Thursday 19th December
Alison Jennings put the car into reverse, and began inching her way out of the tight parking space her seven-seater had occupied since around 10:30 that morning. It was at times like this that Ali wished she had a smaller car!
It was just gone quarter to three, almost time to collect her four and five year old from school. The time had whizzed, and Ali hadn’t bought nearly as many Christmas presents as she’d hoped. She still hadn’t got anything for her parents, two of her brothers-in-law, her teenage son, or her husband, Nick! She’d definitely have to go out again next week.
Ali drove down a ramp and followed the exit signs round to the right, where she was immediately met with a queue of traffic, waiting to exit the multi-story. Car-horns were hooting all over the place. Silly people…What’s the point of hooting? There was nothing else to do but wait. Ironically, a carol sprang to mind that her dad used to sing. What were the words again? Peace on earth…and angels singing… or something like that. What a joke!
Ali exhaled sharply as she checked the time on the dash. 2:54pm. She had to be at school by quarter past three. Inwardly, she scolded herself for not having left sooner. The shops had been packed and school-run time was notoriously busy. Ali contemplated texting someone. Perhaps one of the other school-mums wouldn’t mind grabbing her kids and waiting with them until she arrived? She edged forward, noticing the speed at which the cars were moving. She decided not to bother anyone else. With any luck she might just make it, but it would be a close call.
Just over half an hour later, Ali had collected the kids, and she was now bundling them back in the car. Ali seemed to spend most of her life, standing in the rain, strapping kids in and out of car seats lately. Boy did she need a cup of tea! A little way down the road, Ali’s heart sank as she remembered they were almost out of milk. She wondered if she ought to send Danny, her teenage son down the road to get some? But by now, it was pelting down with rain. And he’d probably moan and protest after a long day at secondary school. Then Ali thought about dinner. She wasn’t even sure if there was anything much to eat in the fridge. Plus, it was the last day of term tomorrow, and she really ought to buy the teachers a box of biscuits or something. There was no way round it. She’d have to make a stop on the way home.
Saturday 21st December
The alarm went off at 6:15 am. Ali trudged downstairs, bleary-eyed in the darkness. In robot-fashion, she turned on the heating, fed the cat, and made two cups of tea, wondering if Nick had even remembered. They needed to be at the butcher’s by seven o’clock that morning to collect the Turkey. Carrying two mugs of tea up the stairs, she peered into the kids’ bedroom. Her two little sleepy-heads were absolutely out for the count. Blotto! They would definitely not appreciate being dragged out of bed, in the dark, on the first morning of their Christmas holidays. Ali had been awake since 5:15 going over and over the ever growing list of vegetables, condiments, drinks, desserts and other groceries she still needed to buy. She made a mental note not to forget the cranberry sauce. Or the brandy cream. And the extra roll of Selo-tape. Oh and she’d better buy some cheese. Uncle Pete loved his cheese. Some of Nick’s family were coming over for dinner tomorrow evening. What on earth could she cook? A Beef Casserole might be best. If she prepped it early enough, she could set the oven timer to come on while they were that at that blasted Christingle Service that her neighbour was dragging her along to. Ali wondered if she could wriggle out of it somehow. But the kids were desperate to go. And surprisingly, Nick was keen too. He used to go to Carols every year as a child. Ali hadn’t set foot in a church for years. Her head was spinning. She needed to write a list. What time did the supermarket open, she wondered? Would the vegetables even keep until Christmas Day? She hoped they hadn’t sold out of Red Cabbages.
Sunday 22nd December
With the beef casserole prepped and in the oven, Ali turned her attention to wrapping presents! The kids were happy watching ‘The Grinch’ in the front room with Nick, and so Ali had the dining room table all to herself.
