I want to share my favorite Christmas story with any of you who haven’t heard it before. It was written by Harriet Richie and published in the December 13, 1995 issue of The Christian Century.
After the Christmas Eve service, my husband announced that he was hungry for breakfast. “There must be some place open,” he muttered. We piled in the car, and our son quickly placed an order for three hamburgers. After driving around for a while we headed down the interstate and finally found a truck stop, which was almost deserted. By now the children were sleepy. My husband led us to the door.
The jukebox was playing something like “When You Leave, Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Coming In.” The only suggestions of Christmas were the multicolored blinking lights strung around the large window. The air smelled of coffee, bacon and stale cigarette smoke. At the counter a one-armed man in a baseball cap was drinking Pepsi from a bottle. Two other men sat around a table talking, eating and drinking. At such an hour I couldn’t help wondering where they had come from or were going.
We chose a booth beside the window because the children wanted to see if the lights would make our faces change colors. A thin woman named Rita came to take our order. She looked like any waitress would look who had been unlucky enough to draw the late shift on Christmas Eve. Old for her years, I guessed–she wore her hair tucked behind her ears the way I do when mine won’t do anything else. Rita managed a weary-looking smile as she handed us the menus. Our son was holding the salt shaker upside-down, spilling salt into his hand and licking it. I gave him a stare and looked up in time to see Rita wink at him.
“No hamburgers,” we told the children. “This is breakfast.”
They moaned and ordered pancakes with sausage. They defiantly ate the sausage between the pancakes, hamburger-style.
This wasn’t my first breakfast at 1 a.m., but the others had been on somebody’s china. The snob in me was enjoying feeling out of place. Years from now, I thought, we’ll laugh and say, “Remember the Christmas we ate breakfast at that truck stop? That awful music and those tacky lights?”
I was staring out the window thinking such thoughts when an old Volkswagon van with Texas license plates and an overload of luggage drove up. A bearded young man in jeans got out. He walked around and opened the door for a young woman who was holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth near the back.
“Where you headed?” somebody asked them. I couldn’t hear the answer, but I imagined grandparents somewhere anxiously waiting to see their grandchild for the first time.
As Rita took their order, the baby started to cry. The father lifted the baby to his shoulder, but it didn’t help. Rita poured them coffee. The mother took the baby and began rocking it in her arms.
“Why doesn’t the baby stop crying?” our daughter asked.
“She probably wants something to eat,” I told her, remembering all the times I’d tried to drink a quick cup of coffee before a feeding. As if on cue, the baby would demand immediate attention.
The mother picked up the diaper bag and started to leave. She held the baby’s head against her neck as if she could muffle the noise.
Rita reached over and held out her arms. “Drink your coffee, hon. Let’s see what I can do.” There was something about the way Rita took the infant that made me think she’d raised half a dozen of her own. She began talking, walking, playing with the baby. Rita showed her to the man in the baseball cap. He began whistling and making silly faces, and the baby stopped crying. Rita showed her the blinking lights and the lights on the jukebox. She brought her over to us. “Just look at this little darlin’. Mine are so big and grown,” she said.
The one-armed fellow took a pot of coffee from a burner and started waiting on the tables. As he finished refilling our mugs, I felt tears in my eyes. My husband wanted to know what was wrong.
“Nothing. Just Christmas,” I told him, reaching in my purse for a Kleenex and a quarter. “Go see if you can find a Christmas song on the jukebox,” I told the children.
When they were gone, I said, “He’d come here, wouldn’t he?”
“Jesus. If Jesus were born in this town tonight and the choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”
He didn’t answer right away, but looked around the place, looked at the people. Finally he said, “Either here or a homeless shelter.”
“That’s what bothers me,” I said. “When we first got here I felt sorry for these people because they probably aren’t going home to neighborhoods where the houses have candles in the windows and wreaths on the doors. And listening to that awful music, I thought, I’ll bet nobody here has even heard of Handel. Now I think that more than any place I know, this is where Christmas is. But I don’t belong.”
As we walked to the car, my husband put his arm around me. “Remember, the angel said, `I bring good news of great joy to all people.”
“Thanks,” I said, but I wasn’t reassured.
The houses in our neighborhood were dark. As we passed the Milfords I wondered what Christmas Day would be like for them. Their daughter died in a car accident during the summer. Next door Jack McCarthy had lost his job. A little farther down the street lived the Baileys, whose marriage was hanging together by the slimmest thread. Mrs. Smith’s grown son had died from AIDS. Maybe we’re not so different from the people in the truck stop, I thought.