Dec 24, 2022 869 Father Joseph Bernie Marquis

Christmas Forever

I was surprised at how Jesus showed up that June day

A heavy wool suit trimmed with fur isn’t what I usually wear in ninety-five-degree weather, especially in a car with no air conditioning. Yet there I was, one hot and humid Michigan afternoon, wearing not just the suit, but boots, a snowy white beard, and a thick woolen hat.

It felt like a sauna on wheels, but I really didn’t mind. This was no ordinary day, and I was no ordinary person: I was Santa Claus, on a mission of mercy to a little girl who was dying of leukemia at a nearby children’s hospital.

I worked as a chaplain at another pediatric hospital—a role that often plunged me into the struggles and sorrows of families grappling with the illness and death of a beloved child. When Christmas came around, I also had a moonlighting job playing Santa at various stores and events, including the annual J.L. Hudson Parade through downtown Detroit.

The two jobs could hardly have been more different, yet each was an opportunity to bring God’s love to others. Both as Santa and as a hospital chaplain, I was often privileged to see God breaking into people’s lives and hearts in surprising ways.

A Grandfather’s Love

On this particular afternoon, my two roles coincided. As I made my sweltering way to the hospital, I asked the Lord to use my visit to delight four-year-old Angela (not her real name) and console her grief-stricken grandfather. He was the one who had arranged this “Christmas in June,” after learning that Angela had just five weeks to live.

“What can I do?” he had asked God. “How can I put a lifetime of loving into the heart of my little granddaughter?”

As he sat sipping coffee at the kitchen table, he had noticed Angela’s crayon drawing of Santa Claus still taped to the refrigerator. He remembered what she had asked him once, as they watched the Detroit Christmas parade together: “Why does it have to end, Grandpa? …I wish Christmas could be forever!”

Suddenly, he had known exactly what to do.

Santa Makes a Stop

Approaching the hospital, I was surprised to see many helpers awaiting Santa at the main entrance—a doctor sporting a Santa hat, nurses, social workers, and volunteers decked out as Christmas elves.

“Merry June Ninth!” they called out. “Everything’s ready! We’re so excited that you’ve come all the way from the North Pole to visit the kids.” I quickly got the message that all the patients in the pediatric cancer unit were about to enjoy the surprise arranged for Angela’s sake.

Moving merrily through the lobby, my entourage and I packed into the elevator. Excitement mounted as we made our ascent to the oncology floor. When the doors opened, a magical scene greeted us. The ward was ablaze with holiday lights and filled with the sound of Christmas music. Garlands decorated the hallway, where four Christmas trees stood in splendor. A lively Frosty the Snowman was there to welcome us, scattering snow through a spout that poked up through his top hat.

Then came cries of delight, as Santa was spotted by six or seven children who were strong enough to be sitting in wheelchairs. I stopped to greet each one, then went visiting the other children room to room. Meanwhile, Angela’s grandpa stood watching with a smile.

Heavenly Peace

When I finally got to Angela’s bedside, two big blue eyes were peering out over the top of the sheet. “Angela!” I said. The blue eyes opened wider still. A look of sheer joy came over her face.

With the whole staff crowded around to watch, I reached into my bag and presented the gift her grandfather had chosen; a new blue dress that Angela had wanted for a long time. There was a guardian angel doll with red tennis shoes and beautiful blonde hair—just like Angela’s was before chemotherapy. A small snapshot from her grandpa’s wallet was still fresh in my memory. “She looks a lot like you,” I observed. There was a little button that Santa pinned to her hospital gown, that read, “Santa says I was a good girl!”

With the mood so jolly, we launched into some familiar Christmas songs—“Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Then I began one of my favorite carols, “Silent Night.”

I really don’t have the words to describe what happened as we sang that last song. All I can say is that an almost palpable peace descended on the room. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was there. It didn’t matter that our celebration was at the wrong time of year, or even that some of the singers might not have understood what God did for the human race on that holy “silent night.” Despite it all, the eternal Son of God who revealed himself to poor shepherds as an infant in a manger was making Himself present to another unlikely group in another unlikely setting.

As always when I’m privileged to witness such events, I came away surprised and awed at how the Holy Spirit works—but somehow not surprised that he had come.

The Real Christmas Spirit

Angela died just ten days later. Her grandfather phoned to tell me, after her funeral in another part of the state. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m having an easy time,” he said. “Before I called you, I had a good cry.” But then he went on to recount an experience he’d had at the funeral home.

“I was looking at my little granddaughter lying there in a white casket—wearing her new blue dress, with the guardian angel doll by her side, and wearing the pin you gave her that said: ‘Santa says I was a good Girl!’ The grief was almost unbearable.

“But right then, when I was feeling the pain most profoundly . . . I can’t explain it, but I felt a sudden deep peace, even a joy. At that moment, I knew that Angela was with God and that we would be reunited in eternity.”

A sense of wonder came over me as I listened to his story. It had happened again! Just as we had felt Jesus present at Angela’s bedside, her grandfather had encountered him at her coffin. The Light that came into the world over two thousand years ago had filled his heart, bringing hope and joy in a place of sorrow and death.

This is the real “Christmas spirit”— not a feeling that comes once a year, but the knowledge of Christ that comes through the Holy Spirit. The true Christmas Spirit—the Third Person of the Trinity—is available 365 days a year, if only we open our hearts and lives to him.

Then, “Christmas forever” is not just a little girl’s dream, but a solid reality—in June, December, and all year through.







Father Joseph Bernie Marquis

Father Joseph Bernie Marquis is the pastor of Sacred Heart Byzantine Catholic Church and founder of the Saint Nicholas Institute. He lives in Livonia, Michigan.

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