But I Do: The Christmas Season 2020

Trevor Soderstrum

It would be an understatement to call 2020 a horrible year. The COVID-19 virus has ravaged the globe. Thousands have died. Too many of them isolated in hospitals unable to have family and friends around them in those last few precious moments. Even many of those that have survived have been put on ventilators and had their lives changed forever as they try to recover. Worst of all, it has not quietly slipped away, but like a bully, intensified its wrath as we enter the “dark winter.”

Jobs have been lost. Hours cut. Too many hardworking people on the razor’s edge of homelessness. Heartbreaking images of thousands of cars and people standing in line at Thanksgiving for a handout of food. Food pantries strained and breaking.

How many small businesses have closed their doors never to open again? For many of those that have somehow survived, it might take months or even years to get back to the financial health they enjoyed before and many never will. Even houses of worship are not exempt from this pain. Going to church, mosque, or temple is a habit. Like any routine, once broken, it is awful tough to climb back on that horse again.

Trevor Soderstrum

Feelings of isolation and depression are rampant. Suicides are on the rise. Alcoholism. Divorces skyrocketing. Difficult marriages are often made more difficult when people cannot take a break from each other. Children falling educationally further and further behind. State budgets strained. Our health care system overwhelmed. Our politics, nasty to begin with, have somehow gotten nastier, causing friendships to become strained and broken. Too many Americans, trying to gain a sense of control, believe in conspiracies that just aren’t real. Riots and protests play out on television sets because we are unwilling to deal with racism and the legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. Climate change goes unchecked.

All that is missing is a Greek chorus to make the tragedy of 2020 complete. I am saying nothing new that you have not heard a thousand times before. Yet, the Christmas season is upon us. Trees will still go up, lights strung, carols sung, presents wrapped and sales advertised like this awful, awful year isn’t happening. Yet, I think a lot lately about a story one of my mentors, Fred Craddock, told me decades ago about a man named Oswald Golter.

Oswald Golter was an agriculture minister and American missionary in northern China who had the bad luck of being in the country when the Communists took over in 1938. He was placed under house arrest. Cut off from the outside world, he spent almost a decade not knowing if he would ever see his home and family again. There were times when he wondered if he was going to live to see the next day.

It must have been a magical day for him when World War II ended and he was informed by Chinese officials that he could finally go home. His mission board sent him the funds for a ticket and he made his way down to India where he was to await passage on a ship that would finally take him back to the United States.

It was Christmas time when he arrived in India. Like today, a tough time for a lot of people, especially Jews. After suffering through the Holocaust, too many of them finding themselves displaced. They were a people that no country wanted. Prior to a Jewish homeland being founded, they were put on boats and sailed aimlessly looking for a place that would take them in. At every port, they were informed that there was no room for them there.

Oswald heard that one of these ships had been allowed to dock in the port he was at. The poor refugees onboard were allowed to stay in some filthy barns and back buildings until they could be put back on their vessel to be sent on their way again.

It being Christmas Eve, he decided to make his way to the pier to visit them. Walking into the crowded building, he looked at these people seemingly broken by life and said, “Merry Christmas.” They replied, “We’re Jews. We don’t believe in Christmas.” “I know, I know,” Golter answered them. “But Merry Christmas anyway.” “We’re Jews,” they again reaffirmed him. Trying to make small talk, Oswald asked them, “What do you want for Christmas?” “We told you that we are not Christians. We don’t celebrate Christmas.” “But if you did, what would you want?” To get rid of him, one of the elders replied, “Oh, some German pastries.”

Touching on memories of when times were good, before they lost their homes in Germany, several of them described these pastries to him. When they were done, Golter left. As he walked out, I am sure most of them thought they would never see him again.

What would you do in the face of such overwhelming heartache? Oswald searched the town for a shop that sold the pastries these refugees had described to him. In order to afford racks and racks of these tasty treats so that each one of the refugees could enjoy them, Oswald sold his ticket home to pay for them.

Basket after basket of these pastries were paraded into the barns. As the people ate them, for a moment, they were not homeless. Life had not broken them. All the pain, all the suffering, disappeared for a few moments. In that dirty outbuilding, it truly was Christmas or as close as we can get in this world.

It took Oswald Golter months to finally get back home to his family and friends. He was chastised for doing such a foolish thing. “Mr. Golter, why would you do such a foolish thing? You put needless hardship on yourself for mere pastries. They don’t even believe in Jesus.” “I know,” the former missionary replied. “But I do.”

This pandemic is overwhelming, the grief, the pain, the ugliness. We claim this is a Christian nation, that we follow a homeless child, for whom there was no room, born in a dirty, filthy barn surrounded by farm animals. Call it a manger or whatever you want, it is still a heartbreaking place to come into this world. His parents had to run for their lives, leaving behind everyone near and dear to them, family, friends. We sing hymns and kneel before a youngster who became a refugee, a stranger in a strange land. It was far from a good year for a peasant couple named Mary and Joseph.

It is so easy to whine and complain, to become jaded or depressed, to say, “I got mine.” It is a lot tougher to say the words, “But I do.” To say to the single mother overwhelmed with medical bills, “But I do.” To say to the elderly person isolated and alone in a nursing home, “But I do.” To say to someone who is on the edge of losing everything, “But I do.” The immigrant. The dreamer. The outcast. The child who goes to bed hungry. The individual watching their dreams fall apart at the seams. “But I do.”

Each and everyone of us knows someone who needs to feel Christmas in their lives this year. I don’t know what their pastry is, maybe it is toys under a tree, a pair of shoes, a bill mysteriously paid off, groceries that magically appear on their front steps, a song outside a window, but you do. We cannot solve the world’s problems, but we can give someone a moment of true Christmas. They might not even call it Christmas. We can say, “But I do.”

Little things like pastries are more magical than we will ever comprehend. Make this the year that you say, “But I do.” Merry Christmas.

Columnist Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He can be reached at