It was a fortnight before Christmas. In a small village near the coast, a little girl turned off her flashlight. She used it to secretly read under the covers when it was past her bedtime.
Alyssa sat up straight in bed, thinking that she could hear reindeer flying above her house. It made her feel excited.
Since she was up anyway, she walked to her window to spy on the family across the road again. Well, I am not really spying, she thought. She was not up to any mischief.
The family across the street came from another country. Alyssa’s mom told her the family was on the run from evil men and women. She gathered it was not safe anymore for them to live in their own country, they had to flee. Alyssa shivered at the thought, for she would never want to leave her country. She could not even imagine how she would feel.
Alyssa led a happy, quiet life. She, her parents and her older brother lived in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. She went to school and had many friends. She was in ballet class and was learning to play the piano. Every school holiday she and her family went away. Sometimes to another country, to play by the beach or wander through foreign cities and towns. To see churches, castles, jungles, or islands. The Smiths were a privileged family.
While Alyssa thought about her own life, she grew sad for the family across the street. They had nothing, except for a small old classroom given to them by the municipality. The old primary school served as their apartment building. The classrooms had been equipped with a small kitchen and beds. In the corridors were shared bathrooms and toilets. The building was shared with a dozen other families who had also fled from their respective countries. They carried hardly anything of their belongings, having left so much of their lives in their ruined homes. It made Alyssa sad, especially when Christmas was near.
Alyssa loved this time of year. In a few days she and her family would set up their own Christmas tree. Usually, she and her brother could each decorate half of the tree. But Steve felt a bit too old and cool this year to do that, so Alyssa was in charge! She was so excited that she would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night.
The lights in the living room of the family across the street dimmed. People were moving around. Beds were being set up in the living room. They all sleep in the living room? Alyssa could not believe it. The little girl of the family closed the curtains and as they were almost closed, she looked up at Alyssa. Alyssa waved and smiled. The girl hesitated and then waved as well, but it had been too long since she last smiled.
Alyssa returned to bed. She had an idea. She needed to talk to Santa Clause and change her wish list.
Steve just came home from drinking with his friends in the park. Quietly, he walked up the stairs as to not disturb his parents who sat in the living room. He did not want to talk to them. A savor of alcohol came from his breath.
On his way to his room, he heard his little sister talk. Was she still up? He walked towards her room and listened through the crack in the door.
His sister looked out of the window, up into the sky. Solemnly she placed her open hands on one another before she spoke. “Dear Santa, can I change my wish list for this year? I hope you have not bought my iPad yet. Also, I do not need the princess dress and make-up. I do not want any gifts for myself. Santa, can you see the family across the street? Do they know who you are? There is a little girl there, who is sad. Can you make her happy again? And her family too? I wish for my presents to go to them, to give them a nice and happy Christmas. Is it not too late Santa? I hope not. Love, Alyssa.”
Steve fought a funny feeling inside him. That was so sweet, even he could admit that. Only to himself of course. Steve had just turned sixteen and was exploring the unrighteous path of an insecure teenager who wanted to belong.
There was something about the tone in his sister’s voice. She sounded both determined and desperate.
Steve’s thoughts drifted to the family Alyssa was talking to Santa about and especially to Amena, one of the daughters. About a month ago, Amena joined his classes. Her face was always clouded in melancholy, but he thought she was beautiful and felt a strong urge to comfort her. However, his teenage boy’s courage got the better of him. He had no idea how to approach her, what to say to her.
He watched Alyssa get under the covers and turn off the light. He made a decision.
Steve and Alyssa’s parents were sitting downstairs in the living room watching Netflix. They both turned their head to Steve when he entered the room.
“Mom, dad, you’ve gotta hear this.”
His parents looked up in surprise. They smelled the alcohol on him but chose to ignore it. It had been too long since their son had exchanged more than two sentences with them.
The boy told them what he had heard upstairs. His mother became a bit teary there. After all, it was such a heartfelt, innocent wish. His dad beamed with pride.
When Steve was finished, he proposed that he and his parents, possibly even the neighborhood, could help realize Alyssa’s Christmas wish, to keep her faith and to bring the Christmas spirit in their little town. The world could use some kindred spirits, comfort, and joy. Even if it would only be a tiny bit.
