Once upon a time there were two Christmas Bears that sat on a shelf in a gift shop. Jointed at both the arms and legs, they were covered in cheerful fabric with a floral pattern of yellow, red and green. Around their neck was tied a simple red ribbon that was more beautiful because of its simplicity. But they were very small (only three inches in height) and didn’t have very much hope in being selected among the bigger and more extravagant gifts in the shop.
And once upon a time, there were also two college freshmen. They had met as strangers in August, but by December had begun what would become a life-long friendship. Neither of these girls had jobs or families able to support them in a comfortable style. That year, neither of them would do holiday shopping. But on a cold Arkansas day the girls blew into a gift shop along with the blustery winter air.
While perusing the many wares and holiday offerings of the gift shop, both girls found themselves staring in delight at the two, little Christmas Bears. Standing hip to hip, the girls reached up to the shelf where the bears were poised. They gently played with their hinged joints and loving fingered the small red bows around the neck of each bear. Without a moment of hesitation, the girls decided to purchase them for one another. Digging the last of their monies from their college i.d. holders, which also doubled as their wallets, they paid for their priceless treasures and exchanged them on the spot.
“Each time I see him, I’ll think of you,” said one girl to the other. And so, each Christmas Bear found its own home. That year, those Christmas Bears were the only adornment of the season in their simple dorm rooms.
Soon the girls wouldn’t share the same suite, or even the same state. The next Christmas, as one of the girls unpacked her one, humble shoebox box labeled “Christmas stuff,” she found a small red tissue wrapped bundle in the corner of the box. When she unwrapped it, tears sprang to her eyes as she rediscovered her Christmas Bear. More than just rediscovering an ornament, at that moment she rediscovered her friendship as if it were all happening in that single moment.
In an instant she relived it all. They sat on a white swing on campus having their first heart to heart conversation. In that same moment, they laughed over ridiculous people they encountered, survived Pledge Week, expressed frustration at professors, studied for exam after exam, helped one another dress for dates and formals, ate many cafeteria meals, and cried over broken hearts.
With no long-distance calling plan, she immediately rummaged through a drawer to find an old calling card. She prayed aloud there would be just a few minutes left so that she could hear her friends voice and feel her near.
It only took a few rings for the other girl to answer. Almost in one breath, she told the story of finding her bear and what it meant to her. Hearing the tears in the voice of her dear friend, the other girl replied that she had also experienced the same sensation when she uncovered her Christmas Bear the day before. With time running out on their call, they promised to unwrap their bears each year and rediscover all they had meant to one another.
As years passed, they saw less and less of one another yet still managed to be present for one another’s life. Separated by no less than 600 miles at any given time, they managed to stand at one another’s side when they married. When marriage proved lonelier than they had expected and they were homesick for one another, they managed phone calls and letters. When it wasn’t possible to call one another, they recorded one side of a conversation on cassette tapes and sent them back and forth in the mail, knowing the consolation the voice of the other could provide.
And each year, at Christmas, each would unwrap their Christmas Bear and remember one another.
As one of the girls experienced difficulties conceiving a child, the other girl had a baby. Even though this typically drives a wedge between friends in these circumstances, it was the friend 600 miles away with a newborn that the girl called after each disappointing doctor’s appointment. And when she did finally conceive, the joyful news was received amid the screams of an irate toddler hundreds miles away.
They would experience much of their friendship by telephone, and later, text message, email and Facebook. They would both experience the terminal illness of a parent, calling one another from hospital waiting rooms with updates throughout the weeks. Whereas they once stood beside one another in bridesmaid’s gowns, soon they would stand hip to hip in funeral black.
As each experienced a disappointment or difficulty, they would know it as one. Together they experienced the diagnosis autism, illness, depression, struggles with their faith and the divorce of each girl. There were many dark days, hands curled desperately around a telephone as their only lifeline. For months on end, they may talk only once every two weeks. But during some seasons, they would speak twice a day because the voice of the other reminded them of the Truth and gave them hope to withstand their storms.
While they endured those difficult years, experiencing the holidays seemed especially wretched. But the highlight of decorating for each of them was uncovering the memories of their friendship when they unwrapped their Christmas bear. Indeed, one desperate year, one girl decided not to put away her bear with the decorations but to keep it at her bedside in consolation. And her night table is where it has sat as a reminder of hope and faithfulness all year long to this day.
Just as they saw one another through their grief, they would again celebrate with one another as well. Once again, they would celebrate joyfully as each would marry again. Each went back to college and they found themselves calling one another on “study breaks” despite being in their late 30s. Then they would laugh and remind one another why people should do this when they are young and without children and other jobs.
And with each passing year, the story rediscovered through the Christmas Bears grows. It seems right that these small gifts were given at a time of year when Christ’s coming to Earth is commemorated. Also arriving in a small, seemingly insignificant package, he would be the hope of mankind. It was, indeed, the faith in that very hope that each girl was able to offer to the other throughout time. Just as the Christmas Story is one of God’s faithfulness to humanity, the story of the Christmas Bears is one of faithfulness and consolation. A faithfulness that we could one give one another through the example of that baby in the Christmas Story.
It has been more than twenty years since these Christmas Bears were first given in love. But for my part, I experience the hope of Christmas every morning and evening when I see it there on my nightstand.