A stranger pushes open the door of the soup kitchen. A harsh wind rushes in. A few flakes of snow rest upon his white hair; he brushes them off with his gloved hands, frowns, and sniffs the air filled with the aroma of fresh baked cornbread.
The homeless whisper among themselves and wonder who this stranger is that has come upon bad luck this Christmas season. He gets his food and sits by himself near the fireplace in the corner of the room.
The regulars know everyone who visits the kitchen each day. There is Larry—tall and thin, who has been out of work for a year and does odd jobs—George, a Vietnam vet down on his luck, and a gray haired man who doesn’t have any family left. The volunteers in the soup kitchen are his family now.
The next day the old man pushes open the door again, stomps the glistening snow from his black galoshes, and shuffles inside.
“He’s back,” the regulars whisper between sips of coffee.
He obtains his bowl of hot soup and a buttered square of cornbread. He gazes around the room searching for an empty seat. Flecks of icy snow fall from his bushy eyebrows.
Each day the scene repeats itself. But, one day, one of the regulars sits by him and passes the time. The old man leaves the soup kitchen with more than a full stomach and a warmer body. He doesn’t smile, but he leaves with a small flicker of hope in his weary eyes.
The stranger continues to come in out of the cold every day at suppertime. A different person sits by him each time.
The patrons give to the old man. The homeless don’t have much, but each one wants to give him some of what little they have. They share a tattered scarf to put around his neck, one of their extra napkins to wipe the soup from his moustache, or information about the best places on the street to sleep. They give to him, expecting nothing in return.
Every day, when they see him enter, they strain their necks and watch as he brushes the flakes from his white hair and stomps snow from his black galoshes. Someone always sits with him and shares small talk and stories. They yearn to put a smile on his face.
“What should we say to him?” they ask among themselves.
“How can we make him smile?” asks Larry.
“Should we tell him jokes and riddles?” asks the gray haired man without a family. “Where is he from? I’ve never seen him on the streets before.”
“I don’t know,” each one answers. “He never speaks of himself. I only know, even though he is sad, he makes me feel better. His spirit slips into me, and I can’t help but smile.”
“I want him to smile, too,” says George.
Each day they look towards the door to observe the old man as he enters. Again one of them chooses to sit beside him, hoping to make him feel at home and bring a sparkle to his eyes.
Christmas Eve arrives and the old man comes again. This time a group of people sit with him. They give small tokens of friendship to him—a portion of their cornbread, a piece of a paper bag to line his shirt to help keep out the cold wind, and a needle and thread to sew up the hole in his red coat.
The old man eats, waves goodbye, and then hurries away. He leaves with a small twinkle in his eyes and a big smile on his face.
The next day the regulars come in for their special meal of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pumpkin pie. A real treat compared to soup and cornbread.
They watch for the old man, but he does not come. On the tables, packages wrapped in gold foil and red ribbons glisten beneath the flickering fluorescent lights.
“What are these?” they ask the volunteers.
“We don’t know. They were there when we arrived this morning.”
They sit at the tables with their tray of holiday food. Lighted candles spread the scent of cinnamon throughout the room. They touch the packages with their cold hands and glide their fingers over the slick foil.
“I wish the old man was here,” the vet says. “We could share the gifts with him.”
A note engraved on gold paper on top of each box reads, I wondered if there was any good left in this world, until I met all of you. You gave me friendship and gifts when you had little to give. When I was down, you gave the Christmas spirit back to me and brought back my smile. Now I give back to you. You were my first stop on my trip around the world last night. Merry Christmas to all!
With shaky hands, they open the boxes. A feeling of happiness comes out and envelops their bodies. Like children on Christmas day, they exclaim, “Santa?”