A small boy in an orphanage struggles to find the meaning of Christmas
A blossom of hot breath floated across the upstairs orphanage window. A small, pale finger etched a holiday scene across the glass, as intense blue eyes focused on the snow that lay thick upon the yard below. The boy imagined he was looking at himself outside playing in the snow, making a snowman. His skinny chest rose and fell in a frustrated sigh. Wiping the fog-markings from the glass, thin lips pinched together in a tearful pout, he watched a car drive by splashing dirty snow across the six-foot wrought-iron fence that surrounded the dilapidated old orphanage.
It doesn't feel much like Christmas, he thought. It feels just like any other day—cold and ordinary.
He watched the people walk by outside, bundled up like penguins and waddling down the street. Every now and then, he would see someone hurry past carrying boxes of gifts. Hope flared in his eyes at the sight of packages wrapped in brilliant colored paper, for a moment, it warmed his cold body. Then the dinginess of his surroundings draped its bitter cold arms around his shoulders again, and pulled him back inside.
Joshua Banes turned from the dirty gray window and gazed into the drafty room cluttered with cots. The beds were in a jumbled mess, some so close together you couldn't walk in between. They reminded Josh of small fishing boats washed upon the shore by a giant tidal wave. The beds were empty now, blankets thrown in disarray. Everyone was downstairs meeting the young couple that had come to choose a child for their own. Josh could picture Miss Collin, the head mistress, making sure that all the children were properly dressed, hair combed, and teeth brushed. He laughed at how hard she tried to conceal the fact that most of the kids were sickly and half starved.
He picked up the broom and started sweeping again, daydreaming. He wasn't allowed downstairs, Miss Collin saw to that. She kept him busy sweeping the rooms. She couldn't trust him not to say something—something that would end her little game and jeopardize her job. All anyone had to do was look at Josh and they’d be able to see how cold and hungry the children were, how desperate to get away.
Wiping his nose on his sleeve, Josh thought about home. He remembered how he used to get so excited at Christmas time. Miss Collin would never allow that sort of thing to go on. “There will be no Christmas here!” she told them in her shrill voice. “No tree to decorate, and no pretty presents to put under it! You are nothing but a burden on the state. Put here because you have no families and nobody who cares about you. So, boo-hoo, get used to it.”
Josh sadly thought about his mom and dad. He missed them so much. He bit back his tears and remembered Christmas the way it used to be, the way he and his dad had built a snowman together, the fabulous smells that filled the house, the gifts. Mostly he thought about his parents, and how he wished with all his heart that they were still alive.
He shivered as a draft blew from under the window. When his teeth stopped chattering, an urge suddenly came over him. It seeped into his body, burned in his chest, felt as warm as a hug. At that moment, his only thought was to build a snowman. A snowman so perfect that it would make it feel like Christmas; like he was home again, and all this was nothing but some terrible dream.
Josh reached for the window latch and twisted it open. He wanted outside; he needed to build a snowman. He frantically grasped the old rusted handles at the base of the window and yanked on them, but they were stuck tight. He put his back into it and tried again . . . and again. Finally, he felt it move, but it was just a crack.
He looked around the room for something he could use to pry it open with, and his eyes fell upon the broom. Inserting the wooden handle into the small opening of the window frame, he pushed down hard.
It split in two.
Fearfully, Josh looked around. Had someone heard the noise?
No one came.
He quietly went back to work on the window. It had busted loose and now lifted up easily, but as luck would have it, it wouldn't stay up. Using the broken broom handle, he propped the window open, and then immediately stuck his head outside and took a long, deep breath.
The cold air smelled so fresh and sweet that Josh felt rejuvenated. He had been breathing the stink of the rooms for so long, he forgot what fresh air actually smelled like.
Then, for no apparent reason, he climbed out the window and stepped upon the ledge.
As he pulled his last leg out, he accidentally kicked the broom handle, and the window came crashing down behind him with a bang. He waited for a moment, dreading the inevitable, trying to figure out some excuse he could use as to why he was on the second floor window ledge; but once again, no one came. Where was Miss Collin? Why hadn't she heard that?