His mother suggested calling for help with a Whatsapp message in the neighborhood app group. The group was actually formed for emergencies, a sort of neighborhood watch. But surely it could not hurt asking people to bring some holiday spirit in this community?
If only all the people in the area were so kindhearted and tolerant as the Smith family! Mrs. Smith was astonished by some people who responded very negatively to her request to help the refugees. Some cursed and complained that the refugees should have never been allowed in their community. The ignorant and the fearful people were easily corrupted into thinking that all that was from behind their own – save – picket fence was out to get them. To get to their miserable lives. Those people were against the municipality’s decision to assign the former school to the refugee families. They claimed they did not want any foreigners living in their neighborhood, especially among their kids. Unable to place themselves in the situation of the refugees, what they had been through, how it felt to have left their homes.
Mr. Smith cursed at some of the responses in the Whatsapp group.
It was the harsh reality of a country further growing with intolerance. Like a malignant and spreading cancer, he thought. Granted, it is important to keep the values and habits of kindred communities and nations. However, if we do not share with those in need, what kind of community or nation do we expect to be?
Luckily, not all reactions were as unkind. Some people loved the idea to bring some Christmas spirit and offered to pitch in and help realize Alyssa’s Christmas wish.
The three members of the Smith family laid out a plan to give the refugees across the street a Christmas to remember. To show them that their community is caring and friendly. And of course, to sustain Alyssa’s belief in Santa Clause and fulfill her Christmas wish.
Madame Van der Kerken just saw Mrs. Smith’s call to help organize a Christmas eve dinner with gifts for the refugees in the former school building. She fumed. First, those people move into our neighborhood and now our own community is welcoming them with open arms? Unacceptable.
She preferred to be addressed by ‘Madame’, as it gave her some stature. Stature she deserved. According to herself. Madame descended from the royal family and therefore under the impression she was entitled to one of the best places in the hierarchy of society. She enforced respect from the neighbors and frightened them with her schemes and connections.
Last year she tried everything in her power to keep the municipality from granting the refugees access to the school building. However, there had just been an election, changing her old and loyal board within the municipality for a board of a new and younger party. There was a change in responsibilities and the man who was now counselor was a strong-willed advocate in favor of housing the refugees. Worst of all, he had completely ignored her. No, that was not the worst, the worst was that he forbade her from coming to his office.
There must be something she could do to stop her community from connecting with the refugees, to accept them. She started her own Whatsapp group, but with wicked purpose. I will show them who is boss in this neighborhood!
“Richard, call or message your friends. There is work to be done.” Madame woke up her husband, who was dozing off in his chair. She had always had a harsh, theatrical voice.
The next day, on a cold and dry Saturday, Alyssa put on her winter coat, shawl and mittens to prepare herself for an outdoor adventure.
When she walked downstairs, her mom turned her head sideways, one eyebrow going up. “Where are you going, Alyssa?”
“I go to meet the little girl in the house across the street, is that ok?”
Her mom chuckled and nodded.
Off Alyssa went, out into the cold. A brave young lady who decided to just go into the school and knock on the door of the little refugee girl.
Nervously, Alyssa knocked. After a few moments, a tall woman with a stern look opened the door. Her hair wrapped in a purple cloth. It seemed she had just been crying.
“You are the girl from the house opposite, not? Can I help?” Alyssa noticed the woman spoke with an exotic accent.
Alyssa had to admit the woman was a bit intimidating, but the woman had kind eyes. She sighed, then answered. “Yes, I am Alyssa madam, nice to meet you. What is your name? Where are you from?”
The woman’s face turned softer. “Hi Alyssa, nice to meet. I am Yasmina. I come from country Syria.” Yasmina made an effort to smile and held out her hand towards Alyssa.
Just when they shook hands, Yasmina’s youngest daughter crept up behind her mother to see who was at the door. She greeted Alyssa.
“Hi!”, Alyssa said, “What is your name? Want to play?”
The girl looked at her mother, then answered Alyssa. “I am Lely and you? Yes, I have two dolls in the room. You can play with one.”
