A Christmas Fullfillment
By Tim Wintermute
Beulah Junction, Colorado had experienced a bit of a boom during the Covid Pandemic. People had moved there who wanted to work remotely and that didn’t mean remotely as in ranching, farming or herding sheep in a place that certainly qualified as remote, but online over the Internet. Fortunately, a grant for rural development a couple of years before had resulted in a “fixed wireless” system being installed with a transmitter attached to the Prairie Star Community Church’s steeple. This provided high speed Internet access for the town and surrounding area, which the people behind the grant likened to the irrigation systems, but instead of water it carried data. The result was that SOLD signs had been planted in front of the town’s numerous vacant houses and lots. Prairie Star, with its namesake steeple visible for miles around, had benefited from the influx of newcomers with a Sunday attendance averaging forty people. It also benefitted from being the only Church in town that was still open.
Whatever the reason, new faces had begun to sprout in the rows of long fallow pews in Prairie Star’s sanctuary that had been constructed over a hundred years before to accommodate a congregation of five hundred people. At the time a church that large had seemed fitting for a newly planted metropolis on the plains just east of the Rocky Mountains that the founders were confident would soon rival Denver. A century later, after droughts, the closing of the railroad line and being bypassed by major highways the “boomtown on the prairie” had turned into a “bust on the dust”. The Prairie Star Community Church with its huge sanctuary and star topped steeple was a shining shrine to wishful thinking.
Ezra should have been happy that things had begun to turn around, but he wasn’t. For almost fifty years he’d been the Pastor of a congregation that was shrinking, but was now called to lead a growing one. What nagged at him was that the growth was in people coming to Church, but not necessarily gathering together in a community. Without community, sitting in pews was no different than sitting on benches in a waiting room. And even though Prairie Star was in Purgatory County Ezra knew that it couldn’t just be a seating area for souls.
That wasn’t the only reason Ezra was feeling down. He was also facing a Christmas Day by himself, sitting in an easy chair that by now followed every contour of his sagging seventy two year old body, staring at the Christmas tree and then watching A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time. Why did he bother to put up a tree, anyway, much less decorate it since he would be the only person to look at it? Supposedly, Martin Luther had started the custom of decorating a tree with candles as symbols of stars in the night sky, but he had only to step outside and see the night sky glittering with stars and that didn’t even include the one shining on top of the Church’s steeple. The tree adorned with the same decorations that Louise and he had hung every Christmas was now without her and without the children and grandchildren that they never had, just an old man’s habit. Maybe he should chop it up and burn it in the fireplace. Sure, Martin Luther wouldn’t have agreed, but John Calvin probably would have.
Thinking this way was more in line with Ebenezer Scrooge’s bah humbug philosophy than any theology, Ezra realized. He reminded himself that he could look forward to the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. He expected that as many as forty people might attend. Even though that number of candles wouldn’t come close to matching the stars in the sky or the brightness of the illuminated star on top of the steeple it would make a dent in the darkness of the vast sanctuary. If only candles were all it took to create a community, Ezra thought shaking his head. Still, there was comfort in the fact that there would be more than the handful it had dwindled to a couple of years ago and that included himself and Sara Wiggins, the organist. He looked down at sheet of paper on his desk, studying the passages from Luke and Matthew that he had selected to read at the service. Suddenly he was interrupted by a rapping on the door. Since the door to his Pastor’s Study was never closed he knew it couldn’t be his friend Ike because he would have walked right in. Once, when Ezra had turned his back to the door and was staring out the window, thinking God knows what, his best friend Ike, a semi-retired sheep rancher, had slipped in, sat down facing Ezra’s back where for almost a half hour and worked on crossword puzzles he’d brought with him until finally Ezra saw his reflection on the windowpane when a passing cloud darkened it. Looking up Ezra faced a large man with a white bushy beard and sparkling eyes.
“Sorry to bother you good sir,” the man said. “Or is it Reverend or Father or Reverend Father? Anyway, I know this is a Church since you can’t miss the steeple up there.” He pointed at the ceiling with his right index finger. “Now, that’s what I call a steeple and with that star on top. Must be quite a shiner when it’s lit up.”
“You can call me Reverend or just Ezra, whichever you prefer,” Ezra answered. “And, yes, it can be seen for miles on a clear night.”
“Which you are certainly blessed with here on the range since the skies are not cloudy all day,” the man chuckled.
Ezra motioned to the chair facing him on the other side of the desk. “Have a seat…sir.”
“Nick is fine,” the man answered and sat down gingerly as if testing whether the chair would support his weight. Fully seated he undid the buttons of the long, olive drab coat he wore revealing some red wool underneath and smiled at Ezra.
“How can I help you, Nick?”
“Well, Ezra, usually this time of year I’d be a Santa Claus up in Denver.”
“But not this year?”
The man shook his head and said, “You see there’s not much demand for Santa Claus. More and more people have been using online retailers and we flesh and blood Santa’s have been squeezed out.” He pressed his two beefy hands against his ample belly. “And if that wasn’t bad enough the Covid pandemic hit and with social distancing shoppers and especially the kids stopped going to stores and malls so nobody needed a Santa Claus.”
