A Christmas Short Story by Lori Soard
Dozens of small miracles brought them to this day, this moment, this feeling and the way the town now embraced Christmas. Nicholas Kringla’s ancestors set foot in this small Indiana town in 1852, when it was still named Morristown and when it was still a tiny village. How many stories had he heard about the Christmas spirit of those first settlers and how they stepped up to help one another survive the rugged landscape of the Midwest as it became settled – long before it became the small rural farm town of Henryville today.
Nicholas came from a long line of Dutch explorers who adored everything Christmas. His great-great-great-great grandfather, Kristofer Kringla worked a 200-acre farm that butted up against what today was the state forestry, starting a workshop that was so top secret no one was quite sure what he did there. All he knew what that Kristofer had loved Christmas and passed that love down to Kringlas in their very veins.
In the last twenty years, the town became more scattered. Fewer people knew one another as new families moved in and old families moved out. The ties that used to bind a community faltered in some ways, but stayed strong in others.
He’d missed being a kid in school and knowing everyone. Today, though, people held hands across the high school parking lot, from front yard to front yard, down US 31 and on into the forestry in a giant line of support remembering the husband of a local widow who lost everything and gained a whole town.
He didn’t know the names of the teenagers on his right and it didn’t matter. They shared a common cause, uplifting the family of a fallen soldier and through doing so changing the world for the better. To think, it all started with a small child.
Three Weeks Before Christmas Day
Eight-year-old Poppy Fields struggled to find a theme for her school project. Her third grade teacher wanted them to find something kind to do for another person and write a report on it. They couldn’t tell anyone else who they’d helped. It had to be a secret that only they and the teacher knew about.
She didn’t know anyone, having only moved here a month before, and she had no idea what she could do that was kind. The other kids all said they knew their projects already and Poppy still struggled to find something for hers. Who could she help without the person knowing she’d helped them?
It was on Wednesday she finally got an idea. She walked past Mr. Kringla’s house every day after the bus dropped her off. Poppy loved horses but they couldn’t afford one right now. Her father got laid off before they moved here and even though they’d moved for his new job, they told her it wasn’t possible to get a horse right now and probably not for a long time. Mr. Kringla had not one but three horses in his field. Three beautiful horses, who she loved. Poppy stopped every day and shared a carrot or apple or other treat she’d saved from her lunch with the horses.
Today, she had three baby carrots left. She walked up to the fence, and called the horses. “Come here, pretty horses.”
Trained from her treats from the last month, they all three came running toward her. That’s when she saw Mr. Kringla burst out of his front door and stomp his feet toward her. Poppy jumped back from the horses.
“What do you think you’re doing?” His voice was gruff and reminded her of Maui from the Disney movie Moana.
“F-feeding your horses a carrot.”
“Don’t feed my horses anything without asking first. Understand?” Poppy’s own father was a soft-spoken, kind man who rarely raised his voice. She burst into tears.
“Now, don’t go cryin’ like that. They get sick if you feed them the wrong thing. Just stay on your own property.”
She nodded and made her way home, hanging her head down and staring at the ground directly in front of her feet. The only friends she had here were those three horses and now she probably wasn’t going to be able to talk to them anymore.
Why did Mr. Kringla have to be such a grumpy old man? Her mother waited at the front door, and she collapsed into her arms, sobbing so hard that her words were barely understandable.
“Do you know what I think?” Her mother grabbed a tissue from the box on the living room table and wiped Poppy’s tears away. “I think Mr. Kringla is sad and lonely. I heard he lost his wife last year and they didn’t have any children. He probably just needs someone to be kind to him.”
That’s when the idea struck Poppy – she would make Mr. Kringla her project. If anyone needed some kindness, it was a grumpy old man who wouldn’t even let a little girl pet his horses. Now, she just had to figure out what to do for him.
Two Weeks Before Christmas
Poppy watched him quietly when she’d see him outside. No one came by his house and he didn’t seem to go many places. He worked outside, fed his horses and other animals and went back inside. When she’d first moved here, her mom made her cookies after school every day. The cookies didn’t make her stop missing her friends but they did help a little. Maybe she could make some cookies for Mr. Kringla and take them to him.
“Mom? Can we make some sugar cookies for gifts?”
