I’m Dreaming of a Beach Christmas
By Corinne Smelker
It had been a tedious and sticky thirteen hours in the car, with my eleven-year-old brother bugging me most of the way. "Dashing through the snow, on a one-horse open sleigh," Peter warbled.
"Shut up," I hissed! "It’s the middle of summer. Why can’t they sing songs about the beach, and Father Christmas?"
That just made him sing all the louder.
"Mum," I yelled. "Make him be quiet!"
"Do you want me to stop this car?" The voice of authority, the driver, spoke. Whoever drove the car made the rules. "We’re nearly there."
‘There’ was Sea View, a town on the east coast of South Africa. A haven of gentle ocean breezes, and a campsite we visited every December for the last five years. It was a summer ritual for the family. Personally, I think it was so my parents could avoid decorating the house for Christmas. It’s hard to trim a camper and tent.
Peter and I wiggled in glee. Within about 10 minutes we’d be there, and see all our summer friends. We found our usual spot, and immediately Peter and I dashed to the washrooms, whipped our costumes on and headed for the surf.
"Ah!" I said to Sarie, my best summer friend. "Christmas on the beach! Is there any other way?"
She laughed, "Ja. My pappa is making steaks and my aunts, uncles and all my cousins come down for the day. You?"
"Dunno." My extended family lived in England, so it was just the four of us; and my parents barely tolerated Christmas. They stopped exchanging gifts when we left England, and I had the sneaking suspicion they only did it back then to keep the grandparents happy.
Unlike so many of my friends who couldn’t sleep the night before Christmas, I slept soundly. This day was so much like the others, what was the point of getting excited? But this morning was different.
"Corinne, get up. Now!" My father stood outside my tent. I scrambled out.
"Dad. What’s up?" His eyes were red-rimmed, ginger hair awry.
"Your mother’s gone."
"Gone? What do you mean gone?"
"She left us."
"She left us?" I knew I was echoing, but I couldn’t take it in. Who would leave her kids on Christmas Day?
"Maybe she went to do laundry?" I suggested.
My Dad sighed and held out his hand to reveal my mother’s wedding ring. I didn’t even know it could come off.
The realization hit – my mother had left. "What happened?"
"We had an argument."
I’m normally such a light sleeper I would have heard a ruckus. I guess they kept quiet for the sake of the other campers. At least she hadn’t taken the car – she couldn’t drive.
"Get Peter up," my father instructed.
I dipped back into the tent. Stunned shock settled on my brother’s features. "What’s going to happen?" he asked timorously.
I ruffled his dark, curly hair, and in my superior all of one-year-and-eight-days-older-than-him voice said, "I don’t know, but we’ll work something out."
Gone was the thought of any gifts, or a braaivleis (barbeque), replaced instead by abandonment and betrayal. My father emerged from the camper, and motioned us to the car. We drove the winding coastal road aimlessly. We tried the train station, the bus station, and even the local hotels. Nothing.
I had never seen my father weep before, and I think that scared us even more than seeing him lose his legendary temper. Suddenly, he swerved around, back in the direction of camp muttering, "I know I saw it. Where is it?" I looked at Peter and we shrugged. Sometimes it’s best to say nothing.
We skidded to a stop in front of a building. I peered out the window, "Salvation Army" the sign declared. "Christmas Day Service 10:00 am." Church? We’d never been to church a day in our lives!
"Climb out." His voice brooked no discussion. I looked down at my shorts, and tank top. I didn’t think I was dressed for church – but what did I know?
We followed my father into the small, stuffy building. There were a handful of people, wearing uniforms. I couldn’t figure it out. "What are we doing here?" I hesitantly asked my father.
"I grew up in the Salvation Army…" Really. That was news to me. "…and I thought perhaps they could help us."
We sat through the service, my father actually seemed comfortable, and knew all the hymns. After service, the pastor introduced himself. "My name is Jerry and this is my wife, Pat."
We all shook hands.
"Couldn’t your wife make it?"
Dad broke down again. Pat assessed the situation. "You two come and meet my kids." Her three kids, John, Mark and Donna were around our age, and we stood awkwardly waiting against a background of sniffles and quiet talking.
After a couple of minutes, Jerry and Dad approached. Jerry with a reassuring smile said, "You’re all coming to our house for Christmas brunch."
When it was time to eat, Jerry bowed his head and prayed. I’d never heard praying before, and it startled me. I followed my father’s lead. After a lunch of turkey, stuffing and salad, Jerry pulled his chair back, "Ok, time to pray for your mother." I was astonished! What did he think God was going to do? But I bowed my head again.
"Father. We thank you for these new friends," Jerry began, and a flood of warmth suffused my body, "and thank you for leading them to our church. Thank you for your protection on Margaret and that she will return safely to her family. Amen."
After goodbyes and an exchange of phone numbers, we made our way back to the campsite. I closed my eyes, taking in the strange uniforms, the prayer, the opening of their home to strangers, sharing a meal, the friendship…it was all so alien to me.
"Dad, Dad! Look!" Peter screamed, pushing against my shoulder in his excitement to point. In the distance was my mother plodding along the road, suitcase weighing her down.
My parents talked for a long time – to this day I don’t know what happened. But this I know, our Christmases in Sea View were never the same. Every succeeding year, Jerry and his family would join us for a Christmas braai on the beach.
That Christmas was my first introduction to a God who personally loves and cares for us, and five months later, I dedicated my life to Him. Since then, Christmas on the beach, the only true way to spend Christmas, has taken on special meaning.
Corinne Smelker is the mom to five kids and wife of one husband. She is a self-employed writer and also the administrator for Prophetic Life Ministry, a Christian Ministry located in San Antonio. Cori also writes and posts daily devotionals to that site. You can contact Cori via the Letters page of this Magazine.
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