I expected to spend Christmas alone. It was my first here in the Malta guesthouse. One I’ll never forget.
Christmas find us
By mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, all our holiday visitors had gone on to wherever they were going. Most were spending Christmas with parents and grandparents. For them, the trip was a special treat, an opportunity to leave their fields of service and enjoy the holiday in countries where Christmas is a national event.
Other guests had given up all their comfortable traditions to visit sons and daughters, grandchildren, parents, and friends in countries where Christmas is at best a foreign practice.
Each guest had arrived and departed full of joy and excitement. But by mid-afternoon, Christmas eve, they were all gone.
They left behind a hollow emptiness in my brightly decorated rooms. Plus, dirty sheets, extra cots, full trash cans, and a pile of leftovers in the refrigerator.
I ached – both with the exhaustion of serving too many guests and the shock of a profound aloneness I’d not fully anticipated.
The last guests departed just after breakfast and I left the dishes and retreated to my bed. I wasn’t sleeping, really. Just lying around. I read a little, too. A Jesus story. His first Christmas. Mary and Joseph and closed doors and a stable. I wondered what Christmas eve felt like for them. Alone. Far from home. Looking for a safe place to bring their son into the world.
I tried to focus on the joy that came later. A baby’s healthy cry. Angels and shepherds and kings. But everything around and within me just felt empty and messy.
Work, I thought. The best thing to take my mind off the darkness of my thoughts.
I decided to tackle the rec room. Normally, a place to play. Toys, video games, an upright piano. Even a tree decorated with handmade felt ornaments. Nothing to hurt the children.
But the week before we’d turned it into a dormitory for single women. Twelve foldaway cots and bedding for each. I was grateful I’d been able to say ‘yes’ to everyone. “Of course, we’ll make room.” That was a gift for my guesthouse-hostess-heart. But the mess was nearly overwhelming.
I was stripping cots and piling sheets when the phone rang.
“Helen. Is this Helen?”
I tried to place the speaker’s accent. Scandinavian, I thought. “Yes. This is Helen. Can I help you?”
The woman’s words tumbled in perfect school-book grammar. “This is Margo. I’m sure you don’t remember me. My co-worker, Anise and I visited your guesthouse about six months ago.”
I found Margo’s picture in my memory. Young. No more than twenty-five. Brown haired, blue eyed, tall and lanky, like a track and field athlete. Then Anise. English. Short, round, warm, blonde haired, and brown eyed. “Yes. Of course. I remember you.”
“Helen. I know it’s last minute. I’m sorry. But Anise and I are here at the airport. We left our community this morning. Last minute.”
A shock of fear focused my thoughts. “Margo. Are you girls all right? Has something happen?”
“No. No. Everything’s fine.”
I felt the tension slide off of my body. “Oh good. I’m so glad. ” I’d already heard too many stories of unexpected evacuations, but I’d not yet welcomed a refugee.
Margo brought me back to their needs.
“We were wondering if you had space. I know it’s last minute. But might we come stay for a few days? Just until after Christmas.“
I looked across the now empty cots arranged in rows across the rec room, then pictured the breakfast dishes I’d abandoned in the dining room. I hadn’t expected any new guests until after Christmas and I wasn’t ready. Still. “Of course. Yes. Come. No one’s here but me.” I added my warning. “But the guesthouse is a mess, and our cook’s off for the holiday.”
“Oh, Helen, you’re wonderful. The bus is about to the leave. We’ll be there soon.”
“Oh, yes. Good.” As soon as I hung up the phone, I created an internal list of ‘to dos’. Dining room first. Kitchen. Set up for dinner. Then two bedrooms and the Rec room.
I’d gotten as far as setting up for dinner when the doorbell rang.
Margo and Anise, exactly as I remembered them, gushed their thanks and swept into the house.
I was still off balance. There was too much to do and I hated being unprepared. But the girls stepped right in. “Let us help you, please.” And they did.
Together, we folded up all the cots in the rec room and pushed them against a wall next to the upright piano. Then we cleaned two guest rooms; changed the sheets and made the beds.
At 6 o’clock we settled into a dinner of leftover stew, toasted day-old bread, and still fresh oranges.
I think that’s when I realized I wouldn’t be alone for Christmas, after all.
While we ate our dinner, the girls told me their story. Margo started it. “We have a group of believers.”
Anise interjected. “And they all wanted a big Christmas party.”
“So we planned it.”
“Decorations. Food. Invitees, and the story.”
“Our group wanted to tell the whole Christmas story. Jesus Messiah and everything. We were so excited.”
Margo stated the problem. “But yesterday we discovered the secret police were following us. Watching us.”
Anise explained their decision. “We knew the only way our group could really share the story was if we left.”
I didn’t understand. “But won’t they still get in trouble?”
Margo clarified. “No. The secret police don’t care what local women do. Only what the foreigners do.”
Anise shrugged. “If we stayed, we’d all get in trouble. If we left, they’re free to do what they wanted. So we left.”
The sadness in Anise’s eyes was obvious. “I’m sorry.” I said, although I couldn’t at all imagine how they felt.
“It’s okay,” Anise said. “We’re just happy they want to celebrate.”
That’s when the doorbell rang.
I thought perhaps it was a neighbor, coming to borrow something. Instead, I found a young family standing on the steps; a man with a toddler in his arms, a woman, and two more small children. As soon as I said hello, the wife burst out crying. The older children hid behind her long skirt and black trousers.
