Gerald sat in a worn recliner, his hand wrapped around a mug of cold hot chocolate, and contemplated murder.
He was not a violent man. In fact, he could not remember a time that he had raised his voice or his hand in anger. Deep into his golden years, it seemed a strange time to turn so savage, his head swimming with deadly thoughts. Still, he had run out of options. He was at the end of his rope. He had been pushed too far.
His guest would not leave.
It was Christmas Eve, the first since his Charlotte had died. His children had each in turn begged him to come spend the holidays with them and their families. He had refused them all, mollified them with stories of plans that required him to stay around home. Only his oldest son had been bold enough to keep arguing. Finally, Gerald had taken him to the side, looked into his eyes - the boy had been born with his mother’s eyes - and told him that he wanted to spend this first Christmas alone with his memories of his dear wife. They shared a moment of understanding and his son had relented.
Still, that did not stop the Christmas Eve visits. It had lasted all day. Kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, and even one great grandchild all wrapped up in fuzzy blankets, had come in a steady stream all day to wish him well and share their love. He had smiled through it all, thanking each of them in turn and giving the smaller ones tight hugs that left them grinning.
It had been pleasant enough, but he was anxious to have it be over. Always an introvert, the energy it took for Gerald to be sociable left him feeling drained. He had been closing the door on the last of them when one more hand rapped on the door as it attempted to swing shut on the world.
It was Jerry.
Gerald’s warm smile and words of welcome formed a sharp external contrast to the groan he felt inside. He had been counting down the relatives and had come to the end of his list. He had not counted on Jerry.
All of the children called him Uncle Jerry, and Gerald and Charlotte had spent the early years of their marriage with each thinking that Jerry was a relation of the other. One year, when Gerald asked her some trivial detail about him, she had looked at him puzzled.
“How should I know? He’s your brother.”
He had responded with shock of his own.
“I thought he was your brother!”
A quick investigation among the family was worthless. Everyone thought he was tied to someone else, but nobody could remember where or when he had come into the family. They finally all agreed that he must have been a friend of Charlotte’s father, who had died young. He was a gypsy fellow, only popping in every now and again at family reunions.
Now he sat entrenched on Gerald’s sofa, chatting away amiably as time crawled ever onward. Gerald had managed to stay friendly for an entire hour, his smile staying on his face like a soldier bravely manning his post.
Now they were deep into the third hour of Jerry’s visit and Gerald’s smile had abandoned him, running off into the night, hand in hand with his patience. He couldn’t blame them, he felt like his sanity would soon follow.
He had dropped every clue he could think of, but Jerry had been oblivious to them all. Even now, he chattered away like some pre-teen girl at a sleepover about all the pretty lights across town. Gerald seized on this opportunity. It was time for some tactical rudeness.
“Actually, I’ve never cared much for Christmas.” He interrupted Jerry coldly, feeling like a ship’s captain launching a broadside volley into his enemy’s vessel of vacuous conversation. He leaned forward in his chair to watch the effect of his salvo. It would grow awkward now and Jerry would have to retreat.
Their eyes met and held, Jerry’s smile grew deeper. It was a devious, satisfied smile. Gerald felt tendrils of panic starting to creep into his brain. He didn’t understand it, but he felt like he had stepped into a trap. He felt a momentary sympathy with animals who chewed their own legs off to escape steel jaws. A part of his mind lightly contemplated what kind of self-harm he could inflict to get himself out of this.
“Why not?” It was not a true question, but rather a verbal hook, drawing him deeper into the trap. Gerald felt a surge of unexpected anger and responded with a lot more volume that he intended.
“Because it’s pointless!” He bellowed at his guest, though age had left his voice thin. Jerry was still smiling that spider’s smile at him. The sensible part of his brain told him that he should pull back, draw into himself. But he was in his fury now and let it all pour out in tirade.
“It’s a garish display of the worst parts of human nature. You like the lights, do you? They’re pathetic! People spend monstrous amounts of money to string them up everywhere, often risking their fool necks in the process, just to outdo their neighbor. It’s not a holiday, it’s a popularity contest, right out of some high school, the richest and the prettiest win.”
Gerald’s whole body was taught. His cane was by the door, but if he had been holding it, he would have shook it at Jerry. Still the man’s smile held, driving him to deeper depths of irritation and rage.
“It’s not all about the lights, maybe there’s some other part you like. The gifts, perhaps?”
“Gifts?! You expect me to get all wide eyed about gifts? I’ve got everything I need. I’ve had everything I needed for the last forty years!”
“You know, it’s better to give than…”
“Giving gifts?” Gerald interrupted the other man, rather than endure the whole trite aphorism. “I couldn’t give gifts to all of my family even if I were a millionaire, there’s too many of them now. Besides, they also have everything they need. Do my grandkids really need more toys? They already throw away more every year than I had my whole life! No, I can’t say I enjoy the gifts, giving or receiving. It’s fine and dandy that the economy gets a bit of a boost, but you can’t expect me to feel all warm and fuzzy because some corporation saves its bottom line in the last quarter.”
