The bells above the door jangled.
Dave looked up from behind the sales counter, his reading glasses perched precariously on his nose. It was a quarter till seven, but the shop didn’t close till ten. He’d stay open later tonight because of Christmas.
The customer was a young fellow, about the age of his son. Dave frowned. Probably a student from Ohio State grabbing a few gifts before heading home for the holidays. And looking mighty cold without a proper jacket.
“Welcome to Dave’s Bookstore,” Dave said. “And Merry Christmas!”
The young man shook his head. “I don’t celebrate Christmas,” he said. “But thanks for welcoming me all the same.”
Dave nodded and kept ticking off inventory with a thick pencil. Probably Jewish, he thought. I’ll have to remember to wish him a happy Hannukah when he leaves. Dave had several tasteful menorahs displayed in one of his windows.
Other customers came and went. Bells jangled, the register ca-chinged, young couples browsed laughing through the store. Mrs. Croft, one of Dave’s longtime customers, came in to buy a single Christmas card from the rack on the counter.
“For my new granddaughter,” she said. Blue veins stood out on her thin hands which fluttered like birds. The card had a snowy evening scene with a Christmas tree stuck stark in the middle of a wide field. The photographer had used a filter to make the snow and sky look different shades of blue. Only the tree blazed brilliant in the middle of the field. Dave rang it up: $3.16.
“Would you look at that snow coming down!” he said. Mrs. Croft turned toward the window and Dave slipped an unopened pack of Worther’s Original Butterscotch candies into her bag. He folded the bag over and stapled it shut.
“Oh yes, it’s just like when I was a little girl!” Mrs. Croft said. She turned back to Dave, eyes shining. “There’s just something about Christmas that always makes me feel young.” Her eyes clouded. “I was so sorry to hear about your son, Dave. I can’t imagine.”
Dave tried to smile but it felt like wax cracking across his face. The memory was still fresh. “Thank you, Carrie,” he managed. “Have a lovely Christmas.”
Time passed. Fewer customers came through the door. The bells jangled less frequently. Dave could smell balsam from the Christmas tree by the counter. Outside, snow piled up on the bricks. He watched it falling through the streetlight, clean and cold, the flakes chasing each other in an endless pillow fight. He sat on his stool and fingered the red pea coat hanging on the hook by the desk. His son’s jacket. It still smelled like him. He sat still, remembering.
A truck drove by and broke the spell. Dave blinked and looked at the clock. Almost ten. He looked around. All the customers were gone, except the young man who’d come in earlier. He’s been browsing a long time, Dave thought. He cleared his throat. “Store’s about to close, young feller. Anything I can help you find?”
The young man looked at his watch and sighed. “Naw, I was mostly killing time waiting for a friend to pick me up. Looking for a good book to read for the break. Pretty much burned out from anything academic at this point.” He laughed. “Mind if I wait on the bench in front of your store?”
Dave shook his head. “That’s okay, son. I’ll put the closed sign up but you can hang around in here until your friend arrives. No sense you freezing outside. You’re not much ready for this cold, are you?”
The student laughed. “No sir. I’m from Nomos, Tennessee. Been studying hard for finals and didn’t pay any attention to the forecast. Don’t really have a winter jacket. Don’t really need one where I’m from. I can usually handle whatever comes. But it must be twenty degrees out there. My name’s Simon, by the way.” He stuck out his hand. “But my friends call me Hoss.”
Dave shook it. “Pleased to meet you, Hoss. I’m Dave. And that’s about right. It says twenty-three by the store thermometer. What are you studying at Ohio State?”
Hoss laughed. “I’m actually not a Buckeye. I’m studying at Calvary Bible College over on the corner of 5th and Main. Bible major.”
“Eh?” Dave stood up from his stool. “I figured you were Jewish, not celebrating Christmas and all. I was gonna wish you a Happy Hannukah.”
“Nope, I’m definitely Christian,” said Hoss. “Born and raised and born again. But my church back home doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Fact is, we don’t think any Christians should celebrate it. There’s nothing biblical about it.”
Dave could tell this was a conversation Hoss had had many times before. “That right?” he replied. He didn’t feel like arguing.
“Sure it is. You know December 25th is just an arbitrary date, don’t you? It was the Festival of Mithras. Christians co-opted it from the Romans way back. Baptized all the pagan traditions and tried to make a Christian holiday out of it. Yup, the way we celebrate Christmas today offends the living God. Not sure how any Christian can celebrate it with a clear conscience. The Devil’s got most folks blinded to it.” Hoss said it calmly, like he was reading from a book.
Dave sighed. “I don’t know about that, son, but I know that the birth of Jesus is in the Bible. Isn’t that reason enough to celebrate? I guess I don’t see much problem with picking a date. And if we’re gonna pick one, let’s pick it during the darkest time of the year to remind us of God’s light. It’s like that tree in the field there.” He pointed at the same card Mrs. Croft had bought.
