The year was at its close, and while the green and red of Christmas had turned to the silver and gold of New Year’s Eve decorations, one house stood still ensconced in its Christmas best. It had been ready for Christmas since before Thanksgiving, as though this Christmas held such goodness it could not wait for its allotted time on the calendar. To the passing observer glancing inside the window of the house there appeared to be stripes moving around. The stripes were red and blue, like a candy cane, running up and down a man’s pajama pants and ending at the new brown suede slippers he wore on his feet. There was a time when those feet walked up and down and streets of the city delivering mail to its residents. Now, however, bad knees the man had acquired playing college football and the hip replacement he’d had just two months ago gave him more of a shuffle than a gait. He’d taken early retirement in the face of the surgery. For a man once strong and active, it was a hit, but he’d made the decision and was living with it and the surgery’s resulting loss of strength.
Determination had helped him put up a tree for Christmas. Oh, it wasn’t real. He’d succumbed to practicality when he finally climbed out of the depression that had come with his wife’s death three years before, and just last year at his son’s suggestion written in a hastily scrawled letter, he had bought one at the local hardware store. It went up a lot more quickly, but it didn’t have the je ne sais quoi of the real ones sold at the lot six blocks away. Still, the lights he’d strung twinkled in the waning light of evening and ornaments collected over years of Christmases told stories of babies and childhoods and hobbies and beautiful things.
He’d climbed unsteadily on a chair and hung the mistletoe his wife had bought when they were newlyweds. He’d put out some throw pillows embroidered with poinsettias and manger scenes. As his eyes roamed over the room, it really did look like Christmas, he thought. It just needed one thing more. Every Christmas Eve since he was a boy, he’d set a candle in the window. It was for the Christchild, you see; for Mary and Joseph to find their way through the dark night to the safety of a warm place to stay. Though the first Christmas was long ago, maybe there was someone else needing that light and the warmth of home. That candlelight was more than just a light, like the star of Bethlehem. It was hope. It was invitation. It was love. It was peace. His mother had taught him that when he was old enough to light a match, and from then on that was his tradition. He’d passed it on to his son and hoped that one day his son would pass it on as well. He hoped, but he lacked certainty. Time could blur things from a son’s memory, he knew. Experiences could change a son’s priorities.
The trouble was his hand had grown unsteady from some of the medication his doctor insisted he take, and a creeping arthritis of late had made it weak. This night he’d tried and tried to light that match, but had only managed to achieve the slight odor of sulfur.
A knock at the door startled him and he shuffled to open it. It was the neighbor boy, there to belatedly collect the money he’d promised when he’d bought his wreath.
“Oh, Sammie, come in, come in,” he said when he saw him. “I’ve got it right here.”
He fished a twenty and a five out of his billfold lying on the end table and handed it to the boy.
“Say, could I ask a favor? You’re a Boy Scout, after all, you do a good deed daily,” he chuckled.
The boy looked bored, but nodded his head.
The man led him over the front window, and pulled a matchbook from his pajama pocket.
“Would you mind lighting this for me?” he asked.
“But it’s after Christmas, Mr. Simmons. We’ve already got our Christmas tree down.”
The man nodded.
“Yes, yes it’s time to put things away, isn’t it? But I just want to light this candle tonight and tomorrow I might think about putting things back in their boxes.”
The boy struck the match and lit the candle. The man patted him on the back and walked him to the door.
Sammie nodded and jumped off the porch to join the friend who was accompanying him on his rounds.
“What took you so long?” his friend complained as they started down the street.
“Oh, the old man wanted a candle lit.”
For some reason the boys found it funny and began to laugh as they went on their way. And the man watched them, lost in thought, as they jostled each other as boys will do.
The man finally made his way to the couch and watched some T.V. Then he did a crossword puzzle until, finally, his head drooped to his chest and he lightly slept while the candle burned. His dreams were filled with images of his boy; the boy he’d taught to ride a bike and catch a football and shoot a gun; the boy he hadn’t seen in three years.
The sound of a taxi pulling up at the curb woke him, and he made his way to the window. A young man in uniform sat for a moment looking through the window of the taxi to the candle dancing brightly just inside. He climbed out, pulling his duffle after him. Running up the walk, he smiled broadly as he caught his father’s eye through the light of the candle he had often thought of from a distant desert where such a thing had seemed very far away. Its glow reached beyond Christmas Eve, beyond an enlisted soldier’s cot, beyond changes like death and retirement and surgeries, and wrapped the father and son in its promise.