black and white drawing of couple and baby entering Madonna flat in Harlem, NY

The Harlem Christmas Story

by Catherine Doherty

This story is true. It is Catherine’s account of her experiences one Christmas Eve when she was working at Friendship House in Harlem.*
“It will remain one of the mysteries and graces of my life, and a deeply spiritual one at that,” she said. This story is best read aloud on Christmas Eve at supper time, before Midnight Mass, for that is when it happened.

***

It was a sort of upside-down affair that came floating through my memory when I began to write this story. The memory was of a Christmas night. It seemed upside down because no one came through the Blue Door** that night in Harlem.
I had just closed it behind the last of our bunch. We had much to finish up before Midnight Mass. That’s when I met the strange trio that I most assuredly did meet that night. They did not go through the Blue door but, somehow—and don’t ask me how—the Blue Door was certainly involved.
It was a perfectly natural meeting too, nothing miraculous about it or about anything that followed. It was a nice meeting, one that made Christmas Mass a little more joyous and the meditations that followed a little more profound.
Just as I was leaving Friendship House, and had turned from locking the Blue Door (which had given me some trouble that night I confess—the key stuck or something) I was confronted by a very handsome Negro man and his wife, who was holding a baby in her arms.
I could not see the baby’s face. It was all bundled up against the raw New York wind that was blowing into a gale.
Very politely, the man lifted his hat and, in the soft accents of the deep South, told me that he and his wife were lost in this big city. They had just gotten off the train. He was a carpenter, hoping to get a better job than the one he had had in the little village they came from.
But, with one thing and another, they had been delayed en route. They didn’t have any money, that is, not quite enough for a night’s lodging. Perhaps I could tell them where to go, what to do, and to whom they might apply for help.
Having said his piece, he stood relaxed, politely and silently waiting for my answer. His wife, who had not said a word, just smiled at me once or twice. She stood as confident and as still as he, sure that I was just the person to help them.
Before my mind’s eye came a vision of the telephone. I almost turned back and opened the Blue Door to try and contact some social agency that would attend to their wants.
Then I looked at my wristwatch. It was almost 11 o’clock, and on Christmas Eve! Whom could I find at this time? And where? And if I did, this poor family would have to brave strange subways.
I could, of course, send them by taxi. I did have a few extra dollars in my purse—wonder of wonders. But the family shelters of New York separate families sometimes, because of lack of room.
Lack of room! Christmas Eve! Man, woman, child. It all suddenly hit me right between the eyes.
Of course, I knew it was just a coincidence. Nice, in a way. But so many people came to Friendship House just for this kind of help and information.
No, this was not the time to send such a family anywhere. This was the time to offer them personal hospitality, if for no other reason than to atone for the hospitality that was not given almost 2,000 years ago.
Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of it before? There was what the staff workers of Friendship House called the hermitage, that is, my room. It was so many things in one. It had a desk, a bed, a gas stove complete with oven, and a refrigerator of sorts given by the management, which even worked sometimes.
The room also contained a sink and a full-size laundry tub. Yet, all in all, it was a cozy place, especially that night. I had been given a tinselled Christmas tree about six inches high. It was a far cry indeed from my lofty, native Russian firs, so stately in their majestic beauty.
The little tree, nevertheless, was very nice. I had placed under it a miniature crib. I had intended to place the Infant into it when I came back from Mass.
Yes, the room was very clean and very, very, cozy. Why not invite the couple to spend the night there? Tomorrow I could contact the needed agencies.
No sooner thought than done. My strange couple was still silent, courteously waiting for an answer that surely must have seemed to them a long time in coming. But they showed no signs of impatience.
Slowly, and for some inexplicable reason rather diffidently, I invited them to the hermitage, apologizing for its humbleness and its being many things in one.
Their smiles broadened. The woman straightened herself and somehow looked taller as she pressed the child closer to her. The man voiced his thanks and proceeded to follow me.
Thus we walked the three rather long blocks that separated the Blue Door from my quarters. No one said a word. Yet the silence was companionable.
Once in the room I made them as comfortable as I could. The baby, finally out of its wrappings, was lovely. I had not heard it cry. The man said it was a boy, their firstborn. I made them coffee, fried some eggs, set the table, and told them I would peek in after Mass.
It was one of the most beautiful Masses I ever participated in. The thought of my three pilgrims snug in the cozy room probably made it so. Personal hospitality to strangers, to Christ, warm him who gives it so much that it is a blessing itself.
The Mass over, I rushed back to my room. To my astonishment I found the front door ajar. That is never done in Harlem where one uses several locks—as is the case wherever there is tension from poverty and segregation.
I pushed the door open. The room was empty. The dishes had been washed and stacked away, each where it belonged. No signs of occupancy were left whatsoever.
The Infant I had meant to put now into its tiny crib under my tinselled tree was already there, and a candle was lit in my window!
—From Donkey Bells, (2000), pp. 136-139, available from MH Publications
*Harlem is a large African-American section of New York City.
**Blue Door: Every outside door in Friendship House (an apostolate founded by Catherine Doherty before she founded Madonna House) and Madonna House is painted blue in honor of Our Lady.