We had never experienced anyone taking offence at the singing of Christmas carols. Indifference occasionally, mocking once or twice, but not offense. My wife and I looked forward each year to joining a group of friends for a night of door-to-door caroling.
Imagine our shock, then, on receiving a letter from a neighbor riled that we had come uninvited to her doorstep and sung several carols. We had meant no harm. Our only intent had been to spread a little Christmas goodwill around the neighborhood. But for this neighbor it brought no cheer at all. Judging by her note, we had pretty much spoiled things for her.
Screwing up our courage, my wife and I phoned her and asked if we could pay her a visit. We mentioned her note to us and told her we were eager to make amends. She listened, then gave us her address and invited us for a cup of tea.
The following afternoon, the three of us were sitting at her kitchen table. As Jane (I’ll call her that) poured the tea she said to us, “I suppose you want me to tell you why I was upset that you came here to sing at Christmas?”
“We would appreciate that. We certainly didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t. And that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to the door while you were singing and ask you to leave.
"It was on a Christmas Eve when a drunk drove his car into my mother and two of my daughters as they walked along the hedgerow at the side of our road.
"My mother saw the car coming and tried to shove the girls into the bushes, but it did no good. The driver never stopped and was never discovered. But my mother and my two little girls' lives were stopped forever. They never recovered.
"That night drained away all my joy in Christmas, for good. Now each Christmas, when everyone else is partying and carrying on, I have that black night to look back on.
"I was lost in those memories when your group of carolers came along. I want no part in the worldly ways of celebrating Christmas. There’s nothing ‘merry’ about it for me!”
My wife and I listened in silence. We hadn’t expected this at all, and were quite shaken by Jane’s story. What could we say?
“We’re so sorry,” we offered. “If we’d only known, we wouldn’t have sung at your door. Please accept our apologies.” It sounded so inadequate.
“Thank you for being so open with us about your loss, Jane,” my wife said.
“We can’t begin to feel what it must be like for you to relive this each Christmas,” I added. “But our hearts go out to you, and from now on we’ll think of this burden you carry. In some small way, we’ll try to carry it with you in our hearts.”
Jane thanked us warmly for understanding and refilled the three cups. The conversation from that point on was very friendly and open.
As we were about to leave, we took Jane’s hands in ours and wished her the peace of heart that the Christ child offers to each one of us. And she replied, “Thank you very much! I do reflect each year on the first Christmas, and I pray silently to give thanks to God for Jesus, his gift of love to us. And I often think of the angels’ song, ‘Peace on earth!’” And with a quiet chuckle she admitted, “Sometimes I even find myself humming, ‘Hark, the herald angels sing!’”
As my wife and I walked home, we spoke of how many people must find it hard to have a merry Christmas, and of how little we know of the burdens others carry, even our closest neighbors. We reminded each other of the gift Jesus brings – the gift we and all mankind desperately need, and which the hearts of all people long for: peace. The peace of God, which “passes all understanding.”
This Christmas, now miles and years away from that encounter with Jane, I remember her as I sing the timeless carol: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Yes, the Prince of Peace is born!