He tried to open the window, but there was no place to grasp it. So, he gave up, sat down on the snow-covered ledge and dangled his feet over the edge of the building. Well, he told himself, there’s nowhere to go but down.
He studied the large, gnarled oak tree growing alongside the building. The one that scared him late at night with the way it knocked and scratched at the window. He never considered himself a good climber, but he felt strangely compelled to at least try. With both hands, he firmly grabbed hold of the nearest branch and swung out from his perch.
He hung there from the tree for a moment like a Christmas ornament—his hands turning white and numb as he strangled the limb. Feeling his strength giving out, he ventured to look down. His eyes grew wide as he realized just how far from the ground he actually was. Then that warm calm feeling swept over him again, and he no longer felt frightened at the thought of letting go—and so he did.
There was a quick blur and tickle as his stomach lurched into his throat, and then he landed with a soft 'ka-thunk' into the deep snow. Josh looked around and grinned. He was buried up to his waist and hadn't gotten hurt at all. He quickly scurried to his feet, exhilarated and full of the Christmas Spirit, and then set straight to work.
With a giddiness he hadn't felt since before the accident, he attacked the snow. He rolled out the first snowball, bigger and bigger it grew, until he was completely satisfied with the size. Then he started the next one, not quite as big as the first, but it was so big he was barely able to stack it on top. Now for the head, he thought. It has to be perfectly round. The Spirit of Christmas burned in his chest, keeping him warm, as he rolled out the flawless headpiece. Then setting it upon the other two, he stood back and marveled at his snowman.
”It doesn't have a face,” he said aloud. “Every snowman has to have a face.”
Blowing on his cold-burning red hands and grinning from ear to ear, he looked around for what he needed. A tiny, naked little tree stood in the corner, dead from the winter’s freeze. He trudged over to it and broke off two branches to use for arms and a smaller piece for the nose. He found a curved stick for the mouth, which formed a beautiful snowman smile.
“It needs eyes,” he said, but he couldn't find anything suitable. He looked down at the two large, black buttons that held his state-uniform together. He quickly plucked them off, feeling the cold air creep into the exposed skin of his chest, then stuck them onto the snowman’s face.
“There! You’re perfect,” he said, excitedly. “Just perfect!”
He was so intent on warming his hands in his armpits and staring at his snowman, that he barely heard the commotion by the front door. Miss Collin was escorting the young couple out.
“I'm terribly sorry you couldn't find what you were looking for,” she said in her most patronizing voice. “But please, be sure to come back and try again. We get new kids in all the time. They’re like rats, you know—they seem to come out of the woodwork.”
“Oh, we will,” a man's voice said. “We are very determined to find just the right little boy before Christmas. Thank you for your time, Miss Collin, and Merry Christmas to you.”
“Oh, I don’t really believe in that sort of thing, Mister Marsh, but thank you anyway—goodbye.”
Josh hurried to get out of sight. Carefully, he peeked around from behind the snowman and attempted to get a good look at the young couple as they passed by.
They crossed right in front of him, heading for the gate. They appeared to be very nice, but the woman looked rather sad to Josh.
“Get inside you piglets! This instant!” Miss Collin yelled at the kids that followed her outside.
Josh could hear the couple talking. “Jim,” the woman said in a worried whisper, as she tightly clutched her husband’s arm, “I don't like that woman. I have this terrible feeling that something’s not quite right here. How could anyone make her responsible for the well being of all those kids? Oh…those poor, poor children. I wish we could take them all home.”
“I know, darling,” the man said, keeping a brisk pace. “But what can we do? These state-run institutions are filled with bureaucratic red tape.”
“Miss Collin, look!” a child's voice cried out. “It’s Josh! He's hiding behind that snowman!”
Oh, man, thought Josh, that darn Mickey Mattos would have to see me.
“The wh . . . what?” Miss Collin stuttered. Spinning around, she looked to where the child was pointing and saw Josh. Her eyes sparked as her face pinched up into a tight knot.
