The Christmas Angel
by Richard Becker
On the day after Christmas, old Joseph sauntered down the stairs as quick as his creaky knees would carry him. His heart was full of wonderment, his laughter-lined face alight with a glow he hadn’t felt since he was a child.
Maybe today would be different, he thought. Something had to be different.
It wasn’t until he rounded the corner to see the twinkling Christmas tree that his heart began to sink. The scene was the same as he left it Christmas Day.
The white and green bulbs were ablaze, miniature twinkles dancing across the ornaments; tin soldiers and tiny dancers, glass balls, and nutcrackers. The presents, wrapped up in silk ribbons and sashes, were just as he left them. The paper was still snug to its seams, delicately creased and pulled tight like his late wife had taught him.
Everything on Christmas Day had to be perfect, she had said. It’s too important to neglect. We don’t get many. We best not squander them.
“How many Christmas Days do we get?” he whispered. “How many?”
His wife had managed 68, but her last Christmas was expected. Cancer had taken some of the best of them and spared her the worst of them. The worst of them was yesterday. How many Christmas Days do we get?
“Six,” he said, frightening himself with the conviction in which he said it.
His granddaughter had six. Yesterday would have made seven, but she never saw more than the anticipation of it. She had opened 14 windows on the advent calendar and he had punched the rest on his own. His tired hands always shook as they did it.
His eyes traced the silhouette of the tree, pausing briefly on the rocking horse before finding its center. She was there, slightly higher, an angel ballerina in the fourth position. His granddaughter had told him it was called a quatrième, one arm in and one over the head, her wings catching hints of green like a veil of illuminated effervescence.
“You can open it, Grandpa,” she beamed at him, hands outstretched and holding up the tiny box. “Open it!”
“Open it? Why, it isn’t even Christmas yet,” he feigned his protest.
“It’s okay, Grandpa. It’s not a Christmas gift, really,” she smiled. “It’s for Christmas.”
“Oh, it’s for Christmas? Then maybe we better save it,” he teased.
“That’s not what I mean,” she frowned at him. “And if you don’t open it, I will.”
“Oh, indeed you will,” he said. ”Let me at least see the wrapping first.”
“I did it myself,” she smiled. “Everything and all of it.”
“Everything and all of it, did you? You cut the paper?”
“Everything and all of it. I am 6 years old, you know.”
The attention to detail was uncanny. The reflective blue and silver wrapping with its fleur de lis pattern was pulled tight, edges creased by her tiny hands. The silk ribbon was carefully entwined at the bottom so it could be pulled over the sides and tied on top. And then, as a finishing touch, a silver bow hid away where the two ends had been tied together.
He had opened a hundred presents just like this one. His wife’s meticulous touch was written all over it even if Emily had done this one herself. His daughter never had the same patience, but this precious skill seemed to have skipped a generation and survived. It made him miss his wife all the more.
His big frame swayed at the thought of her, springing up like a wave. The dizziness was so unexpected he barely caught himself. Emily was so much like her grandmother.
“You okay, Grandpa?”
“Yes, yes. I better sit down at the kitchen table to open it.”
Joseph found himself retracing the footsteps he had taken just a few days before, from the living room to the kitchen with his hands clutching the memory of the package. He pulled out one of the vinyl-backed chairs, but didn’t sit down.
“A spot of coffee might do me good,” he had said to her.
He said the same thing again, but there was no one to hear him this time.
“One, two, three, four, and five,” they had counted out the leveled scoops together as he dropped them into the brown cone filter. As soon as he shut the top of the machine, she would push the button in a giggle of delight. She would always push it quick, she reminded him, in case he would have a flash of absentmindedness and follow through with his morning routine as if she wasn’t standing there.
Once she even made him turn it off it again, right after he had accidentally gone through the motions. But it didn’t matter this time. There was no one waiting to push any button. There never would be again.
“Okay then,” he said, sitting down in the kitchen table. “It’s too pretty to be ripped open so I’m going to do this slow.”
As he took hold of the bow, Emily squealed. He stopped long enough to smile at her before resuming his practiced look of concentration, a medical doctor performing a gentle surgery on the world’s smallest patient.
Clutching each of the loose ribbons, he pulled. They fell away in a cascade, leaving only the fleur de lis wrapping behind. He ran his fingers over the seams looking for tape that held it together and pulled it away.
“Hey,” he exclaimed. “Now that isn’t that wonderful. You got me a box.”
“Grandpa! That’s not the surprise. Open it.”
“Oh, I thought it might be,” he said. “Silly me.”
The gift paper inside chaffed against the sides as he pulled it up. And there she was — an angel ballerina with her soft white dress fanning outward and her wings outstretched behind. She was perfectly cast, porcelain dressed in fine lace. He was immediately dazzled by every inch of it.
Her legs were crossed, one in front of the other. Her arms caught in a motion, one tucked inside and the other reaching out to her right.
“This is called a troisième,” she said, mimicking the gesture before starting from the first position and gracefully following through to the fifth. “It is the third position. One, two ... three ... four, five.”
“A troisième?” he said, looking up again for the first time. “I thought this was an angel.”
“Grandpa!” she soured.
“A troisième,” he recalled, taking in too much coffee with a choke.
Is that what she had said? Troisième? Or did she say it was a quatrième? It was hard to remember.
Coffee in hand, he moved back toward the living room. He might not be able to remember, but the angel would. They had placed it slightly above center on the tree together, a position of prominence so it could greet him at eye level every morning and he would think of her.
“Troisième or quatrième?” he asked the emptiness.
The angel’s hands were held high this time, both over her head, bent to make a graceful soft oval. Cinquième. The final position.