Alyssa told Lely her name and agreed to play with one of her dolls. “I also have a fun game on my phone. Do you have a phone?”
“No,” Lely said. “But I want to play with yours if that’s ok. My older sister Amena doesn’t let me use hers.”
“Come in, I make tea, you play.” Yasmina said as she made room for Alyssa to come in.
Across the street Alyssa’s mum watched her daughter being seated in the room of the refugee family. She felt proud of her little girl’s kind-heartedness. Then, slowly it started snowing. Gradually, the grey pavement was being covered in a crisp white blanket.
A few days later, on the day Alyssa was finally allowed to decorate the family’s Christmas tree, she was not in her room. Mr. and Mrs. Smith had just bought a tree and were about to wake their daughter for the decorations. Worried, Mrs. Smith woke up Steve and they started searching the house, the garden, the shed (Mrs. Smith hoped her daughter had not been in there for it was already filled with presents). Alyssa was nowhere to be found. And then Mrs. Smith heard her daughter calling her name. There she was, across the street along with Lely.
Even though Mr. and Mrs. Smith had earned some new grey hairs in their worries, they were relieved. Alyssa had invited Lely to help decorate the family’s Christmas tree.
Before the two girls crossed the street, they were stopped by Madame Van der Kerken. Mrs. Smith held her breath but was ready to run to them. First, she waited, she knew her daughter would not be easily intimidated by that shrew woman.
“You shouldn’t play with those people young lady”. Madame said to Alyssa as she gave Lely a nasty look. As if she were a stain on her perfectly white fur coat.
Alyssa responded as only a child oblivious to adult etiquette could. “But I want to.”
“Suit yourself, but she will bring you nothing in life.” Madame replied coquettishly.
Alyssa and Lely both stuck out their tongue to Madame. A sign the woman could not be reasoned with on their own level. At that, they left her standing astonished, and crossed the street.
The girls had hot cocoa and chocolate. Alyssa asked Lely to decorate one side of the tree (the one her brother used to decorate) and showed her how to do it. When they were finished, Alyssa heard a loud smack on the window. It was Steve throwing snowballs with Amena. Lely was surprised to find her sister outside and playing together with Steve. Amena usually never left the house and was not keen on having fun. Alyssa and Lely put on their winter coats and ran outside, prepared to battle Steve and Amena.
“Now let’s hope that old hag comes back. I have a couple of snowballs ready waiting anxiously to hit her on the head.” Steve said. The girls chuckled.
Over the next couple of days, part of the community was secretly preparing Alyssa’s Christmas wish, led by the Smith family.
Together they had raised quite a sum of money so far. Not only did people in the community donate, but the more people who told about what the Smith’s were up to, the more unknown benefactors donated money.
Steve did not just put in his pocket money and a bit of his savings, he also decided to get some governmental backing. He went to the municipality’s office to talk to the town’s immigration counselor. It had not been easy for him to set up a meeting, though once he had explained what he was up to, the counselor’s secretary nearly melted for such Christmas spirit and booked a meeting for him with the counselor.
By the end of Steve’s explanation of what his family and neighbors had been up to, he asked the counselor if the municipality could donate some tax money. A highly unusual request according to the counselor. Usually one had to apply through the official bureaucratic channels. He joked that if Steve would do that, they would be lucky to receive some money before next Christmas. Luckily, the counselor was able to pull some strings for he was proud of this young man’s plan. The counselor also gave Steve his business card and wrote down his private number should Steve ever need assistance. Unknown to Steve, this particular counselor fought very hard for the refugees to have a home in their municipality.
Mrs. Smith felt elevated for what she was doing. Normally she would just do some Christmas shopping, cook a Christmas dinner (albeit she hated cooking), and worried for weeks about which family members should be invited since the Smiths were very quarrelsome. Her daughters’ wish gave her a selfless purpose, she felt part of something bigger. She spoke to neighbors she would usually pass by, only exchanging brief and polite regards. Now she got to know some of the women and men in the neighborhood. Some were fascinating, kind people. What was even more comforting to her, was that Steve brightened up, he was at home more often and actually talked to his mom.
