ONCE UPON A TIME, back in the days when you could go to see Santa Claus in the department store and he would give you presents that were not just sticky candy, two best friends, Jimmy and Billy, went to their local Belks before Christmas. They stood patiently in line and, when their turns came, each one went into a little house made to look as if it were made out of gingerbread and told the man inside what they wanted for Christmas. What they did not know was that the man inside was actually Saint Nicholas, the Archbishop of Myra and Lycea, venerated all over the world as the patron of children, which is to say he was the real Santa Claus. I’m not sure what he was doing there, but the important thing to know is he was the real Santa Claus. As each boy was finished telling Santa Claus what they wanted for Christmas he smiled and gave each an apple. It was the same apple he’d given to all the other children in line: it was gigantic! It smelled amazing! Being polite boys they knew better than to eat it outside where they could get their clothes messy, so each took his apple home.
When Jimmy got home with his apple, he knew immediately that he wanted to eat it and share it with his family. His parents were amazed at the delicious smell it gave off and they wanted to eat it as well. It was big enough to share, so Mom and Dad and Jimmy sat down to supper, and then, for dessert, sliced up the apple and chatted as they ate. Mom added some really superb cheddar cheese which she sliced up, and, to make the evening extra special – even though it was Advent – Dad brought out a bottle of tawny port. Jimmy tried this and, at least in little sips, it was ok. When the fruit was all gone, nothing left but the core and the seeds, Mom said that this was such good tasty, fruit maybe they should plant the seeds and see if they could grow some more. Everyone agreed.
So, Jimmy got himself a project for Christmas that year. He planted the seeds into little seedling pots and waited to see what would happen. In time there were four sprouts which he took outside in the Spring and planted in the backyard. They all did very well and they became young saplings, although it was several years before they bore fruit. Not being grown in Saint Nicholas’ own garden as the first apple was, these apples, though amazingly tasty, were ordinary-sized apples. They smelled much better than the ones you could get in a store, though. Mother canned some every year and baked some into pies. These were coveted gifts even after Jimmy went off to college and then Seminary. He was called James by this time, of course. When he became a priest, he would give these apples, grown in his parents’ own back yard, to folks year after year. In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Jimmy would take breaks from ministry to go rest in the house, praying for his parents, and offer Mass for their souls in the back yard under the shade of four apple trees he never knew came from the real Santa Claus.
The story of Billy’s apple is different, though. When he reached home, he knew immediately that he would share it with his family. He and his parents were amazed at the delicious smell that it gave off: it seemed to fill the house with a sense of Christmas. They sat it on the mantle thinking they would enjoy the smell for a bit and, in the light of the Christmas Tree, it suddenly seemed to reflect, filling the room with twinkles. They were surprised the next morning to discover it still smelled like Christmas in there! They couldn’t bring themselves to eat the apple, but when friends came over – as friends do in the holiday season (even though it is Advent) – everyone commented on the beautiful smell. Billy’s house seemed to be especially filled with the Christmas Spirit that year. And, when Epiphany came round and it was time to take down the decorations and move on with regular things, Billy and his parents realized this was something of a magical apple (although they didn’t know the giver was the real Santa Claus) and they placed it away gently in a small wooden box filled with excelsior, and they stored it safely.
When they took it out the following year it was still whole, fresh, and smelled like Christmas. Year after year the apple from Santa Claus continued to fill their house with hospitality and Christmas spirit. Invitations to their house at the Holidays were almost like being invited to a royal banquet. Billy’s family was known for their generous table and their love and care for their guests all year round, but never so much as at Christmas time. And didn’t the house literally smell like Christmas?
In time, when his parents fell asleep in the Lord, Billy inherited the house – and the apple. He was called William, by this time, of course. He and his wife and their children were known far and wide for their hospitality in this house that was filled with the smell of Christmas. They knew it was a magic apple, of course, and Billy knew it was given to him one day when his parents took him to Belks, but they never knew that man in the mall was Saint Nicholas, who always gives gifts anonymously.
And then goes away quietly to pray for us.