Ali had to admit, she’d been a bit of a ‘Grinch’ herself, that morning. It all started, when Danny, her teenage son, had started moaning about the fact that he’d run out of clean socks and pants! The cheek of it! He’d been lying in bed all morning, while she’d been up with the lark, cleaning the bathroom and trying to make the house look presentable. Then, when Henry, her four year old, had accidentally tipped over his glass of juice at lunch-time, Ali had felt like she was going to spontaneously combust!
Ali put on a Christmas album, “Christmas With The Crooners,” opened a packet of mince pies and poured herself a glass of sherry. Perhaps that would get her back in the festive spirit! Tomorrow, she’d take an early train into London to finish her Christmas shopping, and with any luck, she might even get to sit down and watch a movie on Christmas Eve – providing she’d made the trifle and wrapped up the last of the Christmas presents.
Ali smiled wryly as an Andy Williams Classic began playing…”It’s the most wonderful time of the year…!”
Wonderful? Christmas was just one big stress!
Ali inhaled. She wondered how long she could carry on living life at this pace. She glanced at the clock. She only had an hour or so before they needed to leave for the Christingle. She hadn’t even chosen the kids’ outfits yet. Why, oh why had she agreed to go?
The Church was packed with jolly looking visitors, of all ages. Ali was somewhat taken aback. She’d immediately envisaged a cold, echoing, austere looking building, filled with elderly folk. But the church hall was brightly painted, cosily decked out with garlands of Ivy and Mistletoe. Sparkling fairy lights were wrapped around the pillars, and a magnificent Christmas Tree, covered in red baubles and ribbons made a Festive focal point at the front of the hall.
Ali felt a little out of place as the sound of the first Christmas Carol filled the air. The people sang with such gusto, and such happy faces, it made her feel a little self-conscious. Ali kept her eyes glued on the words printed on her song-sheet.
Hark, the Herald Angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King,
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…
It was that song again… Her dad’s favourite Christmas hymn! She studied the words, and joined in the jubilant singing:
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace,
Hail the Sun of Righteousness,
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings,
Mild, He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth,
Hark the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.
A strange longing filled Ali’s soul. She felt tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Light. Life. Peace. Healing. Second birth. These words seemed to stir something, right within the very core of her being, even though she had no idea what any of them meant.
And then all of sudden, as oranges and candles, dried fruits and red ribbons were handed out to all the children, the Minister began to explain.
- The orange represented the world.
- The ribbon, God’s love wrapped around it, red because of Christ’s redeeming blood, shed on the cross of Calvary.
- The dried fruits and sweets, symbols of mankind – God’s creation.
- And finally, the lit candle, representing Jesus, the light of the World, bringing hope to the people living in darkness.
As Ali stood, watching her children listening intently, their faces softly aglow with candle-lit wonder, she felt her husband gently squeeze her hand. A strange feeling began to wash over her. What was it, Peace? Joy? Did Nick feel it too? She closed her eyes for a moment, and as the first chords of the final hymn began to resound, she exhaled, letting all the stress of the past few weeks, leave her for a moment. And for the first time in a very long time, she suddenly knew what – or rather who – Christmas was really all about.
Ali had such a lump in her throat as they sang the final hymn.
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels,
O come let us adore Him.
Christ the Lord!
As they exited the church hall, they passed the Minister who was handing out leaflets at the door. To her amazement, Ali grabbed one. She couldn’t quite explain how she was feeling, but inwardly she knew that something had changed, and she needed to find out more.
“So, did you enjoy it?” her neighbour asked cautiously, as they walked out into the darkness. Ali thought about how desperately she’d NOT wanted to come and all that she would have missed if she hadn’t.
Spontaneously, she threw her arms around her friend. “I did! I really did. You’ve no idea how much I needed that. Thank you so much for inviting me!”
And as they drove home in the darkness, the kids strangely quiet in the back of the car, Ali glanced up at the Christmas Lights shining overhead in the high Street. She smiled as she noticed them, as if for the first time. There were stars and angels everywhere she looked! Glory to the Newborn King, she hummed quietly under her breath.