Josh was terrified; he shrank behind the snowman and cringed waiting for the ax to fall.
Forgetting all about the young couple, Miss Collin angrily stomped over to where Josh was hiding. Each additional step she had to take through the deep snow made her even angrier. “Joshua! You little whelp!” She reached around the snowman and grabbed him by one of his cold ears.
Then a firm hand fell upon his shoulder and pulled him away from the crazed woman. “Unhand that boy, Miss Collin,” said Mr. Marsh, as he stepped in front of Josh.
Then something wonderful happened—he fell into the arms and full bosom of the beautiful Martha Marsh. Just the smell of her was like something Josh had almost forgotten even existed. It was the smell of kindness, warmth, and love. He buried his cold little face into her coat, and never wanted to come out.
“The boy belongs inside!” yelled Miss Collin, as she tried to get around Mister Marsh. “This one’s never been nothing but a troublemaker!”
Mister Marsh didn't move. “It appears to me, that the boy was just playing in the snow. I suppose that’s against the rules.”
“Rules are rules, Mister Marsh!” she said flatly “If I let one get away with it, then they’ll all want to come out!”
“Well, maybe you should let them!” Mister Marsh said angrily. “It’s Christmas time for God’s sake! Kids need fresh air and physical exercise.”
“It is no business of yours, sir!” she said, contemptuously. “This child is the property of the state! Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll take him!”
Jim Marsh hesitated, and then seeing the hopelessness of the situation, let out a surrendering sigh, and then backed away. He looked at his loving wife’s face filled with worry and concern as she clutched the scrawny kid in her arms, never wanting to let go. He’d seen that look of desperation before, when the doctors had told them the bad news. That was why they had suddenly decided to adopt. “There’s nothing we can do,” he told her. Slowly, she let the small boy slip from her grasp, as Miss Collin stepped forward and roughly took Josh by the arm. Without another word, she turned around and walked back toward the front door.
The other children quickly pulled their heads back inside as the head mistress approached them. She entered the building pulling Josh along behind her, and then slammed the door.
“Oh, Jim . . . did you see how frightened he was?”
“Now, Martha . . . I feel just as bad as you, but there’s really nothing we can do.” He led her toward the gate again, and she reluctantly went along, but with the feeling of something lost or forgotten.
As soon as the door closed, Miss Collin turned to Josh. “March straight upstairs, mister,” she ordered. “I’ll deal with you in a minute.”
“Gee . . . I can hardly wait,” Josh said, sarcastically.
Without even thinking, Miss Collin lashed out and slapped him across the face with such force that it turned his head to the side. “That’s it, young man!” She was screaming. “Your days of playing in the snow are over!”
The slap stung Josh to tears. Never in his life had he felt anything as painful as that bony hand smacking his ice-cold cheek. He lowered his head to hide the tears that spilled from his eyes. Turning, he exploded up the stairs.
He no sooner got to the room when he heard the front door slam again. He rushed to the window. Miss Collin made straight for his snowman. He had never seen her so angry before. He rubbed at his numb cheek. Suddenly she stopped, and looked up at him with a wicked smile, and then crudely ripped the snowman’s head off and tossed it out into the street.
Josh watched in horror as it crumbled into a million pieces. Then she attacked the body, pushing and kicking at it until her anger was spent. Nothing remained.
Josh’s whole world seemed to collapse around him. His mind reeled and crumpled apart like the snowman—like it did the day his parents had died in that stupid car crash. He covered his face and wept uncontrollably. Then threw himself upon his cold, hard bed. Burying his face into his damp and smelly pillow, he cried himself to sleep.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and there seemed to be a break in the bad weather as the sun peaked down through a hazy sky and cheerfully shined through the upstairs windows. Josh awoke, hungry. He realized he had missed dinner and breakfast again. He groggily climbed out of bed, and staggered over to the window rubbing his sleep-filled eyes. When he looked down into the yard his heart nearly leapt from his chest.
