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My Best Christmases So Far Were the Ones With Strangers

They are still the most meaningful to me

By Rebecca MortonPublished 6 months ago 7 min read
My Best Christmases So Far Were the Ones With Strangers
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Christmas 1991 was going to be depressing.

I was living at graduate school, and my father was out of town for his job. Only my mother was in our family home for Christmas, and because of bad winter weather and train schedules, I planned to wait until Christmas morning to travel to see her.

Christmas Eve was a dull and lonely day, on a freezing, snowy, nearly deserted university campus. There were a couple of students in my graduate house, one of whom was a friend and the other I did not know very well.

The student I didn’t know well invited me and the other student to go to her church with her for Christmas Eve service that night. The church was right in the town where our campus was, and she would be playing a piano solo as part of the service.

My friend declined, but I accepted, though I was not a churchgoer, and wasn’t even a believer in any kind of religion at the time. This young woman seemed as lonely as I was that Christmas Eve.

I wanted to show some support, and I also wanted to do something on Christmas Eve besides staying in my graduate dorm room crying in front of It’s a Wonderful Life on TV.

The service began around seven or eight at night. Though my new friend was Korean American, I was still surprised to see that the church was a Korean congregation. As I took my seat in the sanctuary, I realized I was the only person there who was not Korean.

My new friend played her piano solo well, and I recognized some of the Christmas carols, though the words were Korean. Then the pastor delivered the sermon, also in Korean. After this, he paused. Then, he looked right at me and spoke in English for the first time.

“I understand there is a visitor here this evening,” he began. “And this visitor does not speak Korean. So, I will translate my sermon into English.”

He then proceeded to deliver HIS ENTIRE SERMON AGAIN IN ENGLISH!

I sat staring at him in disbelief. He was giving his Christmas Eve sermon just to me, and everyone else there patiently listened to what they had already heard in another language they also knew.

After the service, everyone there, from the little children to the elderly, went down to the church basement for hours of party food, games, and carol singing, all of which they invited me to share. These were all people I’d never met before, and yet I felt a warmth and acceptance I hadn’t felt with most of my friends or family.

I don’t remember much about the next day, Christmas Day, at my parents’ house with my mother, except that my dad phoned that evening, and I told him all about my Christmas Eve at the church the night before.

I felt like I had celebrated Christmas, with all the meaning and fellowship it was supposed to have, for the very first time.

Two years later, not even my mother was at my parents' house for Christmas. No one except my parents’ dog was there.

I was living in Philadelphia by this time, when my dad phoned to tell me that he and my mother were going away on a vacation trip THROUGH CHRISTMAS DAY, and would I go over to their house and feed the dog?

He said he was taking my mother on a trip because "You know how she hates Christmas, and now with your sister having other plans, here's our chance to avoid it."

My mother was the original Grinch, but she went through the Christmas motions when my sister and I were children. I guessed that was over.

I was alone in my Center City, Philadelphia apartment until Christmas Eve. The preschool where I worked was closed for the next week. I went to my church in Center City for Christmas Eve service and planned to wake up early Christmas morning to go back to church to help with a breakfast for some of the city's homeless people.

I thought serving breakfast to those less fortunate than I would give me some perspective on reality. What was the big deal about spending Christmas with no family or friends? I was blessed to have a home to go to at all, even though my parents were away on a vacation trip and I was going there to take care of their dog.

But when I got to the breakfast, what should have been a heartwarming sight — the large crowd of church volunteers helping the not quite as large crowd of homeless people — was frustrating to me. I knew it was wonderful to have so many people giving of their time and service on that Christmas morning, but there was literally no place for me to help.

Someone in charge of volunteers told me there really wasn’t anywhere to put me and that they would have more than enough helpers for the next few hours.

Dejected, I walked to the train station down the street to start my trip to my parents’ house. As I walked down the steps into the entry tunnel, I saw a young man wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up and worn looking pants walking slowly in the same direction a few yards ahead of me.

The sight of him, to this smaller than average young woman, most likely unfairly, made me nervous. I could not see what color skin the man had, but this would not have mattered to me if I did know. It was his style of dress and his slow gait. He did not seem to be in a hurry to get to a train.

It was 1993, and I had recently graduated from dorm life in a college. City life was still new to me, and, when in doubt, I assumed the worst intentions of most strangers, especially men under the age of sixty.

And we were alone in the tunnel.

I slowed my pace way down. The man looked back at me. I could see now that he was a man of color, probably in his twenties, about my age.

I walked even more slowly.

“I DON’T WANT YOU!”, he shouted, his voice echoing in the tunnel.

I froze, and wondered whether or not to respond. If I sped up my pace, it would look like I had indeed slowed down because he was there. I opted to say nothing and instead did what I still can’t believe to this day….

I pretended to walk with a limp.

There is so much wrong with that, I don’t know where to begin. I plead temporary insanity. I actually wanted him to feel bad about yelling at me because I was apparently disabled.

To anyone reading this, I am so so sorry for my actions on this lonely Christmas morning for me almost thirty years ago.

I don’t know if he saw through the ruse or not. He turned around and continued to walk through the train. Would we meet at the track or on the train?

The answer turned out to be “No”. I never saw the man again. But I think about him every time I’m in a train station, or when I am entirely too quick to judge a person based solely on my fear of a new situation.

As I departed the train in my hometown and walked through the snowy suburban neighborhoods to my empty parents’ house, I wondered what kind of Christmas the man in the tunnel was having that day.

Was he celebrating with family and/or friends? No matter what he was doing that day, he was probably right about not being interested in me for any reason, violent or not.

He probably hadn’t given me a second thought, unless it was one of disgust about this apparently paranoid, possibly racist, white girl. We had no word such as “Karen” back then to describe the way he probably thought of me.

But I gave the incident many subsequent thoughts. It was an important reality check.

The world, like this man, didn’t revolve around me. It didn’t matter that I could not help the homeless with breakfast that morning. The people who needed a Christmas breakfast got one. I could surely help with another meal another time.

I spent the rest of that Christmas in front of my parents’ TV. They had left a “Christmas dinner” plate in the fridge, consisting of Cornish game hen, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. I ate it in front of a rerun of an Eight is Enough Christmas episode, crying as I ate.

It was the episode in which the Bradford family is trying to get through their first Christmas after the mother had died. On Christmas Eve, one of the eight children finds a Christmas present, wrapped and labeled “To Tommy” on the tag. It was hidden many months before, the only present their mother had bought for any of her children before she died.

It was the thing that helped the Bradfords calm down about not having a perfect Christmas and see what the holiday truly can mean for people. Many tears dampened my reheated Christmas plate.

Christmas, like any family-oriented holiday, is not only about what is currently happening on the day. It should be a reminder of love from the past, and love that a person can share in the future, even after they are gone from this Earth.

Opening presents with my family and friends has been wonderful most Christmas Days I’ve known, but those Christmases have not taught me nearly as much about love and my place in a very big world as those two Christmases during which I spent much of the time with strangers or alone.


This story was originally published on


About the Creator

Rebecca Morton

My childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children! You can also find me on Medium here:, and now I have a Substack newsletter at

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