"The Polar Express"
Adapted from Chris Van
Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North
December 23rd, 2001
takes place in the home of the little boy – some parts in the living
room, some parts on the boy’s bedroom. There are also parts that occur
on a train and in Santa’s village at the North Pole.
Props: Santa Suit, two sleigh bells, a small box to hold a sleigh bell, a bathrobe, an apron for the mother, train whistle
Theme: the magic of Christmas is not seen, or heard, or touched or tasted. It is felt. And for those who choose to feel it, they will know its presence in all their senses.
Boy / voice
STORY PART I
"Grandpa is just old, that’s all." These were the words I heard from my mother’s lips as she hung the garlands over the mantle and straightened out the stockings. The last of the decorations had already been hung and the details for our Christmas gathering were almost all in place. The lights on the tree twinkled merrily. We had the kind that played electronic versions of Christmas carols and blinked in unison to the melody. Bowls of nuts and cookies occupied every available open space in our house. The illuminated snowman stood proudly on the front lawn announcing the coming of Christmas. A light snow fell but inside it was warm next to the fire.
"Grandpa is just old, that’s all." Mother saw me watching him as he stood by the window, staring out into the darkness. It seemed to me that he was looking for something. Waiting. "What is it, Grandpa? What are you looking for?" I asked.
He hadn’t heard me. In fact, Grandpa rarely heard anything anymore. Father said that his hearing went very quickly a few years ago, around Christmas time, when Grandma took ill and died. It was as though he didn’t want to hear the news. He was almost stone deaf these days.
Mother called out from the kitchen, letting us know that dinner was almost ready. I stood there watching grandpa by the window. I could see his lips moving and I inched a little closer to make out what he was saying. It was singing. I could barely make it out, it was a little off-key. But he was singing. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," was the song. I knew it was his favorite.
In the old days, when I was only three or four, I remember he used to sing that same song all the time at Christmas. Grandpa had a good voice once. Now some of the notes got moved around. And it didn’t really seem like he could sing any louder than he was already doing. I thought it might be because he was sad. But as I got closer I could see that his eyes were bright and there was a hint of a smile on his face. I felt very curious watching him stare out the window. What was he looking at? Or was it that he was looking for something? I couldn’t tell.
"I said, Dinner is ready!" my mother said as she marched into the room. Without turning around I could tell she stopped and was watching me looking at Grandpa. Then she walked toward me in a softer stride. That’s when she said it. In a soft voice that was almost a whisper, she leaned toward me and said it. "Grandpa is just old, that’s all." And she tugged at my arm, pulling me in the direction of the dining room. Then she straightened herself, looked out the window for the briefest second with a quizzical look on her face. And raising her voice she looked at Grandpa and said, "Dad? DAD? DINNER’S READY, DAD!"
He turned around. Not like he was startled or anything. But in a slow, careful way. And then he saw me standing there and he smiled. And I saw it. For the briefest second, I saw it. His eyes twinkled. The corners of his mouth turned. He smiled. Then he put the index finger of his right hand on his nose and he winked at me. It was a game we had played since I was a little boy. It always meant, "on the nose" – that I had gotten something right. And then he said, in a clear, matter-of-fact kind of voice, "It’s coming." I squinted up at him, my whole face in the shape of a question mark.
And then my mother put her arm out and touched his shoulder. "DAD?!? DINNER’S READY, DAD!" Grandpa then turned his gaze from me and looked up at mother. The smile stayed on his face. "Yes, dear," he said smiling even brighter. "Merry Christmas to you too."
CALL TO WORSHIP
If only for the season…
HYMN 235 "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly"
HAND OF FRIENDSHIP
STORY PART II
It was later in the evening that I stood in the hallway and watched my grandson looking out of the window to his bedroom. Even from that distance I could see he was watching the wind carry tufts of snow from off the roof sending it swirling into the night sky. As the snow passed in front of the house-lights, it created the illusion of figures dancing in the air. The same figures I had been watching only a few hours before. Reindeer and the faces of elves; a long sleigh with shining bells glistening; the white beard of an old man and the outline of a snow trimmed suit through the red lights. And perhaps, just perhaps, the hint of a long train racing through the sky as the snow rushed past, hissing and squealing in the night.
A hand fell upon my shoulder from behind as I stood there. My daughter reached up and kissed me on the cheek as she saw me watching my grandson. Then, with her mouth close to my ear, I heard her say in a faint, melancholy way, "He’s just a boy, that’s all." And she continued down the hall to her room.
Even as I crossed the threshold of his room, his gaze never wavered. I sat down on his bed and looked out at the night with him for a few moments. "It’s coming," I said and he turned around and saw me sitting next to him.
"What’s coming, Grandpa?"
