continue but didn’t really think he had the strength to pursue.

      From his end of the bar, Murray watched as Sal talked and the angels listened. Sal would speak and the angels would just sit there, occasionally nodding, otherwise silently and sagely watching Sal carry on a monologue. What were they doing here, anyway, and when were they leaving?

      After musing silently, Sal whispers, “Shall I tell you about the best Christmas I ever had?”

      Titus nodded slowly and Mara leaned in.

      “I was just out of college; maybe a year or two, and somebody got me a three-day gig as a toy demonstrator just before Christmas.  Mr. Remco.  They make toys, ya know.”

      “So I’ve heard.” Titus ventured.

      “Think I made about a hundred bucks a day.”

      “Yep.”

      “When it was over and I finished washing the talcum powder out of my hair, I drove to my girlfriend’s parents’ house for Christmas Eve. Used the powder to make my hair white, ya know. Old Mr. Remco.”

      “I see.”

      “That $300 was practically all the money I had in the world. We went shopping for Christmas presents till the stores closed at 9:00 o’clock and I spent every penny on the best gifts I could think of. Got to my parents’ house about 1:00 am, snuck in, put all my gifts under the tree and just stood back and cried like a baby. I felt so good about finally being able to get everything I wanted for the people I loved.”

      “I’ll bet you did.”

      “I had never really cared about what presents I got. It wasn’t about that. Wait, hold that thought. Loved that bicycle. And those trains. Yeah … okay.” Sal smiled and followed the feelings down Memory Lane. “Why can’t I feel that way anymore?”

      “Sal?” No answer. Titus pushed forward. “That was really nice, what you just said about your best Christmas ever. You were on the right track there. Giving is always better than receiving. That’s why The Boss gave His Son for all of you. You’ve just become distracted by events.”

      “Events? You call having my wife and kids mowed down by some idiot … events?”

      “Life is full of events. Watching your Son nailed to a tree by the people He came to save was quite an event, too.”

      Meeting no resistance to that statement, Titus continued. “Maybe you’ve forgotten the meaning of Christmas.  Maybe you’ve bought into the idea that Christmas is just for kids and presents. I guess it might be easier to spend a few dollars and be done with it in a few weeks than to commemorate His birth year-round. For some people, He does seem to ask a lot, but I’m telling you the reward is great.”

      Sal leaned into Mara and said, “Are you getting this down?  ‘Cause if he gets a promotion, these are YOUR words next year.”

      Mara replied, “I’m familiar with the story, Sal. The question is, do YOU remember it?”

      “Skip it. Sorry I mentioned it.”

      “Our Father loves you and He wants to make sure you know that,” said Titus.

      Mara interjected, “Your family did what they were sent here to do.  But if you enjoyed Christmas for what it really is, they … and you … would all be happier.”

      “Listen, I’m as happy as I’m going …”

      “No, you’re not. You’re really not,” said Titus. “But we are here to help you find the answer to our question, so here’s the deal.

      “Since time is short, I’m going to give you the answer, but you have to see it for yourself. Kind of like science lab.  You can read it in the book, but it doesn’t always resonate like it should unless you’ve actually seen it.”

      Sal let out a long sigh.

      Titus ignored it and continued. “Like any birthday, it should be celebrated by family and friends with a party.

      “Laurie always made the Christmas party and you loved it. You LIVED for it. The chance to see people that you don’t see all the time, to hug them and kiss them, to catch up with them and to make your house heaven on earth for just one day every year. To celebrate His Birth, not quietly, but with family and friends, the way it should be celebrated.

      “And THAT, my friend, is what you miss about Christmas. Tonight is the time for prayer, and thanksgiving, and anticipation but tomorrow is the time to really celebrate. You want Laurie in your life? Celebrate Christmas the way she would.”

      “Sal. Time, buddy.”  Murray was pointing to the clock on the wall.

      “Yeah, okay.” Sal stood and turning to Titus said, “Looks like we’ll have to pick this up next Christmas.”

      But Titus was gone and in a blur of soft white light and feathers, he could just make out Mara’s face, as it too disappeared. On the counter in front of the stool where he had been sitting was a very large gold coin about half the size of his hand, and unlike anything he had ever seen. The image on one side was a profile of Titus and an inscription that read, “See You Here”. On the other side, it said, “St. Anselm’s Midnight Mass – Christmas Eve”.

      St. Anselm’s was a block away and it was 11:45.

      “Looks like your buddies really know how to make a grand exit,” said Murray.

      “Yeah. Spooky too. Merry Christmas Murray.” Sal saw no sense in trying to explain to Murray what had just happened. After three previous Christmases, he still wasn’t sure he understood himself.

      As he stepped into the cold, he knew that St. Anselm’s was to the right and home was to the left.

      Flipping the coin, he called “Heads – church, tails – home.” Making the catch and cupping his hand over his wrist, he finally dared to look. He flipped it again. And again. And again.

      “Oh, Jeez.”, he said as he turned right toward St. Anselm’s, took a deep breath and let it out as he walked.

      As Sal walked toward St. Anselm’s, he pondered Titus’ question.

      What was the true spirit of Christmas: gift-giving or gift-getting, watching the kids shred the paper, the birth of a special baby two millennia ago, or … what the hell, family? If it was supposed to be family, there was no reason to celebrate Christmas since some drunken idiot had taken his family just over four years ago. And if God lets that happen to the sweetest, most innocent people on earth, to hell with it. Not my idea of God.

