The new year is a time to look back and sift through what we want to keep and what we wish we could discard. One way in which I cope with throwing away the detritus of life is by highlighting the stories of hope.

Take a breather and listen to a story told to me in installments over the last two weeks by a dear friend. She lives in a picturesque mountain village in Southern Lebanon just three kilometres from the Israeli border. Her old ancestral home with its thick stone walls, mosaic-like tile floors, poplar ceilings, grand arched windows, and wrought-iron balconies looking out on to terraced orchards and gardens is the peripheral setting for our tale.

The characters are my music teacher friend, a four-year-old Syrian refugee boy, and an assortment of villagers. The “when” is this latest Advent Christmas Season. And the “where” is the ancient well-worn village stone stairs connecting the lower levels to the upper levels of the hamlet.

My dear friend was feeling down and lonely separated because of COVID from her children in Europe and her students in Beirut. She wrapped herself in warm Christmas by-gone memories and soft wool blankets cozying up to her ancient woodburning stove which anchored the wide-open “dar” or living room of her home. Her thoughts meandered around the question, “What can I do to pull myself out of this funk?”

Each morning, my friend trekked up the village steps which passed her back garden gate. There she greeted the neighborhood children, Syrian refugees, who used these ancient steps and garden walls as their playground. Their bright faces customarily greeted her each morning as she passed. However, this day would prove to be out of the ordinary!

In the village’s closest large town’s shops, she spied a giant fuzzy Santa resplendent with the obligatory red fuzzy cap, jolly belly, rosy cheeks, and black leather (plastic) boots. She impulsively bought this Santa as an idea began to foment in her mind. Teachers are like that, always listening to their creative brain wheels turning!

That night, after the village lay asleep under the cover of a cold crisp night, my imaginative friend tiptoed out of her home, made her way past her snoozing ducks, quietly opened her creaking iron filagree back-garden gate, and securely tied Santa to the upper tines of her fence and looped a basketful of sweets over his chubby fuzzy arm.

She crept back to bed with a smile of anticipation on her face, excited about the children’s inevitable responses in the morning. Sure enough, the next day, they tumbled over their morning greetings, stuttering out their exhilarated news. . . “Santa came to see us and he brought sweets! Can we have some?”

My friend responded with appropriately exaggerated surprise and glee joining in on their merriment. She explained to them that Santa gifts are to be shared as well as received. The children were especially surprised because as the four-year-old said, “my brother told me that Santa only comes to Lebanese children, not to Syrian refugees!”

My friend told me that it was at that point that she decided to “take things into her own hands” and make Santa’s one visit into a series of visits with a continual string of daily surprises!

Subsequently, each day she planted a Christmas surprise in or near the Santa basket. One night was cold and rainy so Santa got a small umbrella to protect himself from the winter elements. My friend was delighted with all the joy this simple stuffed Santa was bringing to the village. On another day, she had the local carpenter make a bright red sleigh copied from her rough draft drawing of it. The children were thrilled to pretend to ride on it. Each day she added another delight, like a string of lights, a reindeer, a rope for the sleigh, some jingle bells, and many basketfuls of candies.

The garden gate Santa phenomena spread like gossip through the village attracting teenagers and adults alike eager to take and post their selfies with this newly famous Santa. The refugee children took great pride in being the local tour guides for the narrow strip of “their” steps telling all who would listen about their Santa!

And I, on this side of the pond, eagerly watched for updates each day on the latest shenanigans happening on my friend’s back garden gate. The best picture of all was of what my friend found one morning at the bottom of the basket. A humble “Ghandour” biscuit was staring back at her! For those of you not familiar with Lebanese cuisine, this cookie is the equivalent of a vanilla wafer.

One small refugee boy had learned the greatest Christmas lesson of all, the lesson of gratitude. He left Santa the best he had, one small cookie at the bottom of the giving basket to say, “Thank you!”

Which hope-filled story do you have to share this season?

Happiness lies more in giving than in receiving.

Acts 20:35

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