The husband looked at his wife, then down at my feet. His voice trembled. “We heard this is a guesthouse for overseas workers.”
I grabbed his coat sleeve and pulled him into the hallway. “Yes. Please come in. There’s plenty of room. I’m so glad you came.”
The family entered and I did my best to greet them, take their coats, and put them at ease. But the wife continued to cry.
I had no idea what brought them to my guesthouse, but whatever it was, I knew it was hard.
I took the hands of the two older children. “Come. Let’s get you something to eat.” I led them into the dining room. I knew the parents would follow us.
I heard Margo as we walked by. “We’ll get the rooms ready.” And the two young women disappeared.
The dining room table was a mess from our just completed meal, but I knew it didn’t matter. I urged the family to sit down. Found booster seats for the two smaller children, and quickly laid plates and utensils on the table.
“I’ll just find some more left-overs. I’m sorry, our cook isn’t here.”
The mother mumbled something I didn’t catch. I realized she was still weeping. The children sat in stone silence.
The husband followed me into the kitchen. Together, we chose a plastic container with cold chicken, another with pasta salad, and finally, a block of cheese.
I hoped the food and the reality of eating would help my little shell-shocked family.
When we returned to the dining room, the mother wiped her tears and arranged a plate for each of her children, and then, one for herself.
I was relieved.
Margo and Anise slid silently into chairs at the end of the table.
The father watched his family settle in to dinner, made his own plate, then told us the briefest sketch of their story.
“Jessica was hosting a Christmas party. Our neighbors. Women and children.” He looked across the table at me. Shock still in his eyes. “They told us to leave. The police. We don’t know if we’ll be able to go back.”
I looked across at Margo and Anise. ‘So they knew.’ I thought. ‘This is what can happen.’ I sighed. ‘Christmas.’
I looked back at the man. I wanted to ask him for more information, but something stopped me. Instead, I said, “You’re okay now. You’re family’s safe here. You can stay as long as you’d like.”
I watched him settle back in his chair, look across the table at his wife, and nod. “Thank you.”
Margo introduced herself and Anise. The man shared his name. Jason. “And this is my wife, Jessica. And our children. Sarah, Nathan, and little Bella.”
and we open our hands
I smiled at each of the children and adopted what I hoped was my best grandmotherly voice. “And you know what? We have a Christmas tree all set up. We’ll celebrate Christmas in the morning. Would you like that?”
The oldest child, Kayla, understood perfectly. Wide-eyed, she looked at her father and then her mother. “Really? We can still have Christmas?”
I caught myself before I burst into tears. “Yes. We’re going to have Christmas. And presents, and everything.” I was sure I could find something for everyone.
Nathan, the little boy, shouted his excitement but Jessica looked at me questioningly.
“It’s all right. The rec room is downstairs and the Christmas tree is all set up. And I have stash of little gifts for children.” I smiled.
After dinner and the guests had all tucked in, I pulled a large box from the back of the pantry closet. I found enough handmade journals for each adult to receive one. I dug deeper and found a brand-new lite-bright, still in its wrapper, a yellow plastic truck, and a stuffed bunny. I knew the little gifts would be perfect.
I wrapped them in stars and candy cane paper, carried them down to the rec room, and laid them out under the Christmas tree.
Beautiful. Not at all what I expected for my first Christmas in the guesthouse. But good.
I felt a flood of gratefulness. It wasn’t the unexpected company that so warmed my heart. Instead, it was that I could be here, in this guesthouse, welcoming people who so clearly needed a warm and safe place to stay.
That night, I slept easily.
In the morning, I awoke to the shouts of children echoing through the house. I wrapped a bathrobe over my pajamas and met all my guests downstairs in front of the Christmas tree. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d celebrated Christmas morning with children and their excitement filled me with joy.
I put on a red and white Santa hat and happily distributed our few and humble gifts. It wasn’t much, but the morning was still magic. Kayla and Nathan ripped open their presents with an enthusiasm I’d forgotten Christmas could bring. Little Bella spent a bit of time enjoying the wrapping paper, but when she finally discovered the little stuffed bunny, she squealed with glee.
Jason gazed at his children’s joy with a sweet and tender watchfulness so different than the night before. Jessica, fully engaged, protected the little Bella from the Lite-brite pieces and encouraged the Nathan to focus on his truck. Margo snapped pictures and Anise popped the batteries into the Lite-brite.
When I handed a gift to each of the adults, Jessica’s eyes filled with tears. “You shouldn’t of.”
I smiled. “Just a small thing. Something for you to remember Christmas here in Malta.”
She wept again.
and receive our King
Then we heard a series of quick notes from the upright piano. I looked up to see Anise sitting on the bench, playing, while Margo flipped through a book of hymns.
“Mommy. Mommy. Can we sing?” It was Caleb, jumping up and down with his yellow truck still in his hands. “Can we sing, Mommy? Please.”
Jessica hugged her son and led him to the piano. Jason gathered Bella into his arms and I took Kayla by the hand.
The first measure called out strong and clear. A familiar hymn. An exultation echoed across the darkness when a weary couple, far from home, brought our Savior into the world.
We sang “Joy to the world. The Lord has come.”
Ah, I thought. Yes, Christmas. No matter where we come from. No matter where we are. We join the song. “Let earth receive her King.”
Please tell me when you post a new story
I like eMail
I prefer text messages