There, in the exact same spot that he had built his creation the night before, stood a snowman—not just any snowman, but one that was absolutely perfect. His mouth fell open, and he didn't close it until his hot breath had fogged up the window so much he couldn't see. Quickly he wiped it clear again and stared down at the perfection in the snow.
The snowman sported a black top hat, with a carrot for a nose, and a bright red scarf adorning his neck. Even the tree branches, used for arms, fanned out forming perfect fingers. Pressed into its body, were three large lumps of coal that made it appear to be wearing a warm white winter jacket buttoned-up against the cold. His smile was large and sincere, and shaped from smaller pieces of coal. But the eyes—the eyes were the same old black buttons Josh had ripped from his shirt. As he marveled at the miracle before him, one of those eyes gave him a quick wink, and its charcoal mouth seemed to broaden.
Josh jumped back from the window with a startled gasp. Then curiosity urged him to take another look.
The snowman waved.
“I don’t believe this . . . . ”
He ran from the window and bounded down the stairs, almost knocking over Mickey Mattos in his rush to reach the front door.
“Hey, watch it!” Mickey yelled.
“Sorry,” Josh yelled back over his shoulder, “but it’s alive! The snowman’s alive!”
“Yeah, right, snow-brain. Miss Collin! Miss Collin! Josh is trying to sneak outside again!”
In a flash, Josh tore at the front door and swung it open. He ran out on the steps, and then stared at the snowman.
Wow!” he said, still not able to believe his eyes. “It’s not a dream. It’s really real!”
Just then, Miss Collin came rushing up from behind him. She saw the snowman in all its glory standing tall and proud, and then looked at Josh in disbelief. “How’d you do this?” she demanded.
“What? I didn't do it. Somebody else must have,” explained Josh. “But I saw it move, Miss Collin, it winked and waved at me. It’s alive! I saw it move, I tell ya!”
She grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him forcibly back inside. She slammed the front door, and then fumbled for the key that hung from a chain about her neck. Locking the entrance, she said, “That should keep you inside. Now, come with me!” She grabbed him by the ear and tugged.
“Ow! But . . . but, Miss Collin, really, I saw it move! It’s alive!”
“I’ll hear no more of your lies and stories, young man,” she said, dragging him toward the basement door. “You can spend your Christmas right down here in the basement! Just consider it a Christmas present from me to you. Now, get down there!”
“But, Miss Collin,” he pleaded, “I’m not lying, honest! I saw it move. It’s really alive!”
“Once Christmas has come and gone,” she continued, ignoring him, “I’ll see about letting you out for some supper. Now, go!”
She opened the old, paint-chipped door leading to the basement stairwell, and then pushed him inside, slamming the door and locking it.
For several moments, Josh stood there in the dark listening to the pops and crackles of the old house as it settled. Ever since his mom and dad had died, he had become afraid of the dark. The fear crept through him now, working its spell as it tried to paint his heart as black as the room. Unable to contain himself any longer, Josh frantically felt around on the wall for a light switch. Finally, his hand fell upon one, and he flipped it on. An old light bulb that hung from the center of the room blinked several times and threatened to go out.
Josh had never been in the basement before; it smelled damp and musty—cluttered with piles of junk that were too old to be useful to anyone. Gripping the handrail, he cautiously made his way down the stairs, but as soon as he reached the last step, the bulb blinked, and then with a “'pop' left him standing in the dark.
Josh was too afraid to move. There was a shuffling sound off to his right, and he strained his eyes to see in the pitch-black. He was just about to scream, when he heard someone lightly clear their throat—then softly start to sing.
“Hark, the Harold Angel sings . . . . ”
“Who’s there?” Josh asked, terrified. “Mickey Mattos, is that you?”
An old furnace in the corner of the room noisily kicked and sputtered to life, its bright, orange glow offering a promise of warmth. Josh felt so afraid he couldn't catch his breath, and then the light bulb sparked anew and a blazing white light burst forth.
