Last year at Christmas time my wife, three boys, and I were in France, on our way from Paris to Nice. For five wretched days everything had gone wrong. Our hotels were "tourist traps"; our rented car broke down; we were all restless and irritable in the crowded car. On Christmas Eve, when we checked into a shabby hotel in Nice, there was no Christmas spirit in our hearts.
It was raining and cold when we went out to eat. We found a boring looking little joint carelessly decorated for the holiday. It smelled greasy. Only five tables in the restaurant were occupied. There were two German couples, two French families, and an American sailor, by himself. In the corner a piano player monotonously played Christmas music.
I was too stubborn and too tired and miserable to leave. I looked around and noticed that the other customers were eating in stony silence. The only person who seemed happy was the American sailor. While eating, he was writing a letter, and a half-smile lighted his face.
My wife ordered our meal in French. The waiter brought us the wrong thing. I scolded my wife for being stupid. She began to cry. The boys defended her, and I felt even worse.
Then, at the table with the French family on our left, the father slapped one of his children for some minor fault, and the boy began to cry. On our right, the German wife began scolding her husband.
All of us were interrupted by an unpleasant blast of cold air. Through the front door came an old French flower woman. She wore a dripping, ragged overcoat, and dragged herself in on wet, rundown shoes. Carrying her basket of flowers, she went from one table to another.
"Flowers, monsieur? Only one franc."
No one bought any.
Wearily she sat down at a table between the sailor and us. To the waiter she said, "A bowl of soup. I haven't sold a flower all afternoon." To the piano player she said hoarsely, "Can you imagine, Joseph, soup on Christmas Eve?"
He pointed to his empty "tipping plate". The young sailor finished his meal and got up to leave. Putting on his coat, he walked over to the flower woman's table.
"Happy Christmas," he said, smiling and picking out two flowers. "How much are they?"
"Two francs, monsieur."
Pressing one of the small flowers flat, he put it into the letter he had written, then handed the woman a twenty-franc note.
"I don't have change, monsieur," she said. "I'll get some from the waiter."
"No, ma'am," said the sailor, leaning over and kissing the ancient cheek. "This is my Christmas present to you."
Straightening up, he came to our table, holding the other flower in front of him. "Sir," he said to me, "may I have permission to present this flower to your beautiful daughter?" In one quick motion he gave my wife the flower, wished us a Merry Christmas, and departed.
Everyone had stopped eating. Everyone had been watching the sailor. Everyone was silent. A few seconds later, Christmas exploded throughout the restaurant like a bomb. The old flower woman jumped up, waving the twenty-franc note. Hobbling to the middle of the floor she did a lively folk dance and shouted to the piano player, "Joseph, my Christmas present! And you shall have half, so you can have a feast, too."
The piano player began to sing loudly "Good King Wenceslaus," beating the keys with magic hands, nodding his head in rhythm.
My wife waved her flower in time to the music. She was radiant and appeared twenty years younger. The tears had left her eyes, and the corners of her mouth turned up in laughter. She began to sing, and our three sons joined her, bellowing the song with uninhibited enthusiasm.
"Gut!Gut!" shouted the Germans. They jumped on their chairs and began singing the words in German. The waiter embraced the flower woman. Waving their arms, they sang in French. The Frenchman who had slapped the boy beat rhythm with his fork against a bottle. The lad climbed on his lap, singing merrily too.
The Germans ordered wine for everyone. They delivered it themselves, hugging the other customers. One of the French families called for champagne — made the round, kissing each of us on both cheeks. The owner of the restaurant started "The First Noel", and we all joined in, half of us crying.
People crowded in from the street until many customers were standing. The walls shook as hands and feet kept time to the Christmas carols.
The miserable evening in a dull restaurant ended up being the very best Christmas Eve we had ever experienced just because of a young sailor who had Christmas spirit in his soul. He released the love and joy that had been smothered within us by anger and disappointment. He gave us Christmas.