It was the last year of the war. We had long since grown accustomed to hunger. Our father received a mere pittance in wages which supported the family with increasing difficulty. Almost the entire sum went to pay the rent of our small apartment and my lessons. Poor Papa, working long hours overtime, he was thoroughly exhausted.
Our situation became critical. We were being evicted from our apartment, there was no fuel. The family gathered to confer. What was to be done? Of the family valuables there remained only our baptismal crosses, the wedding rings, and Papa's gold medal. Papa announced that as difficult as it was, he would have I to part with the medal.
Early in the morning our father left for the city. At home we waited anxiously for him. At last, towards evening, he returned. Heaviness had settled over him like a cloud; he looked aged and haggard. He had given up the last thing in the house from his distant homeland, an award he had earned and treasured dearly. For him, part of his life was now extinguished. We paid off our debts, paid up our rent, and once again were left penniless.
Christ's Nativity was approaching. With » my sister's help Mama transformed the i apartment into a cozy little nest, but even to think of having a tree or a special holiday dinner was out of the question.
Christmas Eve. Soon the whole family would be going off to church. All was quiet at home. The vigil lamp flickered. Suddenly the stillness was pierced by a sharp ring. Mama went to open the door. A tall, well dressed young man handed her a large parcel. Before she could say a word he gave bow and disappeared. Our astonishment knew no limits when there spilled out from the parcel sausages, cheeses, cans of butter, chocolate and lots of other delicacies. Through a kind man the Lord had sent us a feast-day meal.
The war came to an end, and at last fate took pity on us. Papa began to receive a decent salary, my sister found a position as a stenographer, and I was enrolled at a university. Life returned to its brighter side, just as it was before the war.
The Feast of Nativity drew near once again. But this time the house was bustling with preparations. We shopped for presents, painted the apartment, a maid cleaned and tidied up, we made ready a sumptuous holiday meal for the celebration...
On the eve, early in the afternoon, my sister and I were gaily decorating the tree when suddenly I was struck by the remembrance of the past year's Nativity. Against the poverty of our former circumstances I clearly saw Mama's face, her eyes full of tears as she opened the mysterious parcel. A feeling of shame came over me as I contemplated our present egotism. I threw myself at my sister with the suggestion that we make haste to help some poor family My sister knew of just the one.
Within minutes we were striding through the frosty air. Going into a store, we bought all kinds of this and that. Then we purchased a small Christmas tree and toy decorations; we also bought some children's toys. Soon we found ourselves before the shabby dwelling. We ascended a dark, dismal staircase and knocked at the door. The gaunt face of a woman, no longer young, peered through the narrowly opened door ^| and rested with bewilderment upon us and our bundles. We called the woman by name and she offered us to come in. There was no stove in the small room. The windows, panes missing, were pasted up with some sort of cardboard; A dim light illumined the picture of destitution.
We explained the purpose of our visit and handed the woman the bundle. When my sister placed the tree on the table, a girl of about seven ran towards us, clapping her hands with joy. The woman tried to say something but no words came forth, and she burst into tears. My sister began to comfort her as I left the room, unable to control the feeling of pity which welled up within me.
We walked home in silence. People hurried along the streets, laden with packages and presents. An electrifying holiday atmosphere was in the air. But we, somehow involuntarily, walked slowly. We couldn't join in this holiday gaiety. I shall never forget that feeling of heaviness which I then experienced. At the same time, my sister and I were exceedingly happy. Instead of life's hustle and bustle, our hearts were sparked by the true light and peace of the holy Feast.
The happiest times in a man's life are when he helps his neighbor.
Source: "The Messenger, "parish bulletin of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, San Francisco, January, 1973.