“You don’t hear ‘Merry Christmas’ much any more,” he thought. The old gentleman left the exclusive card and gift store happily humming “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
He reminisced about the old days. There was Mr. Perry appearing in his mind like an apparition. No one came into or out of his grocery store where he had worked as a teenager without hearing Mr. Perry’s boisterous, “Merry Christmas!” A smile lit up his face just thinking back to the good old days when Christmas was unashamedly celebrated in the market place and the manger scene adorned the square of the little town where he spent his childhood and youth.
He remembered how his school celebrated Christmas in assemblies with the school chorus singing Christmas hymns and the principal saying a prayer on the day before the Christmas holidays. “Ha,” he mumbled to himself. “They don’t even call it Christmas holidays any more. Instead, it’s just, winter holidays now.”
“My how times have changed,” he pondered. “Nowadays, it’s almost criminal to celebrate the birth of Christ outside the home and the church.“ The gentleman’s smile faded away as he shook his head in disbelief at what was happening in his country.
He longed for the good old days and understood why the old folks of his youth yearned for the good old days. He just passed it off then, but now he was one of the old folks longing for those days of yesteryear.
Meanwhile back at the store, Marsha’s joy spilled out to all. November had been an incredible month and December was setting record sales and profits. She had been able to pay herself a $3000 per month salary throughout the year, and she anticipated paying herself a handsome bonus after tallying up her expenses and profits at the end of the year. Maybe even $30 or $40,000 or more for her retirement and health insurance premium. Her dreams had come true. Her business account continued building too. Her goal was to have $100,000 in it as a back-up in the event she had a bad year. She was almost there!
She had gotten a good, really good settlement from her philandering husband in their divorce plus a nice alimony, the paid for house, and one of the cars. She had been a stay-at-home wife and mother even though she had a college degree in business. Their only daughter was grown, on her own, and doing well. Her daughter was engaged to a wonderful man. It was blue skies ahead!
Marsha had put her burning desire to open her business on the back burner in order to take care of her household. With the divorce settlement, she was at last free to pursue her long suppressed ambition. And she had done it!
She had untied the knots of red tape and plowed through the muck of the overbearing government bureaucracies of regulations, fees, and other assorted hindrances to finally unlock the door of fulfillment.
And, money was not a problem. Everything was paid for. The $3000 a month that she paid herself was more than adequate and even left her some ‘running around’ money to shop, go out, and fix her hair.
The bell over the door ding-a-linged. Mrs. McWhorter walked in. “Merry Christmas!” Marsha chimed to her.
“And Merry Christmas to you, too!”
“If there is anything I can help you find, let me know.”
“Oh, thank you. I just want to browse.”
Marsha loved it when Mrs. McWhorter, a retiree, came in to browse. Seldom would she leave without spending $200 or more. She loved sending out cards to family, friends, and to her Sunday School class - especially at Christmas.
She brought her shopping basket to the counter to be checked out.
“Did you find everything OK?”
“Oh yes. I always find more than I came for,” she said with a smile. “I just love your store. You have it so decorated for Christmas.”
“Thank you. Did you see the table center piece for Christmas dinner in the back?”
“No, didn’t see it.”
“Well, walk with me, and let me show it to you.”
The two ladies walked to the back of the store. Marsha knew Mrs. McWhorter was a soft touch.
“Oh, that’s beautiful! I must have it! It will be perfectly delightful on my Christmas table.”
“Let’s see. That will be $276.48. Cash, check, or charge?”
Marsha put the boxes of cards, Yankee Candles, knick knacks, and the decorative center piece in the plastic bags for her.
“Thank you so much, mam. Have a Merry Christmas!”
“You too!” And off she merrily went to do more Christmas shopping.
Christmases came and went followed by Valentine’s, Easter, and the always slow season of summer which gave Marsha a much needed break before the Christmas season cranked up again with long but joyful hours in the store. She did more in November and December than she did the other ten months of the year combined. She even hired a few girls part time to help with the rush.