The most interesting part was getting in touch with the refugee families. Mrs. Smith spoke to some of the women in the families. Naturally to propose her daughters’ wish, but also to listen to their stories. Mrs. Smith could not believe some of the stories the women told. Stories of war, loss, and despair. It gave her even more reason to try to distract these families from their troubles, even if it was for only one evening. Luckily, the women felt honored and touched by the efforts of the Smiths.
Every day until the day before Christmas, Mrs. Smith would have very sweet tea with the women. She listened to their stories, explained the customs of her country and town. She helped them filling in all the necessary paperwork, for permanent visas, working permits, language tests. She gave Yasmina Steve’s old laptop and an old printer for them to use the internet and print documents.
Mrs. Smith used all social media platforms available to further help organize Alyssa’s wish. She did not only use the neighborhood Whatsapp group, she also contacted local Facebook groups and religious communities for donations or help during Christmas Eve.
Mrs. Smith thought one of her best ideas was to contact local businesses to donate gifts. In a week’s time, her shed was full of all sorts of gifts. The local toy store had donated action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, Lego, craft kits and much more. The supermarkets donated iTunes gift cards. The grocer offered gift bags with delicious products for the grown-ups. The entertainment store offered some classic Christmas films, with Blu-ray disc players, and two 30” TVs! Mrs. Smith could not believe how kind and generous people were in these times.
However, she also came across some oddities. Some business owners would hang up on her before she could even explain the full story. Oblivious, Mrs. Smith did not think for a second that these shops were frequented by the Van der Kerken family.
Mrs. Smith was aware of some protests, particularly by Madame Van der Kerken and her family. However, she had no clue that that family’s resistance could destroy Alyssa’s Christmas wish.
The town’s newspaper wrote a story about this upcoming Christmas miracle and shared it online, which lead to more shares, likes, and comments. Mrs. Smith had heard that the story had gone viral. Her phone nearly exploded with all the requests to help.
Through the story, the Facebook groups and Whatsapp group, she had too many volunteers to help decorate the school building, arrange gifts, food, or just to help around. She had to say no to people. She found that difficult, especially since new people applied every day.
Friends of the Smiths owned a luxurious restaurant in the city. When Mr. Smith explained what they were up to on one of their weekly dinners, the couple immediately offered their services. Both chefs were excited about blending the cuisines of all the different countries represented in the former school building.
Madame van der Kerken tried to raise an army of hateful people willing to go against Alyssa’s Christmas wish. But as always, she only had her husband and brother-in-law she could count on. Well, they were forced. Most people would not think twice to work together with Madame. Only one man replied to her messages, dear old Olof. Olof had a not so secret crush on Madame and would do anything she said. To Madame, he was just another foot soldier.
When people would see her in the street, they would try their best to avoid her.
She behaved as an evil queen, except she had no subjects other than those three unfortunate men. She desperately sought all her life to have power and influence, but alas for her, to no avail.
On the night of the 23rd, Madame was anxiously pacing in her living room. When the clock indicated midnight, she nodded to her husband, Olof, and brother-in-law. Armed with three wheelbarrows, the three men made their way to the Smiths house. Madame had the neighborhood Whatsapp group to thank for the location of the gifts.
It was the day before Christmas and it was time to perform a Christmas miracle. At 9.00am there were close to fifty people gathering in Alyssa’s yard. She woke up from the murmur of voices outside. Confused, she walked downstairs to find her mom, dad, and Steve up and running. Their living room filled with Christmas decorations, tables, chairs, presents, and much more. One could barely walk in their living room anymore!
“What’s going on, mom?” Alyssa asked. “Why are all those people outside?”
Mrs. Smith turned around, excited. “Well Alyssa, we got word from Santa Clause, to throw the people across the street a huge Christmas dinner. And he brought presents for them too.” She pointed at a huge pile of beautifully wrapped gifts behind their Christmas tree. “There are even more in the shed!”
Alyssa jumped around, clapping her hands. “He heard, he heard!”
“Who heard darling?” Mr. Smith said, sharing a conspirative look with his son.
“Santa! Santa! I asked him to give the family across the street my presents, and to give them a nice Christmas!” Alyssa was beyond excited.
“Well honey, he heard indeed. Come on, get dressed so you can help carry out your wish.” Mrs. Smith said as she opened the front door for their Christmas elves waiting outside.
