Penny shivered and tightened her coat, keeping her face pointed at the ground to avoid getting snowflakes in her eyeballs. Her heart felt shriveled and dry, like the Grinch’s. “Two sizes too small,” Penny muttered under her breath. Where was the Christmas magic that was supposed to fill her with joy? She saw it plainly in the twinkling eyes and eager smiles of everyone around her: at work, walking down the street, in shops and parks. She tried to mimic their delighted expressions, but she was empty inside.
Why had she thought it was a good idea to take an internship so far from home? At the time it had seemed exotic and exciting to be an independent woman in New York; the reality was loneliness and insignificance. She was a single small star struggling to shine in a swirling galaxy of brighter stars. Her breath formed little clouds in front of her face that dissolved as quickly as they formed. A man in a wool overcoat bumped into her shoulder and strode on without apologizing; that happened all the time in the City. Penny slowed as she passed the grand entrance of a department store with revolving doors and clockwork nutcrackers in the window display. Maybe a little Christmas shopping would improve her mood.
Inside the store, instrumental Christmas melodies set the mood for casual browsing, but it was almost as crowded as the sidewalk outside. Penny wound through the shoppers towards the sweaters and picked one out for her mother, and a necklace to match. Glancing at the sticker, she quickly put the necklace back. She selected gifts for her brother and sister, and waffled over what to get her dad, finally settling on a nice pair of gloves. Her heart sank when she saw the line, but what else did she have to do with her evening? She took her place at the end and tried to enjoy imagining her loved ones’ faces when they opened their gifts.
When she left the store an hour later, Penny made an effort to revel in the experience of Christmas shopping in New York City, with a large paper bag over her arm. But she was terrified of getting mugged, so she clenched the bag in such a way that, had anyone paid any attention to her, they might have supposed it held her firstborn. When she was safely locked inside her own studio apartment, relief overwhelmed her with such force that she flung herself onto the couch and sobbed and hugged her rumpled paper bag. Was this how Christmas would be now that she was grown up?
After a few days of moping, Penny decided to try again. After all, Christmas was her favorite time of year; how hard could it be to find the magic? Her little sister had always claimed to be able to smell Christmas in the air, but in New York City the air just smelled like exhaust. Still, Penny was determined, so she took the subway to Manhattan after work to go ice skating. Rockefeller Center was outrageously expensive, but she found a smaller rink nearby that was more affordable. She laced up her skates, thinking of how she had taught her siblings to skate on the pond back home. As she traced cold circles around the rink, Penny watched families and couples holding hands and laughing. She shivered. Skating alone was no fun; it certainly wasn’t full of the Christmas magic she was looking for. Penny turned in her skates and went home.
Back in her tiny kitchenette, Penny rummaged through her cupboard looking for a packet of hot cocoa. She nuked a mug of water and dumped in the powder and little nuggets of dried marshmallows, staring at the swirling chocolate as she stirred clockwise, then counterclockwise, until it was all dissolved. She closed her eyes and took a sip. It was too sweet, and not chocolatey enough – a poor substitute for her mother’s rich, homemade hot chocolate.
What’s wrong with me? Penny wondered. This is my favorite time of year, full of cheer and fun. Why can’t I enjoy it? Where was the magic to be found?
The next weekend, Penny decided to visit Central Park. She had heard it was a hot spot for carolers, and she thought some Christmas carols were just what she needed to get into the Christmas spirit. She stopped at a coffee cart and bought a hot chocolate, hoping it would be better than the one she had attempted herself. The setting was truly magical – there were lights in the trees, softly falling snow, and people, of course. Crowds and crowds of them. Some of the carolers were dressed up in old-timey costumes; some had dogs; some played instruments; some had costumes, dogs, and instruments. It was quite the Christmas spectacle. Still, Penny felt nothing. What am I looking for?
She wandered away from the crowds and booths and music, suddenly craving some solitude. She stepped off the sidewalk and into the trees towards a lake. She found a quiet bench, brushed off the snow, and sat, immediately regretting not bringing a blanket as she felt the chill of the metal bench. She looked up into the sky above the lake and stared, shocked to see stars. The City was always so busy and bright that she hadn’t seen stars since she left home. But here were the same stars she had grown up watching – mighty Orion, and to his left, she knew, although she couldn’t make it out without binoculars, shined the Christmas Tree Cluster. She imagined her family in the backyard, wrapped up in blankets, with Mom’s amazing hot chocolate, passing around the binoculars so everyone got a chance to see the Christmas Tree Cluster.
Penny’s mind wandered to the Wise Men, studying the sky and wondering at the stars so many years ago. The Star of Christ beckoned them to come worship, and they traveled, much further from home than she was now, to honor Him. Penny sat for a long time, gazing up at the stars and loving the One who set them each in place. When she got up from the bench, she was smiling. She had found the magic she was looking for, the magic of Christmas, in her heart as she joined in the eternal worship of the One who alone is worthy.
Penny’s Mom’s Hot Chocolate
1 ½ c whole milk
½ c heavy cream
2 heaping Tbsp sugar
2 heaping Tbsp cocoa powder
2 heaping Tbsp chocolate chips
¼ tsp vanilla
Whisk together sugar and cocoa powder in a small saucepan. Whisk in milk over medium heat, then whisk in cream. Stir gently until steaming, then whisk in chocolate chips until melted. Remove from heat, stir in vanilla, and serve with whipped cream or mini marshmallows.
Any kind of milk, cream and sugar alternatives can be substituted.
The featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project.
Athena lives and writes in Colorado Springs, where she can look up at the mountains and be reminded of the nearness of God. Hiking, reading, and spending time with her family are her passions. She and her husband, Jon, are actively involved in the Anselm Society, and they also run a ministry for blended families at their church. Whether through fiction, nonfiction or poetry, Athena loves to use words to paint portraits that display the work that God does within each person.