In the meantime, her daughter had married Prince Charming, and they gave her a grandbaby, a boy, who loved coming to the store with his mother and toddle around investigating all of the bright and cheery things that captivated him.
After one awfully humdrum Christmas season, Marsha was in her accountant’s office reviewing the books. She knew that the store wasn’t making the money it once did, but that didn’t stop her resolve. She had a glimmer of hope that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. Her accountant had been a magician with the books. He always managed to reduce her tax liability and make the figures resound with good news.
“Marsha, I’m afraid I have bad news for you. Your sales this year just aren’t what they were last year. You know yourself that the shop has been on the slide in the past two or three years.”
“Yes, I know, but I was still able to pay myself a salary even it is a smaller one and an end of the year bonus even if the bonus isn’t what it used to be.”
“Well Marsha, I hate to say this. I really hate it, but I’m recommending you close the store. Have a going out of business sale. You can’t keep operating in this economic malaise we are in. You could be operating at a significant loss by the end of this year if things don’t turn around. You know, postage has gone through the roof. It costs 44¢ to mail a card. Your top of the line individual cards are $3-$4 and a box of 15 of your best cards is about $38.”
Marsha’s face reddened. This was not what she wanted to hear.
James continued, “It costs between $3 and $4 to send a quality Christmas card today. You know that, and the Postal Service is talking about going up again on first class postage. People are finding it difficult to justify this kind of spending in these hard times – especially your retired customers on fixed incomes who make up a big part of your base. Everything is going up including your rent and utilities.”
Marsha exploded! “How can you suggest I close my store?! Don’t you understand that this store is my dream come true? I’ve wanted this for a long, long time, and I’m not going to hear of it! Not you or anyone else is going to steal my dream and take it away from me! Have you got that?! You’re going to have to find a way for me to keep on keeping on. Cook the books. I don’t care. My dad used to tell us kids, ‘Winners never quit and quitters never win.’ I’m not a quitter, and I ain’t quitting!!!”
James was taken aback by her outburst. It was something that he had never witnessed from her. He pushed his chair back from his desk and held out his arms towards her with his palms open as if to surrender.
“Hold on, Marsha. I’m just the messenger. I’m just the waiter – not the chef.
“OK, OK, relax,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do on my side, but understand that if sales fall as much this year as they did last year, you may not be able to draw a salary or receive a bonus, and you may have to give a mortgage on your house to get through this. I’ll do what I can. I think I can show a loss so that you won’t have to pay taxes this year.”
“Good! That sounds more like it. I’ll make this work and do whatever it takes. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s what my dad always said, and I believe it! God will get me through this somehow, some way.”
Valentine’s and Easter passed with a 35% drop in sales from the previous bad year. Summer was terribly slow too - more so than usual. By July, she was operating in the red.
Marsha’s once flush business account was now almost drained, but the reserves had kept her going during the crippling recession. Next, she would have to take out a mortgage on her house to keep the store open.
She bit her bottom lip and held her coffee cup with a firm tenacious grip. She had finished reading the morning paper and had laid it on the end table next to the couch. In an almost catatonic state, she looked out of her picture window at the cold drizzle gray morning. It was Monday, December 12. Sales had plummeted. Even the old man and Mrs. McWhorter had not been into the store to make their purchases.
Yesterday at church, she sure didn’t feel like singing, “Joy to the World,” and didn’t. She stood there staring at the church’s Christmas tree wondering where God went.
She had cloaked herself in fake happiness during the ladies Sunday School class. It wouldn’t do for her friends to know of her troubles. Shame and guilt rushed over her like a torrent. How could she face them? They had been so supportive and proud of her. And to be honest, she was quite proud of herself and her accomplishments.
But, she had tried to keep it all inside. Nevertheless, the bomb within her was exploding and shredding to pieces her pride and resolute determination from the shrapnel of failure.
