When the street-corner Santa asked Richard and Bernie what they wanted for Christmas, the four-year-old identical twins had their answers ready: "Some Lincoln Logs and a doctor kit and a Lionel Train that makes real smoke." And there was something else.
"A baby brother. And . . . have Daddy come home from the hospital real soon. He’s got TV.
"Do you mean TB?" asked Santa.
Standing next to her sons, Laurette Marquis nodded gravely. Three months earlier, her husband had left home to be treated for an aggressive form of the disease. No one could say whether Ray would ever return, or ever live to see the new baby she was carrying in her womb.
Santa grew silent, and his eyes filled with tears. "I can’t promise you’ll get everything on your list," he told the twins. "Sometimes, what we really want and what we really need are not the same things."
Then he told them to watch for a special surprise—he couldn’t say what. "One thing I do promise, though. When it comes, you’ll know it’s really special."
Star of Wonder. The days passed, with nothing special coming into view. Money was tight, and there was no sign of Christmas gifts or decorations.
On the morning of December 24, Laurette was rushed to the hospital with complications from her pregnancy. Her aunt, Eva, who came to stay with the boys, saw their fear and hugged them close, giving what assurance she could. Then she had an inspired idea: "Let’s go for a bus ride and buy a crèche!"
The expedition brightened everyone’s mood, and by evening things were feeling more like Christmas. Two of Ray’s coworkers had stopped by to present a tree. Now it stood grandly in the living room, its cracked star and worn ornaments made beautiful in the sparkle of lights.
At the tree’s base was the newly purchased nativity set. Bought on clearance, it was made of cardboard and was missing one of the wise men. But when a bulb was inserted into a cutout at the back, the whole scene was illumined by Bethlehem’s star.
"Wow!" said the boys, when Auntie Eva turned out the other lights. They knelt on either side of her before the glowing tree and manger.
What Was That? "Tomorrow is Baby Jesus’ birthday," said Aunt Eva. "He knows that Mommy and Daddy are in the hospital and that this is a very hard time for you. He listens to the prayers of children, and I know he will listen to you. Pray that they get well, so you can all be together again."
She fell silent and closed her eyes. The twins gazed at the crèche, their eyes traveling from one rubber figure to another. Then, imitating Aunt Eva, they began praying in the silence of their hearts.
Suddenly there was a presence in the room—loving, peaceful, unmistakable.
"Did you feel that?" said Richard, turning to Bernie in astonishment.
"Yeah!" Bernie exclaimed. "What was it?"
Auntie Eva was most familiar with that presence. "It’s the Christmas Spirit," she said without hesitation. "Do you know what that is? It’s God’s love coming to live inside of you and me."
The twins looked at her, not quite understanding. But something had happened to give them hope.
The Best Gift Ever. Bernie and Richard didn’t find any of the gifts they had asked for under the tree. But before Christmas Day was out, they got news that they had a new baby brother and that their mother would be coming home soon.
"Hey," said Richard, "that’s our special surprise!" Encouraged that Jesus had heard their prayer, they began to hope that their dad, too, would come home one day.
Two more Christmases came and went without Dad, but Ray Marquis did live to walk out of that TB sanatorium.
"We didn’t get the toys we thought we needed," says Richard, now in his fifties, looking back on that life-changing Christmas. "What we got instead was a profound experience of God that we still draw from today."
The infant of Bethlehem made himself present to two anxious four-year-olds praying at a cardboard manger. "Jesus came to us," says Bernie. "We were given the greatest gift of all."
Louise Perrotta is a Word Among Us editor.