Two weeks before Christmas, the houses on Westchester Circle glowed like gems–but none more so than the homes of the Michaels and Anderson families.
The Michaels’ sidewalk was lined with candy canes and dancing snowmen, and their roof was a winter wonderland of faux snow and imitation icicles. On the roof, Santa waved cheerfully from a life-size sleigh pulled by realistic reindeer. Thousands of lights illuminated the display, and some of the lights–through some technological miracle–emulated the effect of falling snow.
“The snow effect... that’s new,” said Will Anderson, looking up at his neighbor’s roof. “Impressive, though.”
Will’s gaze shifted from the neighbors’ house to his own. It too had enough lights to stock an entire Christmas department, but those lights illuminated a very different scene: in the yard, a life-size manger scene; above, three Wise Men journeying across the roof.
“I don’t know,” said his wife, Marge. “Maybe you should add something.”
“Maybe a star...”
The friendly competition between the two families had begun several years ago, and each year their displays had gotten more elaborate. It was now a given that one of them would win the prize for “Best Suburban Christmas Display” when the judges came around next week.
The other homeowners of Westchester Circle had followed their lead; and though none of their displays were as elaborate, the Ruperts’--understated, but elegant--was a distant runner-up.
For Marge and Will, the contest wasn’t just about winning. It was also about witnessing.
They had stopped inviting the Michaels to their church, even for special events. These attempts always met with embarrassed silence, or an uncomfortable, “Well, we’re not really into religion...”
The Andersons had been neighborly–organizing food when Ken Michaels’ father died, babysitting the older Michaels children when their youngest son was born. These had been pure acts of kindness, without ulterior motive, though the Andersons had always hoped that something, sometime, might soften their neighbors’ hearts.
The Nativity scene, though, was a visible representation of their faith. Marge and Will both felt that this justified its expense.
Will went to Christmas World the next day. Later that evening, a star rose in the east–at least, on the east side of the Anderson house--and stopped above the Wise Men, casting streams of radiant white light upon the manger scene below.
Then, two nights before the judges’ visit, Marge looked out the window and said,
“The power’s out next door.”
“Really?” Will joined her at the window. “They must have blown a fuse.”
They looked out at the dark roof for a couple of minutes; then Marge said,
“It looks like there’s a light on in the back kitchen.”
“Hmmm,” said Will. “Maybe a problem with the display?”
“I wonder if they know about it,” said Marge. “Maybe I should go and see.”
“Tell ‘em I’ve got an extra extension cord or two, if they need it,” Will yelled magnanimously, as she headed out the front door.
Debbie Michaels came to the door after the second ring. Her dark hair hung limply around her thin, blotchy face.
“Hello,” said Marge tentatively. “We saw that your lights were out, and we...”
“Ken got laid off,” Debbie interrupted, her voice hoarse and curt. “We hadn’t thought it would affect his department, but...”
“Oh... I’m so sorry,” Marge said inadequately.
Marge mouthed a few conventional phrases, but didn’t stay long–she sensed that Debbie didn’t really want to talk about it.
“...So that’s it,” she told Will a few minutes later. “They probably won’t be able to afford this month’s electricity bill as it is.”
“Hmmm...” said Will thoughtfully.
He looked at Marge; and when Will left the house, she knew exactly what he was going to do.
A few minutes later, someone pounded at the front door. Will went to answer it, and Marge followed, standing a few steps behind.
On the doorstep stood Ken Michaels, his large, square face dark red and angry.
“Why’d you turn out your lights?” he demanded, as if daring them to say something that would hint at pity.
Marge held her breath, but Will said lightly,
“We’ll turn ‘em back on after the judges show up... but I just thought it was time to give the Ruperts a chance.”
Ken Michaels glared at Will for a long time. Then his face relaxed.
“So...” he said, looking down at his shoes, “tell me some more about this church you folks attend...”
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