The drizzle turned to a steady rain washing the last of the leaves on her driveway down into the storm drain like the dreams she once doggedly held.
Marsha came to herself. “I’ve got to get ready.” She put down the cup with the now cold coffee in it.
She looked in the bathroom mirror to fix her face. Her reflection revealed deep worry lines. Dark circles from sleepless troublesome nights couldn’t be hid no matter how much make-up she put on.
In the past, she couldn’t wait to turn the key to open her store. That anticipation had turned to dread as she cranked up the car and then backed down the driveway.
“I won’t quit! I’ll get through this. This is what I’ve wanted all of my life. No one can stop me! No one!”
Marsha turned the key at 8:45 that Monday morning. Nine o’clock, 9:30, 10 o’clock passed with only one customer and a small sale. In better days, the store was filled with shoppers by this time in December.
Marian bounced through the door. “Hi Mom! How’s it going? Say, where is everybody? It’s card and gift buying time!”
Marsha looked up from a card display that she was straightening. Her sad eyes gave her away.
“What’s the matter, Mom?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Yes there is. Tell me.”
Marsha poured her gloom all over her daughter. Tears ran down her face ruining her mascara. “I don’t know. I just don’t know what I’m going to do. I refuse to give up. I just can’t give up. I’ve never given up on any thing in my life. I went the second mile and then some to try and save my marriage. And now this. Another failure. I don’t know what to do. I guess I’ll have to borrow on my house to make it into next year. It’s got to get better. I know it will get better.”
Marian grabbed a tissue out of her purse as she walked over to her mother. Thank God, there were no customers in the store to see Marsha’s breakdown.
“Well Mom, maybe you ought to close the store and cut your losses while you still can.” Marian became the voice of reason for her distraught mother. She continued. “You’ve been a Pit Bull, Mom. You’re an inspiration to me. You always have been my shining light. But, you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to release this, put it behind you, and move on with your life. It’s not the end of the world.”
Marsha felt her anger welling up and almost shouted at her daughter to leave. But for some reason that she didn’t understand, she didn’t overreact.
“I’ve got to go Mom. More shopping to do. Merry Christmas!”
Marsha was preparing to close the store that night when one last customer walked in. A stranger.
“Merry Christmas,” the well-dressed lady called out.
“And Merry Christmas to you,” Marsha replied with a little more gusto than she had that morning.
“Will that be everything this evening?” Masha asked as she prepared to ring up the stranger’s purchases.
“There is one more thing. I love putting those little laminated cards in my Christmas cards. Do you have those? You know, the one with that prayer on it. I can’t recall the name of it, but I’ll know it if I see it.
“Yes,” I think I have what you are talking about.
The unfamiliar customer picked up a handful of them and added them to her basket.
“That’ll be $236.11. Cash, check or credit?”
“Kind of like the old days,” Marsha thought as the stranger left out the door.
Marsha walked back to the rack where the billfold size laminated cards were displayed. She picked one up and slipped it into her purse, pulled out the store keys, locked the door, and walked slowly to her car.
That night sitting alone with her little poodle in her lap, she read the prayer again and again and again. She was familiar with that prayer, but something about it really said something to her this time.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen."
“Yes, I’ve got to let it go. I’ve got to release my shattered dreams.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” she prayed aloud.
Marsha suddenly felt a great sense of peace and relief. She had given it her best shot, and she had nothing to be ashamed of.
She thought back to her last customer, the unknown stranger who had asked for that prayer card. “I wonder if she was an angel sent by God to ask for that little card and help me through this? Surely, she was!”
For the first time in a long time, she drifted off to a peaceful sleep and dreamed of the Christmas angel who had inspired her to pray and accept the things she could not change. The Father had dispatched the cheerful, mysterious customer, Marsha’s angel, just for her.
“Peace on earth, goodwill to men from heaven´s all gracious king. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”
Rev. Dan White is a free lance writer and founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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