While Alyssa was changing, Mr. Smith and Steve walked to the shed. When Steve walked towards it, he already had a bad feeling. The hinges of the door were broken. As he opened the door, all the presents were gone, leaving him and his father in total shock. Who could have done this?
Inside Mr. Smith informed his wife. She was close to tears, but when Alyssa walked downstairs, she sucked it all in to be brave for her daughter. They would figure out a way. She called for help in the Whatsapp group and organized a search party for the missing presents.
Mrs. Smith was decorating together with a lot of volunteers. She was still stressed about the missing gifts. She had a hunch as to who had them, but she was not entirely sure. At that moment she tried to focus on decorating the Auditorium of the school and setting up the tables. Yasmina provided her with a list of guests, 64. Wow, that was more than expected.
Alyssa, Lely, Yasmina, Amena and a handful of other men and women who lived in the school were participating side by side with people from the community. Amena had installed a sound system to put on some Christmas music. It was indeed beginning to look a lot like Christmas!
Mrs. Smith became anxious, her chef friends were over thirty minutes late. That was not like them, they were usually very punctual. A few minutes later, the female chef called. They were stuck in traffic. Apparently, there was a roadblock towards the town. And there was only one road leading to the town from the city. The chef was told by the traffic control officer on duty that a former counselor had given the order. Madame Van der Kerken, Mrs. Smith thought. Along with the chefs, more vans filled with food, equipment, and helpers were stuck.
Worried, Mrs. Smith called her son. First, the presents were gone, and now there was a chance there would be no Christmas dinner! But all was not lost, for Mrs. Smith was not the type of person who would easily give up. She confided in Amena and asked her to find Steve and try to find a solution for the roadblock or reroute the vans.
That witch! She knew it had to be Madame who was responsible for all this.
She toyed with the idea of sending off some of the refugee fathers to retrieve the gifts and give her a bit of a scare. However, she chose a softer, more loveable approach.
She sought Yasmina and some of the other women. She asked them to bring a tray of delicious exotic sweets. Together the women marched up to Madame Van der Kerken’s house, led by Mrs. Smith.
A surprised Madame van der Kerken opened the door. She wore a cream-colored suit with a matching pearl necklace and earrings. The doorstep was quite elevated, which led to Madame towering above the group of women in front of her. Madame gave them a smug smile.
“Can I help you, ladies?”
“I know what you’re up to Madame van der Kerken, Tricia.”
Madame cringed upon hearing her real name. It reminded her of her father’s poor heritage, something she was not proud of. She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms.
“We know what you’ve done, there is no reason to deny it. I want the presents back immediately. And lift that bloody roadblock.” Mrs. Smith said calmly without looking away from Madame.
Madame remained quiet. Her husband came to the door, smiling nervously at the women in front of him.
“How could you? Ruining a child’s wish. Harming the community. Having a grudge towards people you do not even know. Have you any idea as to what they have been through? You should be ashamed of yourself. Where is your humanity? No wonder people dislike you.” Still, Mrs. Smith spoke calmly, this time her tone was that of a mother reprimanding her child.
“We could involve the authorities. I bet if they look carefully around your house they find some things that do not belong to you. I, I mean we, give you a choice. Give us back the stolen presents and join us for dinner.”
Yasmina grunted but kept quiet.
“These wonderful women have made you some exotic snacks, that is just a taste of tonight. Let’s celebrate Christmas in a kind spirit.”
Yasmina offered Madame and her husband the tray. Richard was eager to have a taste but Madame hit him on the hand, just as he was reaching out, leaving him perplexed.
“Well, what do you say?” Mrs. Smith said.
“Over my dead body.” Madame tried to shut the door, but Richard stuck his foot between the door. For the first time in their marriage, he had the courage to go against his wife. He stepped outside, tired of being suppressed by his wife, mesmerized by the exotic women in front of him.
“Ladies, the presents are in our living room, I have Olof and my brother bringing them over. I would be honored to dine with you. Now let me have a taste of those delicious looking snacks.”
