Theodore was a quiet child, the youngest in a family of ten struggling to survive during the dark years of the depression. This family lived out in the country, a long, inconvenient distance from the nearest schoolhouse, so little Theodore rarely went to school, or played with other children, other than his older brothers and sisters.
He wasn’t much of a reader, in fact he could barely read at all, but he loved looking through the few books his family had laying around their old farm house. The dusty old family-heirloom Bible, the Sears and Roebuck catalog, and a tattered old copy of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, all gave Theodore lots to look through and dream about. His favorite book, though, was a waterlogged copy of the 8th volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which his mother had purchased at an auction. He liked this book because it was full of watercolor-enhanced black-and-white photos of all kinds of interesting things, and places.
It happened that several days before Christmas, after dinner was over and the dishes were washed, dried, and put away, Theodore decided to sit down next to the fire, and escape into the pictures of his favorite book. Browsing page by page from oatmeal to Oklahoma, past omnibus and opossum, but before Oregon and ostrich, he was stopped by a picture he had never noticed before: a large, full-color photograph, up in the middle left hand corner, of a luscious, juicy Orange.
Now, you may not find this anything to get excited about, but Theodore, you see, had never seen an orange before; had never felt its smooth, waxy surface; and especially had never tasted the juicy, cool, refreshing pulp inside. You see, Theodore’s family was too poor to have anything as special and fancy as an orange, but Theodore could tell just by looking at the picture that he’d sure like to try one of these strange fruits.
So, young Theodore got up from his warm spot by the fire, and went over to his mother sitting on the family’s old davenport, knitting.
“Mom, what’s this?”
“This big, round orange thing. Is it a special kind of apple?”
“Why Teddy, that’s called an orange.”
“An orange what?”
“An ORANGE. It’s called an orange, I guess because that’s what color it is. It’s a citrus fruit.”
“Mom, have you ever tasted one?”
“Well, I guess a couple of times—a few months ago, when your Pa and I went to that fancy weddin’ reception at the Church, someone brought a dessert with little bits of orange and coconut and whipped cream. Why, it was heavenly! But I suppose my greatest memory of havin’ an orange was when your aunt Mert used to visit at Christmas time from Florida. She used to bring us all a bag full to share.”
“But she’s comin’ up this Christmas, isn’t she? She’s gonna’ be here! Maybe she’ll bring me one of these orange fruits.”
“I don’t know, Teddy, times are pretty hard, even for aunt Mert. I think it best you put your dream book away and go on up to bed.”
The next few days before Christmas seemed much too long and boring. His brothers and sisters were constantly arguing and bragging about who was going to get what, and the most, and the best. Theodore, however, for once stayed out of this, for he had become captivated by one single, secret wish—that Aunt Mert might bring them a bag of those strange orange fruit.
Christmas Eve came, and with it their out-of-town visitors. But when Aunt Mert brought in her luggage and spread out the few gifts she was able to bring, there was no bag of fruit. So, while the adults visited and his brothers and sisters shook and squeezed the presents, trying to discover what the morning’s openings would bring, Theodore slipped up stairs and went to bed, disappointed and uninterested.
For as long as Theodore could remember, there had been a long standing family tradition that no one was allowed down stairs until the first ray of sun broke through the morning darkness. To Theodore’s grandfather Elgin, who had started this rule, this had symbolized the breaking through of God’s light into the darkness of the world, in the coming of the Christ child at Bethlehem.
When Elgin was but a young father, he had been cut to the heart with his own unique and awesome responsibility to make sure that his growing family never took their faith for granted—as he saw so many families doing around them. The spark to this life-changing awakening had been one particular Epiphany sermon. The pastor read from Isaiah the prophet, chapter 60, with a tone that seemed singularly intended for him:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise upon you.
and his glory will be seen upon you.
After closing the Bible, the pastor had looked out over the congregation—whose numbers had decreased considerably since Christmas Eve—but then focused his attention as if intentionally on Eldon and asked rhetorically, “Have you already put Christmas safely away with the decorations and the tree stand? Did the meaning of Christmas slip through your grasp, without changing you? If we are truly Christians—‘Christ-ones’ —the light of Jesus, his love and forgiveness, must shine through us every day of our lives.”
The more Elgin thought about these words, the more he became convicted that he would never let the light of Christmas grow dim in his own heart, or the hearts of his children.
