As Christmas season approaches, I become more mindful of living with a sense of mystery. This is faith to me. Not certainty. Not belief. But being comfortable with the not knowing. Embracing it. Letting it be whatever it will be. Isn’t that the most apt name for God? Who is God, we may ask Moses, to which he would reply, “The I am that I am.”
Although, I do not assert the commonly held interpretations of the Biblical Christmas stories as fact, per se, they are deeply meaningful to me, and if you presented me with incontrovertible evidence to their veracity, I would not blink an eye, and it would not change the way I live because I believe following Christ has less to do with believing and everything to do with loving.
My father is a man who believes in the power of mystery. I raise his name in this story only as a matter of speculation, because I have absolutely zero proof that he had anything to do with this mystery friend. for whoever it was, pulled it off without flaw.
I discussed this briefly with my twin, Paul. We both believe that visits from the Mystery Friend began soon after we found a trainset under our parents’ bed one Christmas season that supported an opposing view on Santa. We would have been seven or eight. This new view of the holiday universe did not ruin anything for me. It was simply shifted the experience. But, as often is the case, the unraveling of one mystery leads to a new mystery.
We lived in Lonoke, Arkansas in a small church parsonage on South Center Street—the town’s main street. The season of Advent in central Arkansas is moderately chilly, so I feel certain that it was cold. I also believe it was within two weeks of Christmas Day. There was a knock at the front door, and I answered it. To my surprise, there was a Christmas present on the doorstep, but no person. This action could have easily been Paul’s, but we tend to conflate our memories between us.
We announced the delivery to my parents and one of them must have asked who it was from. We found a little card on the package wishing us a merry Christmas, and it was signed “Your Mystery Friend.”
Given that my father was a pastor in a town of 3000 people, my parents were very well-known and enjoyed a fair amount of popularity so it did not surprise me that my family might have a generous friend, mystery or not.
I examined the handwriting carefully. It was not my mom or dad’s writing. I concluded that our Mystery Friend was probably a member of my father’s church.
My parents played dumb about the whole thing, and perhaps they were…or at least one of them was. If my father had orchestrated this, he would likely not have told my mother. Paul and I knew how to read her too easily. If she knew and we asked her she would have raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, smiled, and intoned, “I don’t know! It must just be a mystery!” My dad was subtler about these things. The most we might get from him was a barely perceptible twinkle of the eye or twitch of the lips.
I do not remember many details of this evening other than the present was a popular board game: Mouse Trap, in which the players slowly built an elaborate contraption that would, in the end, drop a basket over a plastic mouse.
Although we enjoyed it, we played it maybe three times. That’s not a terrible life cycle for a board game among little kids.
The next year our Mystery Friend delivered Hungry Hippos. Perhaps we were expecting it, but whoever it was, we did not catch them. In the years to follow, we were on full alert in December. We wanted to catch whoever was delivering this present. My parents were always inside the house with us when the Mystery Friend came knocking with a new game, perhaps conspicuously so.
When we moved to Norman, we wondered if the Mystery Friend could possibly find us. If it was someone from the church, the fun would certainly be over, but the fun continued that very next Christmas, and so did the mystery.
I’m sure we speculated. We studied handwriting…maybe even saved one of the cards to compare. The handwriting varied. Whoever was doing this, was quite slippery. We felt fairly certain that it must be my dad working in tandem with a friend.
One year, I was standing right by the door when the knock came. I opened it so quickly that I thought surely we would catch someone, but there was no sign of our Mystery Friend. We even checked the bushes and walked up and down the block.
The oddest variation on the Mystery Friend was the year the phone rang and someone said “Go check your front door.” We raced to the door to find the present but no person. Devilishly tricky!
At some point, the Mystery Friend stopped coming. The three of us, John, Paul, and myself, were getting a little old for this, and the games a little lame. The excitement had faded and the magic of it was waning. I think we were all okay with it fading into the past. We found other ways to keep the fun and magic alive.
I have reflected on this phenomenon over the years. My father has never given up the secret, if he knows it at all. We quit asking. At some point in life, you may become comfortable with mysteries, you may even come to embrace them and relish the wonder of them.
I tried it once with my kids. The impact of it must not have been exciting enough to warrant a repeat. It would have been a worthy tradition, but perhaps not as worthy as the memory.
Perhaps one day, when my father’s life is slipping away, he’ll ask me to come close for some parting words and he’ll say, “David, I was the Mystery Friend.” But perhaps he’ll say, “David, I know you were expecting me to tell you who the Mystery Friend was, but to be perfectly honest, I never knew.”
Given the choice, I would prefer the latter.