Over in the corner Josh saw a big fellow relaxing on a stack of old mattresses; he was smiling like he had just found a long lost friend. Dressed all in white, he wore a bright red scarf about his neck and a crumpled black hat. He slowly tipped the hat to Josh and winked.
“Who . . . . . ”
“How do you do?” he said. “You must be Josh! I was told that I would find you here.”
“Who . . . who are you?”
“The name’s Harold,” he said, cheerfully. “Harold the Snow Angel. I've come to help you.”
Josh rubbed at his eyes, shook his head in disbelief. “Harold, huh? That’s an odd name for an angel, even for one in a dream.”
“I’m no dream, my friend. I’m Harold . . . you know, like Hark the Harold angel sings.”
Josh giggled; he had to admit that he liked this guy, but where had he come from, and how long had he been in this basement? Was this another troublesome child Miss Collin had thrown down here years ago? “Wait a minute,” exclaimed Josh, with a light of recognition. “I know you! You’re . . . you’re that snowman! It was you I saw from the window!”
“That’s right,” Harold said, beaming with pride. “It looked to me like the snowman you built must have tripped and fallen down, or something. He was in awful bad shape. The snow can be so treacherous this time of year, don’t you think? You know…what with people climbing in and out of windows, and falling out of trees and such.” He smiled so big the corners of mouth nearly touched the sides of his head. “You just never know what can happen in the snow.” Harold winked again, then laughed affectionately. He started singing. “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow . . . ”
“I don’t believe this is happening,” said Josh, smacking the palm of his hand to his forehead. “I must be going crazy.”
He plopped down next to Harold on the pile of old mattresses, and shook his head in confusion. “I’m talking to a snowman! I must be hungrier than I thought. I’m starting to see things.”
Harold slipped off his warm, white winter coat, and draped it over Josh’s shoulders. The boy immediately began to feel better.
“I don’t understand, Harold,” he said, with a dubious grin. “What’s happening to me? What’s this all about?”
Harold slowly got down on his knees in front of the boy, and gently lifted up his chin.
“I've been sent by two people who love you very much, Josh,” he said, softly. “I’m to deliver a message to you.”
“That’s right,” said Harold, cheerfully. “From your mom and dad. They want me to tell you that they love you, and will always love you, forever and ever.”
Josh shuddered from so much hurt and loss pent-up inside of him. Now he understood that all he ever wanted to hear from anyone was that his mom and dad still loved him, still cared. He threw his arms around Harold's neck, and wept with sheer joy.
“Go ahead and cry, big guy,” Harold said gently, patting Josh’s back. “Your mom and dad love you; they want you know that.”
“Oh, Harold, why’d they have to go and get killed? I need them! I want them back!”
“I know . . . I know, but they want something too. They want you to give someone else a chance to love you as they do—become part of a new family. And they want you to love them as much as they love you.”
Suddenly, there were slamming doors and loud voices from upstairs. Josh heard people yelling and shouting. He stood up and walked toward the stairs. Harold’s jacket fell from his shoulders.
“What the heck is going on up there?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go on up and see for yourself,” Harold said, with a smile. “Go on.”
“You coming?” he asked.
“I can’t, Josh. My work here is through. But I will come and see you again sometime. I promise.”
Josh heard a man’s voice asking to have the door unlocked. There was more arguing, and then the key rattled in the lock, the door swung open, and then Miss Collin appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Come up, Josh,” she said, bitterly. “You have someone here that wants to see you.”
Josh slowly climbed the stairs leading up to the basement door, but then Miss Collin barred his way. “Don’t say anything you’ll be sorry for later, understand?”
Josh nodded, and then she stepped aside and let him pass.
He walked through the door to see the Marsh’s standing in the hallway with worried relief on their faces. A policeman stood directly behind them, looking very serious.
“Oh, Jim, there he is! It’s him!” exclaimed Martha Marsh, as she scooped the boy up into the protection of her arms. “My God, he’s literally frozen to the bone!”
“Is this how you treat the children here?” Mister Marsh asked the head mistress. “By locking them up in a basement with hardly any clothes to wear?”