He looked over to his wife. “Darling, I hope you can find the courage in your heart to be a better person and to set aside your pride. I will be waiting for you at the dinner table tonight.” At that he left his wife standing there, dumbfounded. He joined the women back to the school. There was work to be done.
Alyssa looked around, the auditorium of the school looked magnificent. Christmas trees were being decorated, lights and candles were burning bright, garlands decorated the ceiling. Refugees and locals gathered around the nicely set tables.
Alyssa knew something was wrong. People were waiting for over an hour, and there was no food to be found. It was too quiet. There was no smell of food around.
Then Steve and Amena appeared, accompanied by her parent’s friends and many other people. Steve had called the counselor on the number he provided for emergencies. In a matter of minutes, the roadblock was waived and the chefs and their helpers could pass through.
The chefs and their helpers carried boxes and trays of food and cooking equipment. The people in the auditorium clapped. People got up to help the poor chefs who were stressed out because of the delay. An improvised kitchen was being set up behind the auditorium. Soon, odors of food filled the room.
Mrs. Smith arrived with some of the other moms. She introduced Richard to her husband and put them in charge of retrieving the gifts. She looked for Alyssa and found her dancing with Lely and some of the other children. Then Steve and Amena caught her eye. They were both chopping food, talking and laughing together. She felt content and proud.
Olof and Richard's brother wandered around the room ill at ease.
They had been told not to like these people, but they had no idea who these people really were. Now, they had no idea how to make a connection with them.
Luckily, an inhabitant of the school building saw the duo looking uncomfortable and invited the men to his table. An unlikely combination of men sat around that table, a group of men who had never thought to speak to one another would now share a meal.
The chefs had really outdone themselves, every course was inspired by one of the countries of origin of the refugees, mixed with local specialties. It was a feast for all the senses.
The Smiths sat together at the table with Lely’s family. Mr. Smith, Mr. Van der Kerken and Lely’s father bonded over football. Steve and Amena sat next to each other and only had an eye for each other. Alyssa and Lely were playing a game. Mrs. Smith spoke with Yasmina about a book they had both read.
Mr. Van der Kerken looked at the entrance of the auditorium every once in a while, his wife already missed the first course. He did not expect his wife to turn up anymore.
Mrs. Smith stood up and cleared her throat. Her husband tapped his knife on his glass of wine. People quieted. “Good evening everyone, I just wanted to express my gratitude. To everyone who joined us tonight, to all the wonderful helpers, to all these lovely people who we all want to welcome into our community. But most of all I would like to thank my family for making me believe in goodness and human connection. I am proud of you all. And lastly, I would like to thank a very special young lady for her belief and her spirit. If it was not for her, we would not be here tonight. To Alyssa!”
“To Alyssa!” People shouted.
Alyssa’s face turned red, but it felt great.
As the evening progressed, more wonderful dishes were being served. People bonded. Conversations were translated. Stories were being told in different languages, sounds and gestures. Wine flowed. Music played.
Just as dessert was being served, Mrs. Smith heard a faint sound. As she turned around she saw Madame Van der Kerken standing at the entrance of the Auditorium.
Madame had changed clothes, wearing a dark green velvet evening dress. She looked stunning. She smiled nervously, her eyes scanning the room in search of her husband.
Mrs. Smith poked Mr. Van der Kerken and pointed in the direction of his wife. He looked at her as if he had never seen her before.
Madame walked towards their table, stopping in front of Alyssa.
“My apologies for being late young lady. Here, I have something for you.” Madame grabbed a small wrapped item from her purse.
Alyssa first looked at her mother, who nodded. As she unwrapped the present, she looked at Madame, trying to figure out if she was nice or not. She was not sure yet. In a small box, she found a golden necklace with a heart-shaped pendant.
“It belonged to my mother and I want you to have it.”
Then Alyssa did something that completely took Madame by surprise. She hugged her.
“Do you want to sit next to me? You are just in time for dessert.” Alyssa said.
Madame nodded and looked at the other people at the table. Her husband winked at her and she blushed.
“By the way, Mrs. Smith, I think Santa Clause has visited the building. The entire corridor is filled with presents. There are presents for everyone!” Madame said.
Alyssa and Lely’s eyes widened. Both girls let out sounds of joy and expectation.
- The End -
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