“As a result, you’re out of work,” Ezra said, anticipating that the man would now ask for a handout.
“As a Santa, yes, but I managed to get a job this Christmas driving a delivery truck for one of the big online retailers. I told myself that at least this way I’d get to deliver presents. I have to wear the company’s uniform but I put on my Santa cap when I’m out making a delivery.” Nick reached inside the pocket of his overcoat and pulled out a red stocking cap with a white fluffy ball at the tip.
“And you’re here to make a delivery,” Ezra said with relief, followed by surprise that someone would be sending him something for Christmas.
Nick fidgeted. “Well, actually, I’m driving a truck to Dodge City, Kansas.”
“That’s a long way to go to make a delivery, especially on the day before Christmas.”
“I’m not making a delivery to someone, Ezra, I’m taking a truckload of stuff that was returned to what they call in the online business a fulfillment center. Nothing wrong with the stuff except that it was the wrong size or color or something that the customers decided just wasn’t …” Nick shrugged.
“Fulfilling,” Ezra offered.
“Pretty sad, if you ask me,” Nick answered. “Christmas is supposed to be about fulfillment and the truck driving chock full of perfectly good stuff for folks of all ages and now that they’ve been returned the company I work for can’t sell them again and they need the space for other stuff so here I am taking them from the fulfillment center to Dodge City.”
“At least some charity will get all these brand new things, although I don’t see why you have to take them all the way to Dodge City when there are lots of charities in Denver.”
“Charity,” Nick snorted. “I’m supposed to dump them in a landfill just outside Dodge. They’ve got one there because there’s, well, lots of empty prairie and no one will know that’s what they’re doing. Sort of like burying them in an unmarked grave in Boot Hill.
“What a waste.”
“That’s exactly what I thought. There’s lots of people who aren’t getting anything this Christmas and here I am burying brand new stuff. It bothered me that the truck I was driving is like Santa’s bag full of gifts so I called the dispatcher back at the company and asked him if I really had to take everything to some dump outside of Dodge? He told me that he didn’t care how I got rid of the stuff as long as the truck was empty when I got back after Christmas Day. Well, I said to myself, Santa’s bag should be empty after Christmas Day as well, but it wouldn’t be because Santa buried everything in some god forsaken landfill. Then, I saw that star of yours and I knew what Santa should do.”
“And what’s that?”
“Why Santa would give them to people who aren’t getting anything for Christmas and would be…fulfilled.”
“And how do you propose to do that on the day before Christmas?” Ezra asked.
“That’s where I thought you could help. You must know lots of folks who are in need. I’ve got an inventory here of everything in the truck and we could match them with those folks and then find some people who’d be willing to help me, I mean Santa, sort and deliver them. Look, I can understand that you might not believe me and think that I’m some sort of a fruitcake, but if you look out your window you’ll see my truck parked in front of the Church and I can open it so you can see for yourself.”
Ezra swiveled his chair and looked out the window. A large “box” truck was parked in front and on its side was the name of a well known online retailer. “I believe you,” Ezra said, turning back to face Nick. “I don’t know all the people around here who are in need, but I’m on the board of the local food bank and I can call the director. She has a list of people who use the food bank and probably some volunteers to help with sorting and deliveries.”
Ezra called Marcia Ramirez and explained the opportunity. When he finished she said that she could match the list of people who used the food bank with the returned items on the inventory. Unfortunately, she couldn’t provide any volunteers since the Food Bank was closed for Christmas. “We only have a handful of volunteers and they’re so overworked as it is so I told them they didn’t have to come in today and Christmas. However, she would bring the list over and help with the matching and deliveries.
“What about being with your family, Marcia?” Ezra asked.
“The people that need the food bank are all part of my family and as far as the rest, my kids are grown and scattered around the country and my husband, Frank, will come along and help. Now, let me get the list together and I’ll be right over.”
After hanging up he told Nick that Marcia was bringing over a list of people to match with gifts.
Unfortunately, she can’t provide any volunteers since the Food Bank is closed for Christmas and, to tell you the truth, they have a hard time getting enough volunteers when it’s not a holiday. She and her husband will help, but that’s only two people.”
“What about the members of this Church?” Nick asked.
Yes, what about them?, Ezra repeated to himself. He’d be asking people whose only commitment to the Church so far had been an hour of sitting in a pew on Sundays to give up their day before Christmas and, even, Christmas Eve, which meant that Christmas eve dinners and celebrations would be disrupted and, even, the Church’s Candlelight Service would have to be pushed back to a later time or cancelled altogether. “I’m sure I can get some of them to volunteer,” Ezra answered, surprising himself with a gigantic leap of faith. “I just need to make some calls, while you’re with Marcia matching people on her list with the things in your truck.”
