A Perfect Stranger – Finding Hope at a Christmas Kettle

by Maritime
Categories: 2020, News Archive

Story written by Salvation Army volunteer Wayne Thompson in 2019.

Last Saturday night, I spent a couple of hours volunteering on a Christmas kettle, along with my musical buddy for the occasion, Capt. Melissa Haas. 

We stood there next to the kettle at the store entrance as shoppers came in and out. It was a dark, rainy, windy night which probably explained why we weren’t seeing very many people entering or leaving. This also reflected why we didn’t see our usual number of kettle donations. It was the kind of night when you didn’t expect anything good to come of it. I was wrong.

We played a number of Christmas classics. Melissa’s artistic and tuneful vocals and me struggling to keep up with her on the guitar. Songs such as, Away in a Manger, Mary Did You Know, Winter Wonderland, White Christmas, In the Bleak Mid-Winter, Jingle Bells, Frosty, Rudolph and many others were repeated over and over during the two hours.

Honestly, at about the 90 minute mark, I was feeling a little disappointed with the whole experience. Certainly in comparison to other occasions I’ve spent on kettles – very few people, not many donations, the terrible weather and I was also feeling a little tired after a busy afternoon.

At about that time, an elderly, soft-spoken, lady approached us pushing her grocery cart. She stopped, reached into her purse, smiled and said, “I want to make a donation but I want to hear you sing something first”.

Melissa and I looked at each other and quickly agreed to do our very nice version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.

 I gave a little intro and Melissa started in with her lovely, warm voice,

 “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas;
Make the Yuletide Gay”

We were only a few lines into the song when I looked at this lady standing in front of us, completely still, hands folded together over her open purse laid in the cart. Her eyes were closed and her head was slightly bowed. Tears were streaming down her face. She seemed not to care about any embarrassment from being seen by others passing by or by us standing immediately in front of her.

We finished the song. Melissa stepped towards her and said “I feel like I need to hug you”. As she hugged her, this beautiful lady said, “This will be my first Christmas without my husband. He died last winter”.

The next couple of minutes are hard to describe. I can’t say that I had too many coherent thoughts. These were just moments of feeling grief for another person in their moment of human grief but who was a perfect stranger to me.

She was a perfect stranger, yet she was very familiar to me. This was a lady who had just lost her husband after many years of marriage and now it was the Christmas season. I knew another lady in that same heart-broken boat in the fall of 1985 – my mom. 

We finished our two hour stint and as I drove home in the wind and rain of that dark evening. I felt fresh with new insight, just how extremely difficult it is to lose someone you love so much for so long, and have to walk through the Christmas season without them for the first time.

Human grief, the grief felt by mom so deeply and so suddenly in the fall of 1985, unexpectedly, became incarnate in a quiet lady at a grocery store about 34 years and 400 miles away from the scene of mom’s hour and place of loss. 

I told this story to my son when I got home. He too felt what I felt for this lady. In his own straightforward way, he captured the truth of the situation, “emotions are so heightened this time of year.”

He’s right. But I have to wonder if Christmas is actually a time when our emotions are corrected rather than heightened. Perhaps, this elevated degree of sensitivity for others is where we need to be and should be all year round.