“I disagree,” Hoss said. His eyes sparkled and color was flooding to his cheeks. This was a chance to show everything he’d learned. Maybe win a convert. “See, that Christmas tree right there is a pagan symbol. That goes back to the Druids. When we decorate a tree, it’s like we’re paying homage to the spirits. And the whole idea of trying to light a bunch of candles in the middle of winter to drive away the dark, why, that’s the pagan practice of Winter Solstice right there. Nothing biblical about it!”
“Nothing biblical about it?”
“Nothing at all. Just pagan myths and superstitions.”
Dave sighed. “And so because the Bible doesn’t talk about it specifically, that makes everything we do when we celebrate Christmas a sin?”
“Absolutely. You can’t serve both God and idols. Plus,” Hoss was animated, “we’ve turned Christmas into a materialistic orgy. It all started back in the late 1800s and then the big department stores started marketing it so they could sell more merchandise. Santa Claus got invented and the focus shifted toward buying more and more things. Most people I’ve talked to say they would love to stop celebrating Christmas if they could. But they feel locked into it by their kids.” He was breathing heavy but seemed happy.
Dave closed his inventory list and laid the stubby pencil atop its green cover. “So what do you do for Christmas?”
Hoss brightened. “Me? Why, my family goes to church on Christmas Day. We don’t celebrate the birth of Christ, we commemorate it”—he emphasized the word—“and we really should do that every day of the year. Our pastor—he’s the one who taught us all this truth—really makes it clear. So we spend time reading the Bible passages and singing some Christmas hymns and then we go home with our families and spend the rest of the day quietly meditating on the true meaning of Christmas, which is Jesus.”
The store was quiet and warm. Snow still fell outside and the scent of the Christmas tree filled the small space. Dave felt tired. He’d heard these things before. He cleared his throat. “That’s great, Hoss, really great. I’m glad you’ve found a way to do Christmas that works for you. But do you realize that there are millions of Christians who celebrate Christmas with trees and wreaths and presents and lights? I mean, your way is not the only way.”
Hoss stiffened. “Sure it is. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth to his children. I mean, you can’t deny everything I’ve already said, can you? How can you hear all of that and still think that a genuine Christian could celebrate Christmas like the pagans do?” He seemed mystified.
“Well Hoss, it’s like this,” Dave said. “I’m a Christian, and I feel perfectly comfortable celebrating Christmas like my family always has. Sure, December 25th is an arbitrary date, but it was a good pick, because it is the darkest time of year. Doesn’t Isaiah 9 talk about Messiah coming to his people who are in darkness? And doesn’t Zechariah sing in Luke 1 about God coming in light to his people who live in deepest night? Jesus himself was born in the middle of the night, so there’s got to be some symbolism there, don’t you think? I want to shine all the lights I can at Christmas.”
“Hold on a minute, son. Let me finish. I think it’s great that you and your family have a real simple way of commemorating the birth of Jesus. But that doesn’t mean that everyone else is wrong. Maybe some folks have a Christmas tree because they think it’s pretty and it smells good. Maybe we give presents because we want to, not because we feel forced into it. My family has always given presents to each other and to the poor. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that.”
“Well, it’s like this…”
“Now hold on, son, I’m not quite done. Just because something isn’t commanded in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s wrong for us to do it. Cars and computers and Bible colleges aren’t in the Bible, either, but we use them. Come to think of it, Baptist churches and head pastors and the United States Constitution aren’t in the Bible either. Does that make those things a sin?”
Hoss looked like he had choked on a chicken bone.
Dave continued: “But the Bible does command that we worship God. I don’t think it’s the outward trappings that God cares about when it comes to Christmas, son, but rather the state of a person’s heart. If I worship God through my five senses at Christmas and also help the poor, and you worship him quietly in church on Christmas Day surrounded by folks who believe just as you do, then I bet God is pretty happy with both of us, don’t you think?”
A car horn honked outside.
Hoss seemed flustered and a little bit angry. “That’s my ride,” he said. “I just hope you’ll think more about what I said. My pastor’s explained it so well, it’s hard to imagine that anyone with the Spirit living in them could think any different.”
Dave shrugged. “I used to think that about a lot of little things, too.”
Hoss had started walking toward the door. He turned. “Christmas ain’t a little thing,” he said. His fists were clenched, and he unclenched them and shoved them in his pockets. “At least, I don’t think so.”
Dave smiled. “Then you’re right to hold onto your beliefs as tenacious as you do, son. Just remember that other folks might think a little different and still go to heaven.”
The horn sounded again.
Hoss gave the faintest glimmer of a smile. “Alright, sir, thanks again for letting me kill some time inside where it’s warm.” He pushed the door open. A cold draft blew through the store.
“Hold on a minute!” Dave said. Hoss stopped and turned. Dave grabbed the red coat off its hook and tossed it across the counter. “Take this, son. Its previous owner would have wanted you to have it.”
Hoss caught it before it touched the ground. “You sure? I mean, this is an awful nice jacket.”
“Well thanks a lot, sir. That’s real kind of you.” Hoss slipped it on. “Fits real good. Like it was made for me. I ‘preciate it, sir. Maybe I’ll see you again when I get back.”
“All right now,” Dave said. “You be safe.”
The door shut and the bells jangled.
Dave saw Simon through the window as he walked toward the car.
Already the coat was almost covered in snow.