But the old man did not respond to the question. He stood there, instead, staring out in the same direction of the night sky.
"I was your age when it came the first time. I’ll never forget the clatter it made, the way it circled around in the sky, or the way it landed right in front of our house. Much bigger than I ever thought it would be. A lot more magical too. But the most interesting part – the thing I’ll never forget – is how I knew it was coming. That was the darnedest thing. It was as though I could feel it inside me. I could hear it from miles and miles away. I’ll never forget that I knew it was coming.
"Knew what was coming, Grandpa? Do you mean Santa and his sleigh?
But the old man just stood in front of the window and smiled.
"You’d think an old man like me would let go of something that happened so long ago. But not only have I not forgotten, it seems I can’t lose it. Once you hear it – once you see it – once you feel it – it’s as real as the first time it happens."
You mean you saw Santa? Some of the kids at school have tried to tell me that it’s not true. That he doesn’t really come. That it’s all just a story and it’s not real. But I don’t believe them. I know he really comes. Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, or stare out the window like this, I can tell he’s out there.
Did you know I used to sit and look out this window with your mother. And we would look at the snow falling and laugh at the shapes we could see. And we could hear the sound of it on the wind and we knew it was coming. But then one year she didn’t want to sit with me by the window any more. And she never did again. And you know what? It stopped coming…. Till tonight!
"You mean Santa. Right Grandpa? You mean Santa’s coming tonight, right?"
But the old man didn’t say anything. He just looked at the boy and smiled. Then, from underneath his coat he took a small red box, and whispered…
…with a smile. Then he took his index finger and put it on his nose. And he winked and they both laughed. And after a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the head, the little boy got into bed and out went the light. And he dreamt of the Christmas that he knew in his heart was coming.
HYMN # 256 "Winter Night"
JOYS AND CONCERNS
STORY PART III
I remember on Christmas Eve, that year, I lay still in my bed. From where I lay I could just glimpse the snow falling outside the window. I did not rustle the sheets. I breathed slowly and silently. I was listening for a sound – a sound I somehow knew I would hear – the ringing bells of Santa’s sleigh.
It was true. Friends from school would shout in a mean way, "There is no Santa!" But I knew they were wrong. I’m not sure how. Something in my bones. I knew they were wrong.
Late that night I did hear sounds, though not of ringing bells. From outside came the sounds of hissing steam and squeaking metal. I looked through my window and saw a train standing perfectly still in front of my house.
[MUSIC for the train and a train whistle]
It was wrapped in an apron of steam. Snowflakes fell lightly around it. A conductor stood at the open door of one of the cars and looked up at my window. A red scarf covered his face and only his eyes peered through. But he tipped his cap and waved for me to come down there. I tiptoed downstairs and out the door, still in my pajamas and bathrobe.
All aboard. [Boy runs up, but stops.] Well, are you coming?
Why to the North Pole, of course. This is the Polar Express.
"Of course I’m coming" I said. I took his outstretched hand and he pulled me aboard. The train was filled with other children, all in their pajamas and nightgowns. With a great hiss and a loud tug on the whistle, the train lurched forward. Faster and faster we raced. Past the lights of towns and villages which flickered in the distance, the Polar Express raced northward.
Soon there were no more lights to be seen. We climbed mountains so high it seemed as if we would scrape the moon. But the Polar Express never slowed down. Faster and faster we ran along, rolling over peaks and through valleys like a car on a roller coaster. The mountains turned into hills, the hills to snow-covered plains. We crossed a barren desert of ice – the Great Polar Ice Cap. Lights appeared in the distance. They looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea.
There is the North Pole.
The North Pole! It was a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made.
We are coming to the center of the city. This is where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas.
Who receives the first gift?
He will choose one of you.
As our train drew closer to the center of the North Pole, we slowed to a crawl, so crowded were the streets with Santa’s elves. When the Polar Express could go no farther, we stopped and the conductor led us outside. We pressed through the crowd to the edge of a large, open circle. In front of us stood Santa’s sleigh.
The reindeer were excited. They pranced and paced, ringing the silver bells that hung from their harnesses.
It was a magical sound, like nothing I’d ever heard. Across the circle Santa Claus appeared. He marched over to us. Then he turned. He stroked his long beard. He looked out at the sky and the wind making figures out of the swirling snow. Then, in an instant, he turned around and pointed directly at me.
Santa’s finger almost landed on the boy’s nose. He laughed and said in a merry way, "Let’s have this boy here." And he sat on the chair and pulled the boy up on his knee and asked in a jolly, joyful way, "Now, what would you like for Christmas?"
All of a sudden I realized I could have any gift I could imagine. Any toy or game. Any book, CD. Maybe even a puppy. But it dawned on me then, that none of those things was what I really wanted. I knew the thing I wanted most was not inside Santa’s giant sack. What I wanted more than anything, was a bell from Santa’s sleigh.
