A Depression Christmas

By Paul T. Huling, Sr.

Soon after Dad died, I went through his desk drawers and found a letter that he’d had filed away since 1934. The letter was about hope. Hope and Christmas.

Christmas day 1933 was cold and rainy. My family had exchanged our Christmas gifts, eaten our Christmas dinner, and gone to church, where… each of us children [were presented] with a lovely orange.

It was too miserable outside to play very long. Inside, the adults were quietly resting while we kids went to the play area of the basement. The centerpiece of the basement was the hand-fired coal furnace, which gave off enough heat to keep the basement quite warm. There was even a bed, which I remember sleeping on a few times, and hiding places, a Ping-Pong table, a workbench, and a game table.

There was a gentle knock on the back door just before the early winter darkness set in. I answered the knock to find a man standing in the cold. He asked if he could speak to the man of the house.

Dad came to the door, and the two men spoke for a few moments before Dad asked the man to step into the hallway. Dad left, spoke to Mom for a moment, then asked the man to follow him to the basement. My brothers and I listened in as we worked quietly on the model airplane on the other side of the furnace.

The man was hungry. Mom fixed him the same dinner we had enjoyed, while Dad talked to him and set up a table. The man told Dad he didn’t want to impose on our Christmas; he just needed something to eat as he moved on his way. But Dad could see the man needed more.

He was a “bum”; that’s what people generally called out-of-work men who were homeless. But there was something about this man that made the word “bum” seem out of place. It was obvious the man was well-educated but terribly down on his luck. He was far from home, lonely, desperate for work, and pretty dirty.

Dad provided soap and towels so the man could clean up before eating. He hung his outer clothes over a rack to dry by the warm furnace. The man’s shoes were worn through and mushy with wetness. Dad threw them into the furnace, where they hissed and steamed for a long time before they finally burned.

Dad discovered that his good hunting boots were a perfect fit for the man. He gave the boots to him along with woolly socks he had stored in the basement armoire. You would have thought Dad had given the man $100.

The man talked about home and family, hundreds of miles away. He had left with the hope of finding work, but when he had reached his destination, there were no jobs, and he had no more money. Now he was walking and riding the rails, trying to go home. But he didn’t know where each train he hopped would take him. He hunted for work in towns along the way. He had had a fine education, fine job, and a fine family — now he had nothing but hope to keep him going.

He and Dad talked for a long time. Then he left — clean, dry, well-fed, and very appreciative of the help he had been given. None of us slept well that night as we thought of the man out in the cold with nothing but hope. I thought of his kids at home, not knowing where their dad was.

About a year later Dad and Mom read us a letter from the man who had come for Christmas. He was home. He had work. His family was OK.

He also said in the letter that the reason he turned in at our house as he was walking the streets looking for food was because there was a mark on the sidewalk, placed there by someone else, indicating that at this house you would not be turned away. I looked for the mark but never found it. It made me proud, though.

As I read the letter, soon after Dad’s death, I recalled the story. In the letter, the man said he never lost hope because of people like Dad and Mom. “My feet stayed warm and dry all the way from LaSalle, Illinois, to Iola, Kansas,” he wrote.”

Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
(Luke 6:36)

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

(Hebrews 13:2)

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
which according to his abundant mercy
hath begotten us again unto a lively hope
by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled,
and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you,
Who are kept by the power of God through faith
unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

(1 Peter 1: 3-5)

Reprinted from Lunch at the Igloo and Other Stories: A Tribute to the Great Depression by Paul Huling and Don Huling (Hither Page Press, Princeton, IL), pp. 40-42. Paul T. Huling, Sr. (deceased) is the father of Sarah Huling Leslie of the Discernment Research Group.