They spent most of the afternoon baking one cold Saturday two weeks before Christmas. Poppy took her time and decorated each cookie for Mr. Kringla with care, adding sprinkles and little icing hats on the Santa Claus shaped cookies.
She put his cookies on a plate and wrapped them with plastic wrap and a pretty red bow she found with the Christmas paper. She grabbed a piece of paper and drew a picture of his three horses and wrote, “I hope these cookies bring you some Christmas cheer.” She didn’t sign the note as that was against the spirit of The Christmas Project. Her act of kindness was supposed to be a secret.
Just as the sun began to set over the barren golden fields between their houses, she crept over to his front door and set the cookies on his porch, walking quickly back home and making sure she didn’t bother his horses, even though they neighed at her asking for a treat.
“I’m sorry, guys. I’m not allowed to bother you. Merry Christmas.”
Poppy’s mother saw where her daughter was headed and she almost called out and stopped her. She was a bit furious over the way Mr. Kringla shouted at her daughter for doing nothing more than loving animals. However, she resisted the urge. If Poppy wanted to spend all afternoon baking cookies and delivering them to Mr. Grinch, she at least hoped he wouldn’t be mean to the child for trying to be kind.
Maybe she could be a bit kinder herself. A young mother at church was down on her luck and had no one to spend the holiday with. She’d invite her to join them for Christmas dinner.
Mr. Kringla spotted Poppy from his kitchen sink window. “That dreaded child is coming over to mess with my horses again,” he grumbled.
But Poppy didn’t stop by the horses or even look their way. She walked on toward the front of his house and that’s when he saw she held a present in her hands. He waited for the doorbell to ring but it never did. Then, the little girl walked back to her house, not messing with his horse this time either. He made his way to the front porch to see what she’d left.
The plate of cookies was obviously homemade and tied up with a drawing and a pretty bow. She hadn’t signed the note but simply wished him Merry Christmas and asked him to pass it on.
His wife used to make goodies and give them to everyone at Christmas. Edna delighted in gifting anyone and everyone and often said, “We all need a little sweetness in our lives.”
Nicholas Kringla felt the moisture on his cheeks before he realized he was crying. What a sweet, wonderful child, and after he’d been so mean to her. Edna would be ashamed of him and his lack of kindness. First thing tomorrow, he’d call on her mother and ask if she wanted some horseback riding lessons and let her know that her little girl was welcome to come pet his horses anytime she wanted.
He felt the sudden need to do something nice for someone else and pass on her Merry Christmas.
One Week Before Christmas
Tina Murphy headed out to pay bills and then go up to the Scottsburg Walmart, praying she’d find $120 along the way. She’d put some toys for her little girl and a warm coat and video game for her teen son into layaway back in September, but her hours at work got cut and she was struggling to make the rent and pay her bills. $120 might as well be $10 million.
Her older son would understand. At fourteen, he was old enough to know the struggle, even though she tried to hide that worry from him. She worried about her five-year-old daughter, though. Just last night the little girl said she couldn’t wait for Santa to bring her a new doll because her other doll’s head popped off and she couldn’t get it to stay on anymore. Tina couldn’t bear to see the look of disappointment on her baby’s face when there wasn’t a new doll under the tree on Christmas day.
Life shouldn’t be this hard. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, but her husband was killed last year while serving overseas and nothing would ever be the same again. Even though every military wife thought she was prepared to do parenting and life on her own if the worst happened, nothing could prepare you for the grief and loneliness that sat like a heavy anchor in the pit of your stomach.
If only she had family to fall back on, but her parents were gone, Jack’s parents were gone and the rest of the family was scattered about. She was on her own.
Her first stop was the water company. She couldn’t afford to pay any of her bills late and accrue late fees. Money was too tight for her to pay late fees, too.
“Hi, Tina.” The clerk greeted her by name as everyone in this small town did. She was glad she’d moved home after Jack got killed. At least life was familiar here and people cared about her.
“I need to pay my bill, Ellie.”
The clerk smiled. “It’s been taken care of already.”
Tina just stared at her. Had she heard the woman right? “There’s no balance?”
“Zero. Someone paid it and put extra on the account so you won’t have a bill for at least a few months.”
If someone had told her a few years ago that she’d want to jump up and click her heels together in joy over a water bill getting paid, she would have laughed, but that was exactly what she wanted to do. It felt like a miracle straight from heaven. The $35 she was going to spend on this bill could buy her little girl that doll she so desperately wanted.