      Damn, it was cold! He should have looked at the weather forecast before going out. How did Titus and the other one (Mark, Mary, Mar-something) do it, just wearing those robes on a night like this? ‘Course they didn’t really have to walk or anything. They were angels, with wings, and they just appeared wherever they wanted to show up. He had never really seen them fly outside, so maybe they never really got cold.

      Christ, he’d only been in the bar for what, a couple of hours, so he couldn’t be drunk or imagining angels. Titus was the leader of the two, and this was the fourth Christmas Eve Sal had seen him. Nice enough guy but the wings were a dead giveaway that he wasn’t from around here. Now he had a trainee, and he came right to the point this year. He wanted to know the true meaning of Christmas. From a mortal’s perspective. 

      How the hell should I know the true meaning of Christmas! You’re the one with wings!

      Turns out that Titus is some kind of Christmas Angel for Sal since Laurie, Sal Jr., and Melissa were stolen from him those four Christmases ago. Titus keeps showing up on Christmas Eve in some sort of effort to convince him that it’s all okay, or something like that. Good luck with that.

      This year the winged-one just sort of disappeared the way he appeared, but he left a medallion with a message. Said he’d meet me at St. Anselm’s for the Midnight Mass.

      Since Sal had nothing better to do (actually, he lost four coin tosses to himself in the decision-making process), here he was outside St. Anselm’s. It was a beautiful church, and the choir was ringing out in Christmas melodies that not even Sal could forget. Not that he wanted to, because a couple of months before that final Christmas, Laurie had dragged him into the choir too. She had a beautiful alto voice, and he turned out to be a bass, but they had fun together.

      But now …  

      He stood watching the open door and listening to the choir. As the indecision lingered, he finally decided and turned for home.

      “Sal!” The voice rang out, sharp and clear. He knew that if he turned back to the church, a man-like thing with wings and a robe would take hold of his heart and wind him in this time.

      So he turned and walked toward the sound of what now seemed like a heavenly choir as Titus and Mar-something escorted him right up to the door.

      “I used to know quite a few people in there,” Sal said. “Laurie would have the whole choir over for dinner before this mass on Christmas Eve.”

      “They haven’t forgotten you, Sal. You’ll see.”

      Titus was speaking. “My job was to get you here, Sal. Just follow the usher down the aisle. And I’m truly happy for you and for what you’re about to experience. Goodbye, Sal, and Merry Christmas!”

      And with that, he was gone in that same puff of light and feathers as before at the bar. Mara, however, remained and went through a different transformation. He grew smaller until he was the size and had the features of a roughly ten-year-old girl. The white robe became a black choir robe and the wings shrunk from about seven feet tall to about twelve inches and folded neatly against her back, turning black in the process.

      She, formerly the angel called Mara, also had a handful of programs in hand and giving one to Sal said, “Follow me please, Sal.”

      Mara turned and led the way down the center aisle of the church. At this point, Sal would believe almost anything but still followed with a sense of awe and wonderment.

      He vaguely heard the congregation respond to Fr. Edward with, “And with your Spirit”, but his eyes roamed from side to side as they passed down the aisle and came to a stop about four rows from the front. Heads had turned and smiles greeted them all the way and somehow, he had managed to return the favor. 

      Mara turned and motioned Sal to take the aisle seat on the left and handed him a program. As he did so, he saw Maria Antonucci sitting there. Laurie and Maria had been besties and she was now beaming up at him as if not a day had gone by since he had lost his family.

      His hand went to his mouth in a vain effort to hide his emotion and he nearly collapsed into his seat. Maria took his left hand and raised it to her cheek then kissed it. Flustered, he kissed hers back, then looked to the altar area. There, behind the altar, was the 26-member choir silently applauding him with Jim Antonucci, Maria’s husband, grinning from ear to ear. Sal couldn’t help but laugh and wave back.

      “Like any birthday, Christmas should be celebrated by family and friends with a party.”

      Suddenly, Sal shifted to Fr. Edward as he heard those words coming from the priest’s mouth. They were the same words he had heard from Titus’ lips earlier this evening at the bar. Fr. Edward continued,

      “Our Heavenly Father, sent his only begotten son down from Heaven to join us in our sorrows, our joys, and to lead us back to Heaven. He gave Him a Family to support Him, and to love Him, and to set  the example for how families should act. That’s what I call a sacrifice.”

      As Sal sat in silence, letting these words wash over him and filling him with the strongest sense of peace, he heard a soft voice in his right ear. It was Mara, sitting on the back of the pew.

      “They can’t see me Sal, but how are you?”

      With tears rolling softly down his cheeks, Sal murmured, “I’m good, I think. I’d forgotten what this was like.”

      “Good,” said Mara. The angel paused and then “So, what’s the true meaning of Christmas then, from a mortal perspective?”

      “From a mortal perspective?” Sal thought.  “God … loves … us. He loves us so much that He came down from Heaven to become one of us.” Haltingly, Sal continued. “I guess that’s cause for celebration, … for family and friend reunions, to reflect and celebrate the Love of God. I’m pretty sure that’s what Laurie thought.”

      “Mmm. That’s really deep, especially for a mortal.” said Mara. “Sounds like it’s time for me to go.”

      “Where are you going?”

      “Home. Mission accomplished?”

      “Mission accomplished,” Sal whispered. “Thanks, and congrats on your promotion. You earned it.”

      Mara leaned in and kissed Sal softly on his right cheek. “Thanks, and Laurie says to tell you she loves you. Always and Forever. Bye, for now.”

      With that, the spot that used to contain Mara was the same poof, but fewer feathers this time and instantly the choir burst into “Hallelujah Chorus.”

      Sal, overcome and spent, looked up and somewhere near the altar thought he saw on the face of the statue of Mary … a tear and a smile.