The police officer moved to Miss Collin and grabbed her by the arm. “I think I've seen enough here, folks. Why don’t you grab your coat, Miss Collin. We’re going to take a little ride downtown.”
“Downtown? What are you saying? I can’t leave these children here alone.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” said the officer, “someone has already been called, and will be here shortly to replace you.”
“But . . . but this is all a misunderstanding,” she pleaded. “Tell them, Josh. Tell them I had to do it. You were deranged, tell them!”
Josh said nothing.
Miss Collin tried to pull free of the policeman’s grasp. “He was ranting and raving about a snowman! Josh, please, tell them what happened!”
Josh refused to say anything, just like he promised. He turned his face away.
“He was a threat to the others, I tell you,” Miss Collin argued. “He had to be locked up. It’s my job to protect these children.”
”Not anymore it isn't,” the officer said. “Come on, lady, it’s Christmas Eve, and I want to go home.” He led her toward the front door.
“He said the snowman was alive! Alive! Can you imagine? He’s crazy I tell you, crazy!”
“Sure, sure, just keep moving,” said the policeman. “We’ll get someone to help you at the station—someone you can tell the whole story to.”
They walked out together amid threats and heavy protest, the policeman pulled the door closed behind them.
Josh never saw Miss Collin again.
Jim Marsh took to one knee and looked Josh in the eye. “Son, we want you to come and live with us. Would you like that? We want to take care of you. Give you a home—a family. What do you think, big guy?”
“Boy, would I!” yelled Josh, “And how!”
“Oh, Josh, that’s wonderful!” Martha said crying, and hugging him like she’d never let him go. “That’s just wonderful, darling.”
“Can I bring along my friend Harold?” he asked innocently.
“He’s in the basement,” said Josh. “He’s my Snow Angel!”
Josh broke away from her arms, and ran to the basement doorway.
“Harold,” he yelled. “Hey, Harold, come on up. I want you to meet my new family.”
There was no answer, and the basement was dark again.
“He’s delirious,” Martha said, placing her hand over his forehead, and checking his temperature.
“Let’s get him home, honey,” Jim said. “We’ll thaw him out, and get some hot food in him. I’m sure he’ll be all right.”
They led Josh out the front door and down the steps toward the gate. As they passed the spot where Josh’s snowman had once stood, Josh halted. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I forgot something.” He ran out into the snow and searched for something. Then sharply bending down, he picked it up and ran back. “I almost forgot my buttons,” he said. “It gets cold when your shirt won’t button up.”
The Marshes looked at each other knowingly. “Let’s get you home, sport, and into some nice warm clothes.”
“New clothes? Wow!” He started pulling them forward. “Hurry up! Let’s go!”
The next day was Christmas morning. Josh had gotten to sleep in a huge bed, with warm covers and blankets. He helped decorate the Christmas tree with his new family, and then they all sat around the fireplace drinking hot cocoa. He loved it here.
They finally opened Christmas gifts, and Josh got some brand new toys and clothes. He thought of Harold then, and realized the Snow Angel must have been with him the whole time he was building his snowman. Harold was there when he climbed out of the window, jumped down from the tree, and even helped to find him a new mom and dad. He snuggled into the crook of his new mom’s arm
“You all right, hon?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Josh, wiping a tear away. “I’m not sad. I’m happy. Everything is like a dream come true, really.”
Mr. Marsh entered the room carrying jackets and gloves.
“Come on, everybody. Let’s go build us a snowman!”
Josh couldn't believe what he was hearing. “A snowman?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Jim. “You can’t find the true meaning of Christmas without first building a snowman. I thought you knew that.”
Josh’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. “Sure, I do!” He fished into his pocket and pulled out two buttons. “And I know just what we can use for the eyes,” he said grinning. “In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Harold came by to visit.”
He wore that grin throughout the rest of the day—Christmas Day. Looking out the window, he stared out at the newly built snowman with anticipation.
For Joshua Marsh it finally felt like Christmas.