“Seriously?” she said.
“Seriously.” Ellie laughed. “Have a Merry Christmas. The person who paid it said to pass it on when you’re able.”
Tina nodded and made her way to her next errand in a daze. Who could have payed the water bill for her? She had no idea but he or she was an angel. How could she pay it forward? She didn’t have much money, but she had a little time she could go and visit with an elderly neighbor or do some volunteer work.
Stop after stop. she found the same story. Someone had paid all her bills for the next few months and she owed zero. She now had enough money to get everything out of layaway.
She bowed her head for a moment. “Thank you, Lord.” All her prayers for her children had been answered for Christmas.
When Tina arrived at the layaway counter at Walmart, the amazing gift of freedom from worry some unknown benefactor gave her became a warm ember glowing inside her.
“Hi, my name is Tina Murphy. I’d like to pay this layaway off.” She handed the girl her receipt. The girl punched in a few things and smiled.
“It says Santa came in and paid it for you.”
“That’s what it says. And, there’s a note that they left a gift card for $100 so you can buy a nice Christmas dinner or whatever you need.”
Tina couldn’t help it. She burst into tears. She’d been given everything she needed. She pulled out the $120 left because her bills were paid.
“Then, I want to pay this and help someone else who is struggling, because I’ve been truly blessed.”
The young girl smiled. “I actually know a family. The mom came in yesterday and paid $20 and said she had no idea how she was coming up with the other $120, but she’d keep paying what she could until there wasn’t a chance to get her items anymore. How amazing she needed $120 and you have $120 to pay.”
“Miraculous, you might say.” Tina commented. “Almost like God knew exactly what she needed.”
The young girl nodded in agreement.
Tina paid the $120 off for the mom and the young girl promised she’d call the other woman and let her know to pick up the layaway.
And thus began a wave of people seeing others do kind acts, paying it forward and helping others that grew exponentially from hour to hour until it brought them all here to this moment.
Pride swelled in Nicholas Kringla’s chest that he’d been part of this gathering. No one knew, of course, but he knew what he’d done for Tina Murphy and he also knew who inspired him to help his youngest nephew’s widow. No one would ever suspect him – the grumpy old man who looked like Santa Claus but hadn’t acted like him.
They didn’t know about his family’s history of secretly making toys and delivering them to children in the area whose families had so little. The tradition of toy making ended with his great-grandfather, but the spirit of giving continued.
He’d paid all of Tina’s bills in Jack’s memory and then some. Instead of pocketing the extra money she’d had left, Tina had paid off a bill for someone else, paying it forward.
- That mom then paid for the meal of the person behind her in line at Wendy’s drive-through.
- The person behind her was touched and donated $300 to the food pantry at First Baptist Church.
- First Baptist Church was able to buy 30 Christmas meals for struggling families in the area.
- Family and friends of those families were inspired to a variety of kindnesses, such as picking a child’s name off the Angel Tree or paying someone’s rent.
Each act of kindness touched dozens of others until the spirit of Christmas grew and swelled in the way only unselfish love grows.
When the local news station heard what Tina’s act of paying it forward sparked, they did a story and the entire town decided to gather in remembrance of his nephew and hold hands at midnight in a show of support for Jack’s widow and children.
Over 1500 people showed up and clasped hands from the edge of the parking lot, up past neighborhoods and into the forestry. At the stroke of midnight, they began to sing “Silent Night.”
Tears streamed down Nicholas’ face. He’d forgotten what Christmas was about for too many years – had grown bitter and hurt over the loss of his world. He’d blamed God for taking away his parents, his wife and his nephew.
It had only taken the innocent beautiful heart of one small little girl to change his perspective and touch so many lives. He wanted to continue with anonymous kind acts and he knew exactly what his next one was – there was a little girl who loved horses and really deserved to have one of her own.
“There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we’re here for something else besides ourselves.” – Eric Sevareid
*Note: Henryville, Indiana is a real town and is my hometown, but the characters in this story are 100% fictional as is the information about Kringlas being the first settlers. However, the spirit of the story and the way residents help each other in this rural Indiana town speaks of the underlying spirit of Monroe Township. I’ve lived here 14 years now and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.