My child knows when we encounter the Wandering Stranger


Second of a seasonal series. In which my son sees Santa Claus in the off-season and gives him an applesauce packet.

Something I’ve been playing with in this time between stories is to give my intuition some breathing room. To let my imagination peek beneath the surface of things, which are not necessarily what I assume them to be. The Irish know that magical threads run through the weave of daily life, and that the invitation to notice is always present. This season, I’m going to practice touching into that magic in moments of connection with other people, or even other beings not human.

When we bring our Christmas tree into the house this year, I’m going to imagine it standing in the forest, a quiet home for birds or squirrels or insects. The Yule Tree is an ancient symbol of the season, inviting a deeper attunement with the living world through its spicy smell, the prickles or softness of its needles, its rich green color, and pleasing form.

The magical threads seem to be more easily perceived in certain places or particular times of the year, like this season of the approaching Winter Solstice. Children have a natural gift for seeing these threads. There’s a busy, 6-lane road near our house that intersects with another equally busy but narrower road at a traffic light. We often pass through that intersection on our way to school or the store or back home. Being so well traveled, it’s a prime spot for down-and-outers to ask for money. Over the years, we’ve come to recognize the regulars. Maybe you have an intersection like this near your house, too.

One warm day, when my son was about four years old, we were coming to the intersection and there was one of the regulars, an elderly man with scraggly yellow-white hair and beard and a sun-weathered face. He’s not tall, and a bit stout, and hobbles along with bowlegs and a limp. Toby saw this man, pointed and sang out, “There’s Santa Claus!” in a voice high with excitement.

My immediate reaction was dismay, that he was seeing a beloved childhood icon in the “off-season,” and as a beggar. I also thought his “mistake” was endearing, but now I’m wondering if maybe Toby saw something that I didn’t notice.

One of the Celtic mythic stories of this Yuletide season is that of the Wandering Stranger, or the Unexpected Visitor, who is an expression of need in the world. Encountering the Wandering Stranger on a road during the days leading up to Winter Solstice is a message that someone needs shelter and hospitality. If this man doesn’t fit that description, I don’t know who would.

Ever since then, I’ve been moved by my son’s innate compassion for these strangers. Wanting to support his natural generosity, I’ve been known to make u-turns and circle back so he can give them something from his lunch. I keep a bulk package of cheese-and-peanut-butter cracker packs in the car to hand out. In the summer, we sometimes carry bottles of water. The people (mostly men) are always so gracious and thankful. They often say, “Bless you,” and grin. I can’t imagine how hard it is to stand there day after day, watching the people go by in their metal and glass cocoons, isolated from simple human connection.

These encounters always feel inadequate, the classic “end of pipe” solution that environmentalists decry. It can never be enough and I resist what I see as the trap of feeling better for having given a bit of food to a homeless guy. Wouldn’t it be optimal to go upstream, to stem the tide of homelessness, want, and addiction? We need more treatment programs, more beds in shelters, more halfway houses. Better yet, let’s do something about the economic and educational systems so all these people don’t fall through the cracks in the first place.

I can’t help casting back further and further until I become paralyzed by the complexity and enormity of the systemic changes that are needed. When really, it’s the stories themselves that need changing — and that seems even more daunting. The stories are the buried code of our culture, and they tell us that we are better than that guy on the corner, that dirty addict, that crazy person. They could, the stories say, have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps like the rest of us. (Conveniently overlooking the fact that he was born without boots, also like the rest of us.)

Meanwhile, there is Santa Claus and his brothers and sisters on the street corner in all weather: the oppressive heat of summer, the numbing cold of winter, the spirit-dampening rain. Toby knows as only a child can know, that there is something he can do. He can reach out to make human contact, to erase the separation between him and another, and show compassion. He can give a hungry person a bite to eat.

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  1. Pingback: Saint Nicholas and the Gifting Stag | Thriving on the Threshold

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