“What about the true meaning of Christmas?” Jerry asked softly.
Gerald had a grin of his own now. Jerry thought he was so clever, but Gerald had seen this coming from a mile off. He was ready for it.
“You mean the birth of Jesus Christ? You know, most Bible scholars now agree that He wasn’t born in winter at all. He was born in the spring.”
“Oh?” There was a sneaky innocence to Jerry’s question that should have warned Gerald that he was being played, but he was too caught up in the chase.
“Yes! He wasn’t born anywhere near to Christmas. In fact, I read on the internet that the only reason it exists is because Christians in olden times were trying to replace the pagan festivals held around that time. They couldn’t get them to give them up, so they just renamed them something Christian. They didn’t even change the traditions. Most of the Christmas traditions we celebrate are old pagan rituals.”
Gerald felt proud of himself, he felt like one of those college kids who always knew more than everybody else. He finished triumphantly.
“So if you think I’m supposed to tear up to celebrate Christ’s birth on the wrong day and by celebrating pagan stuff, you’re dead wrong.”
He sat back, folding his arms. He felt smug. He had seldom felt smug in his life before. He didn’t mind the feeling. Maybe he would try to spend more time being smug…
“That is fascinating.” Jerry mused. Gerald’s smugness faltered just a little. His guest didn’t sound defeated at all, as he should. He didn’t even sound fascinated, as he claimed.
“A pagan festival, you say?” Gerald nodded, confirming it. “Do you know what they were celebrating?”
Gerald’s smugness faltered a little more. He hadn’t paid that much attention to the article. One of his younger friends from work had emailed it to him. He had only skimmed it, and that had been many years ago, before he had retired.
“Oh, you know those pagans, I think it was some sort of sun thing.” He offered lamely.
“It was centered around the winter solstice.” Jerry spoke with authority, a man who knew what he was talking about. Gerald felt the last of his smugness slip away, joining his smile and his patience off in the darkness. “Or I guess it would be better to say it came just after the solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year.”
“I know what a solstice is!” Gerald snapped, feeling petty. Jerry continued as if he hadn’t heard.
“So all through fall and winter, the days got shorter and shorter and the nights got longer. To the primitive mind, this was the sun abandoning them. For some cultures, it was the forces of light being defeated, darkness and death taking over the world. At the winter solstice, it would appear that the battle was nearly lost.
“Then the days got just a little longer. It was still mostly dark, the days still frozen and barren, but even those primitive people could see the spark of hope in these signs. Even though it was still one of the darkest times, they knew that the light was coming back, that the forces of light were rising again. So they celebrated with candles and feasting, using light and laughter to help the sun push back the darkness.”
Gerald muttered under his breath. “Ignorant savages.” But his cursing had no weight behind it, he was just being bitter and he knew it. There was something of beauty in what Jerry was saying.
“This whole system of the planet’s motion through the heavens was designed by the Father of us all, and I can’t believe these months of darkness were a design flaw.”
Gerald grunted a grudging agreement and Jerry continued.
“I think He knew that life would take us through cycles of light and darkness, sorrow and joy, even righteousness and sin. I think He sent His Son to this earth to give us hope, a means to rise after we have fallen.”
A lump formed in Gerald’s throat and Jerry looked a little fuzzy to him through watery eyes, though he didn’t understand why. Maybe he was allergic to something.
“I expect He was born in the spring, as you say. He is the life, after all, and spring is the season of life. But I do not think we are wrong to celebrate that birth in winter. Winter is cold and dark. It is the natural symbol of death. Men and women have always tended to keep to themselves in winter, huddling and hoarding, trying to wait it out amid sickness and dwindling resources.
“Could it really be by chance that we celebrate Christmas at this time when people are most inclined to be isolated and selfish? Or could it be that we, like our ancient ancestors, feel the impulse to use lights and laughter to help the Son push back the darkness?”
A single tear glistened on Gerald’s wrinkled cheek and he nodded silently, not trusting his voice. He had somehow heard the difference in the last phrase, and he knew that Jerry was not speaking about sunlight. They sat together in a shared moment until Gerald gathered himself again.
“Are you saying that I should be with my family? With my kids?”
“No. They don’t really need you, do they?” Gerald was stunned by Jerry’s blunt answer. In spite of his new humility towards Christmas, he felt a bit indignant, his anger flaring.
“What do you mean by that? They’re my kids, they love me! They would be thrilled if I came and saw them.” He asserted forcefully.
“Of course they would, I never said otherwise.” Jerry defended himself, his hands raised in a mollifying gesture. “I only intended to say that there might be other people who actually need you more. A stranger on the side of the highway, out of gas. Or perhaps someone in a hospital, far from family. Surely, you could do much more for them than you ever could for your children, safe and warm in their own homes.”
“I guess I never saw it that way.” Gerald mused, thinking out loud. “I suppose I got used to Charlotte needing me all the time, especially towards the end. I haven’t felt that since then, I haven’t felt important. Are you saying that there are still people who need me?”
Jerry’s deep smile was back on his face as he stood and held out his hand to help Gerald from his chair.
“Come and see.”