“So why do all the positions have fancy names, except the second?” He had asked her. “Premiere, troisième, quatrième, cinquième. But the second is just called the second?”
“I don’t know, Grandpa,” she laughed. “I’m only six.”
“Ah, and so you are. A premiere with your whole life ahead of you.”
He winced at the memory. He was wrong. One, two, three, four, five. It was a troisième when they placed it, but a quatrième by Christmas. He squinted at the impossibility of it. He had never seen a cinquième before.
“I’m not crazy,” he frowned. “Not yet. Not yet. It’s just a bad patch.”
He peered in for a closer look. But before he could take the angel in and find any previously unnoticed moving parts, his inspection was interrupted by a knock. His eyes strayed to the windows that framed the front door.
“Expecting someone?” said a whisper as clear as the last day he saw her.
“No, she’s not coming,” he said in time with the second knock.
“Open it. Open it,” said the angel.
He took a step toward the door, toward the faintest of outlines as he saw it through the glass and curtains that framed it. The sight of it made his heart quicken and each subsequent step faster. There was a girl at his door.
He was running by the time he reached it and pulled it open.
“Oh, Joseph,” she said. “You startled me.”
He looked at her for a full minute, an awkwardness growing between them before she broke the silence and the spell. The neighbor’s girl stood before him and all the cold raced in on either side of her.
“My mom thought you would like some cookies,” Mary said. “They are not fresh. She made them a few days ago, but we couldn’t possibly eat them all. You know my mother. She likes to overshoot.”
“How nice of her,” he said, pulling at his robe and momentarily embarrassed at the mess.
“Yes, bring them on in and you along with them,” he said.
“I’ll put them in the kitchen for you,” she said, walking in slowly, hugging the doorframe with her back to get by him.
“Or I could just take them,” he said before shaking it off. “Right. Your mom sent you to check on me.”
“Busted,” she shrugged.
“Never do something yourself if you can send a 9-year-old instead.”
“Something like that,” she said. “By hey, I’m turning 10 next month.”
“Yes, I know. Your birthdays were always so close.”
The reference made her pause, stop halfway to the kitchen and set the cookies down on an end table. As she turned back toward him to say something, the tree caught her eye.
“I miss her too, Joseph,” she said, hushing herself and quickly looking to change the subject. “Look here, you didn’t even open your presents.”
He looked at the tree, seeing a ghost of himself lift Emily so she could place the angel. It had only taken a beat before Emily had cut to the punch line. The angel was the opening to his heart.
“There, perfect. Now, about my Christmas list,” Emily had said, pulling a tattered list from her pocket while still in midair.
He had spun her around as soon as she said it and hugged her, almost falling over in the process. Yes indeed, Christmas Day is too important to neglect. How many Christmas days do we get? One, two, three, four, five ... six. He had filled her list, every last wish. He did it early too, not wanting to waste a minute on procrastination but rather give it all up to anticipation. He could have never guessed he did it too early.
“They’re not mine,” he said.
“Oh,” Mary said, her face sullen.
“You open them,” he said. “She never liked anything her age anyway. She always liked what you liked.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I should probably ask my mom.”
“I know,” he said. “Go on, then.”
But instead of leaving on the command, she ran up and hugged him, burying her head in his robe. It was soft, warm, and for the first time in her life she understood why Emily had gone on and on about it. There was something about Joseph that made you feel safe like a cub nestled to some ancient bear.
“No, it’s okay,” she said. “ I can do this. We can do this.”
The two of them sat together for the next hour, Joseph watching as the girl unwrapped the gifts as carefully as he had wrapped them. If the magic of wrapping and unwrapping skips generations than maybe it can skip households too, he thought as he watched her.
As she continued, he shared something about each gift and why Emily had asked for it. Every one of them had a story. One, two, three, four, five of them. There weren’t many, but his granddaughter was never one for long lists. It was always about the giving and gratefulness, much like her grandmother.
“I should probably get back,” she said. “I’ll come back later for everything if my mom says its okay and if you don’t change your mind.”
“She would have wanted you to have these things,” he said. “And this ...”
He held the angel out to her, its delicate features captivating them both in the passing. Even off the tree, the jewels on her dress shimmered and her wings captured the light. She was smiling, something Joseph had never noticed before. Her arms were bent in a soft circle below her shoulders. Premiere. The first position.
“She’s beautiful,” she said. “You should keep her for next year.”
“No, she needs someone with their whole life ahead of them,” said Joseph. “But thank you, Mary. Thank you for making my Christmas wish come true.”
“Merry Christmas, Joseph,” she said, taking the angel from him and giving him a small but comically dramatic bow before turning away.
As she walked down the path, Joseph gave her a final unseen wave, hand up, and shut the door. He slowly walked over to the tree, meaning to bend down and pick up the carefully folded but discarded paper. But then he thought better of it.
He sat down instead and took in the scene. It was another important Christmas, one day late but no less significant. It might have even been the most important Christmas of all.
He scanned every inch one last time, from the wrapping paper to the tree before settling on the space where he had taken the angel from the tree. It was still there, animated and moving through the positions. One, two, three, four, five. Premiere, second, troisième, quatrième, cinquième. The final position.
“Emily,” he smiled and closed his eyes as she reached out for him.
She had come home, after all. And now, Joseph could go home too. When Mary and her mother returned a few hours later, there was no one left to welcome them.
This first draft short story was inspired by my daughter and her favorite Christmas ornament. There wasn't any other reason to write it, other than to put something down that reminds us all how lucky we are, no matter what.
Happy holidays. May every Christmas be your most important. All of them. Until after Jan. 1 then. God bless.
Happy holidays. May every Christmas be your most important. All of them. Until after Jan. 1 then. God bless.