This tradition also had a practical side, for it allowed the adults at least a little extra sleep after the long night before. On some cloudy, overcast Christmas mornings, this rule caused some confusion and nervous venturing out by the overly anxious children, but on this particular Christmas, the morning air was clear and crisp. The instant the first glimpse of light cracked over the horizon, every child, including the now rejuvenated Theodore, bolted from their bedroom windows, down the stairs, through the living room, to the tree, by the slightly lit bay window, and set to work searching for the present or two with their name on it. As the rest dug and tugged, pushed and pinched, Theodore stood back, speechless, unable to move, for there, right in front, all by itself, with a bright yellow bow stuck on with tape, and a little tag that said, “From Aunt Mert, with love, to Teddy,” was a large, shiny orange.
Theodore couldn’t believe it! He reached down and picked it up, gently, not knowing how heavy or fragile it was. It was so big he couldn’t stretch his hands around it. He felt its cool, smooth skin, and turned it over and over, and noticed the little indentation on one side where it once must have attached to the tree. He held it close to his nose, trying to smell the sweet pulp inside that his mother had talked about, but he could only smell the strange bitter scent of the outer skin.
At that moment, the adults finally made their way downstairs, and when Theodore looked up, the first thing he saw were the smiles on the faces of his parents and his Aunt Mert.
“Well, son, aren’t ya’ gonna’ eat it?” his father asked.
“Yaah, open it up,” his brother Tim yelled. “Let’s see what’s inside.”
“No, not yet. I want to save it ‘till later,” and with that, Theodore took his prized gift and retreated upstairs to the privacy of his top bunk.
He said to himself: “What a special Christmas this has been! I’ve really got an orange!”
With that he retrieved his favorite book and turned to the picture.
“Why, it’s exactly like the one in the picture. I wonder what the inside looks like?” And as he turned the strange fruit around in his hands, trying to figure out how to get it open, he felt a strong desire to not open it at all—to leave it be, for awhile; to just keep it as it was, and save the inside treasure for another time.
So, Theodore took this new gift, and hurried down the hall, to a secret hiding place—a loose board near the attic door. Inside this secret cache, Theodore set his orange, for safe keeping.
Later that night, when the children were strongly encouraged to go up to bed, Theodore snuck back to his secret cache, and removed his orange. Sitting there with the smile of a rich man, he turned it over and over in his hands, feeling its smooth skin on his cheek. Then, after a moment, he put it back in its safe hideaway for another day.
Over the next few days, as their Christmas guests departed, their scant Christmas decorations were boxed away for next year, and the brittle white pine was removed to the burn pile, Theodore repeated this rendezvous several times each day and then once a day for a day or two more. But being like other children his age, and maybe even a little bit like all of us, his attention soon became distracted by other things. A new family with a boy his own age, and a big yellow dog, all moved into the old abandoned farm down the road. Theodore found two new mud romping buddies a little more interesting than his orange treasure in the attic. And then a new school opened up in someone’s home only a mile or so away, and this brought new books, new friends, and new experiences. Then spring came, and with it lots of mud, and fishing, and baseball.
A year went by, and early one very special morning, just before dawn, Theodore was there, perched at his lookout post at his bedroom window, looking for that first ray of light to break through the Christmas morning darkness. His mind was full of exciting expectations; of maybe a new bike or a catcher’s mitt, and as he watched he saw the horizon change color. He saw the outlines of leafless trees becoming more distinct as the light of morning began to make the outside world visible again. And at that moment, a memory became suddenly vivid in his mind. His brothers and sisters rushed away from their windows, downstairs, but Theodore sat there motionless, for he remembered a special gift he had wished for and received last Christmas—which he had hidden away and completely forgotten.
With excited curiosity, he rushed to his secret hiding place, unopened for so long, wondering what he would find. He pulled back the loose board, and there it was, sitting in the exact place, resting in the same position he had left it, but now it looked quite different. It had shrunken in size, and instead of being a shiny, smooth orange color, it was brown and moldy and dry. As he sat staring at it, he felt sad and ashamed, for he remembered how much he had once desired to hold it, to feel its cool smooth skin, and especially to taste its sweet juicy pulp. But now it was too late; the orange was rotten and useless.
Yet with rekindled excitement, Theodore said to himself, “But it’s Christmas again, and I’m sure I’m getting a new mitt or a bike.” So Theodore jumped up, and pushing the loose board back in place, closing off the memory of this forgotten neglected gift, he rushed downstairs to see what gifts this new Christmas would bring.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.