[Santa smiles, hugs the child and picks out a bell. Next he stands and holds the bell in the air.]
And Santa held up the bell and shouted for all to hear, "The first gift of Christmas!"
ANTHEM – Cuban Christmas Song
STORY PART IV
A clock struck midnight.
I took the bell Santa gave me and put it in my bathrobe pocket. The conductor helped me down from the sleigh. After that it seemed magical. Santa cracked his whip. His team charged forward and climbed into the air, snow flew in every direction and then settled as the sound of sleigh bells disappeared into the night sky.
As soon as we were back inside the Polar Express, the other children asked to see my bell. I reached into my pocket, but the only thing I felt was a hole. I COULDN"T BELIEVE IT!!! IT CAN’T BE TRUE… BUT IT IS!!! I HAD LOST the silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. I wanted to go outside and look for it, but just at that moment the train gave a sudden lurch forward and the doors closed. We were on our way home.
It broke my heart to lose the bell. I couldn’t do anything but ride the way home with one finger sticking out of the hole in my bathrobe. And when the train reached the house, I stood at my doorway and sadly waved goodbye. The conductor said something from the moving train, but I couldn’t hear him.
What? I asked.
Conductor: [Cupping hands around mouth]
"Merry Christmas," I returned half heartedly, and I turned round to get in from the cold. And then I turned back again. For I thought, for just an instant, as he got back on the train, I saw the conductor do something very odd. I could swear I saw him put a finger to his nose, offer the faintest hint of a grin from underneath his red scarf, and throw a quick wink in my direction.
And without any fanfare, the Polar Express let out a loud blast from its whistle and sped away.
HYMN # 251 Silent Night (Tony, Bill H. and Greg with Bill G. on guitar)
Christmas came almost without my having to close my
eyes or sleep at all. But it seemed as though I must have slept because
when I opened my eyes I was in my bed with the sun shining through my
window. The snow had stopped falling and it was a bright, clear, frosty
morning. I rubbed my eyes and wondered whether I had dreamt the whole
thing: trains, elves, sleigh bells, Santa and everything. I sat up in
bed and noticed I was still in my bathrobe. I clearly remembered all the
details of my dream. It felt so real, I was almost sad all over again
about losing the sleigh bell Santa had given me. I laughed for a moment
then started for the living room where everyone was getting ready to
"That can’t be"
…cried Grandpa rustling around underneath the tree.
"It can’t be… I know there is something else here somewhere… but where?
And then as if from out of nowhere a little red box appeared in his hand. Then he turned and crooked his head just so to look at me. And he held the box out in front of me – the very one he’d shown me the night before.
"Here! Here it is! I knew it was here somewhere. Special delivery to you."
I pulled my finger out of the hole in my pocket and took the box into my lap. It had my name on it. I opened it carefully and peered inside, and for a moment I was too startled to speak. Inside was the silver bell! The very one that had fell through the hole in my pocket. Next to the bell was a note. It read:
"Found this next to the seat on my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket. Signed, Mr. C."
I took the bell from the box and shook it. It made the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I saw Grandpa put a hand to his ear and then follow the sound of the bell as it traveled through the room. And then he laughed as he came over and sat beside me. From under his coat I saw him pull out a bell of his own. It was exactly the same as mine. A little older and a bit tarnished, but a sleigh bell just the same.
"I got this bell so many years ago, I was beginning to think I had dreamt the whole thing. But I wasn’t dreaming. It was real! It is real!"
Then he rang his bell. It rang in perfect harmony with mine. Together they sounded just like Santa’s sleigh had flown into the room. What a sound! What a wonderful, magical, glorious sound.
But the boy’s mother, who was watching from across the room, wiped her hands on her apron and shook her head back and forth. "That’s too bad," she said. "They must already be broken." Then the boy’s father added, "They don’t make ‘em like they used to," he said. "You two might be the only ones in the world who have silent sleigh bells."
And it dawned on me, then, that my parents had not been able to hear the sound of the bells. They could not hear them at all. I looked at Grandpa who was still ringing his bell and laughing out loud. How is it that someone nearly completely deaf could hear the bells – could feel the magic of Christmas – and my healthy, rational parents could miss the whole thing entirely? Something happens, I figured, if you grow up too fast. We are in such a hurry to listen to our senses, we forget to listen to our heart – for that is where the bells ring. The bells of all who truly believe. I scratched my head and leaned over toward my grandpa, "They’re just parents," I said. "That’s all." And he turned to me, put a finger on his nose, winked, and began humming his song.
HYMN # 240 "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Sometimes even the most faithful awake one Christmas unable to hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old now, with children of my own, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.