The first person Ezra called was his friend Ike. He knew Ike, who was a Catholic, would be going to midnight mass at St. Drogos in Picketwire, but hoped he’d help him coordinate the volunteers. Ike agreed and said he was on his way. Next, Ezra started calling the people who had come to at least three Church services. He called the first person and asked them if they would come over to the Church that afternoon to help sort and distribute a truckload of gifts to people in need. To his surprise that person not only agreed, but volunteered to help make phone calls to other people on his list. Ezra gave them five names and phone numbers. The same thing happened with the second person he called. Before he could call the third person, the first person called back to say that the first person he called not only volunteered to help deliver the gifts but had also to make phone calls. Ezra gave him the names and phone numbers of five more people. As soon as he hung up the second person called to say the same thing as the first one and Ezra also gave him five names and phone numbers. When Ezra made his third phone call the person who answered said she and her husband and two kids would be over in an hour and also volunteered to call five people. After giving her the names and phone numbers Ezra realized that there was no one else for him to call. A half an hour later all of the people on the list who hadn’t gone out of town for the holidays had agreed to come and when family members and, even guests visiting for the holidays, were counted in, they would have more than thirty volunteers. All of this took less than a half hour and most of the volunteers said they could be at the Church within an hour.
It was eight o’clock before the last of the volunteers returned from distributing the gifts. Many of the recipients lived in dilapidated trailers and run down houses tucked out of the way in remote areas outside of Beulah Junction while others lived right in town hidden in plain sight. For the volunteers who were relative newcomers it was an eye opening experience. Even Ezra, who had lived in Beulah Junction for close to half a century was surprised that there were so many people in need. Another surprise came when instead of rushing to their homes the volunteers decided to stay and have a communal potluck dinner in the with the people who until a few hours before they had only seen in Church on Sundays.
People were still engaged in talking with each other long after they’d finished eating, when Sara Wiggins, the Church organist, who had joined in the volunteering, told him that if there was still going to be a Candlelight Service? Ezra looked at his watch and saw that it was almost 10 P.M., well past 7 o’clock when the Candlelight Service was scheduled to begin. He stood up and said that given the hour did people still want to go ahead with the Candlelight Service. The response was an immediate yes from everyone. Ezra was about to ask them to follow him to the Sanctuary when someone said, “But why not have it here instead of the Sanctuary? We can move the tables away and put the chairs in a circle.”
“Right,” another added. “In the Sanctuary we have to sit in those hard wooden pews looking, no offence Reverend, at you, when here we can all be in a circle and look at each other.”
Ezra saw the service that he’d led for almost fifty Christmas Eves snuffed out like the candles that had been extinguished. The suggestions were immediately followed by a hearty chorus of approval from everyone. Quickly, the tables were moved and a circle of folding chairs formed. Everyone picked a chair including Sara who had decided to stay. Ezra sat down between Nick, who was still dressed in his Santa outfit and Ike, who had assured Ezra that since it wasn’t snowing there would still be time for him to drive to Picketwire for Midnight Mass. Ezra asked Ike if he could get the box of small candles from the Sanctuary and when he returned they were handed out. “I thought you might need these as well,” he said holding up a book of matches then muttered “let there be light,” as he lit Ezra’s candle. Ezra lit Nick’s candle and he lit his neighbor’s until the entire circle of candles was ablaze.
After the lights were turned off and candle lit faces beamed in the darkness, Ike whispered to Ezra that it reminded him of shepherds sitting around a campfire. Ezra looked at the sheet of paper with the verses he had selected from Luke and Matthew flickering in the candlelight, “I think everyone should read a verse,” he said then handed the sheet to Ike.
Ike read in a voice as calm as a lullaby, “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” After Ike finished he handed the sheet to the person next to him. When the sheet got to Nick, completing the circle, he read the final verse, “Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Wiping his eyes with one of the furry cuffs of his Santa suit, Nick handed the sheet to Ezra.
Ike prodded Ezra with his elbow and whispered, “How did you know that there’d be enough people so that each person could read one of the verses you put down on that sheet of paper?”
“I didn’t,” Ezra whispered back. “Fortunately, Math wasn’t a required subject in Seminary or I’d never have been ordained.”
“What’s that sound?” Ike asked as organ music wafted into the room.
Ezra glanced at the chair where Sara had been seated and saw that it was empty. “It’s Sara. She’s in the Sanctuary playing Silent Night on the organ. She must have pulled out all the stops so we could hear it.”
Several of the people in the circle began singing Silent Night and they were immediately followed by others until everyone had joined in singing. When it was over and the organ stopped, they sat in silence. After a couple of minutes, Ezra rose from his chair. Instead of the benediction he’d given at every Candle Light Service, he said, “That we know how to keep Christmas well…may it truly be said of us…God bless us, Every One.”
“Your benediction was different this time, but it sure sounded familiar,” Ike said to Ezra after the lights were turned
“Probably because it was from the last passage of A Christmas Carol.” Looking around he noticed that Nick wasn’t there. “Do you know where Nick went?”
“Oh, Nick said he still had a lot to do and he had to drive back to Denver to drop off the truck he’d borrowed and then pick up his sleigh. Do you think he’s taking this being Santa Claus a bit too far?”
Ezra smiled and replied, “Fortunately for all of us he took it far enough to reach Beulah Junction.”