One Christmas morning a few years ago, an army chaplain decided to join some squaddies in their armoured vehicle for a routine patrol in downtown Baghdad. As they drove through the dry dusty streets, they were only too aware of the possible dangers that they either saw or imagined in every person or pile of rubble that they came across. As usual, they drove at walking pace.
Within about ten minutes, they found themselves surrounded by a silent crowd.
They soon realised that there was nothing to fear because the “crowd” consisted of about 20 skinny-looking, shabbily-dressed young children. They had that beige monochromatic look that we are all used to seeing in television reports – thin dusty faces, sand-matted hair , barefoot with beige and white ripped clothes. These were street kids.
The chaplain signalled the driver to stop. The children came closer and closer, until some were actually touching the hot metal of the vehicle’s bodywork. The chaplain, being the good man that he was, always carried sweets – not chocolate, because that tended to melt in these temperatures – just a paper bag full of ordinary boiled sweets.
He leaned out of his window, held the open bag of sweets and smiled at the kids.
The children all held their hands out – obviously not quite trusting the smartly-dressed British Officer, but gradually, one-by one they started to come towards the chaplain and his sweets. Eventually, there was a bit of a rush and within a minute, all the sweets (and the bag) had gone.
Gradually, the laughing children dispersed and their excited chatter left with them.
The armoured car remained parked until all of the children had disappeared and the street was back to the familiar grown-up adult bustle of diggers lifting the rubble of bombed houses, squeaky wheelbarrows and arguing workers with shovels and picks.
The chaplain had enjoyed the moment. The sound of childrens’ laughter reminded him of his own children back home. He imagined his young son’s and daughter’s squeals of delight that very morning as they opened their Christmas presents without him. He felt sad but at the same time, he felt warm inside and felt that he had just been given a small taste of Christmas.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a girl of about 11 sitting on a pile of rocks, just a few feet away from him. He waved at her – but nothing. She just stared. He felt his pockets but he had no more sweets to give.
He decided to be silly and started to pull faces at her. He rolled his eyes, stuck his tongue out, stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers. His driver remained “eyes forward” – he knew that it was best not to look at an officer – chaplain or not- who was making a prat of himself.
Gradually, the skinny little girl began to relax, became a bit more confident. Soon she smiled began to look a little bit more animated. After a few more minutes of the chaplain’s silliness, she was laughing.
Two minutes later, the girl stood and walked slowly towards the vehicle. The chaplain noticed that she had both arms down by her sides – as if she was trying to conceal something. For a brief moment, the chaplain felt a slight “frisson” of alarm, having heard of child bombers being told that they could detonate a bomb without any harm coming to them.
Nevertheless, he stepped out of the vehicle and stood – waiting for her to approach.
She stopped only an arm’s length away and looked him straight in the eyes and continued to smile.
The chaplain could now see quite clearly how underweight and probably very hungry she was. He thought about two things simultaneously. Firstly, whether she was a bomber and whether there was anything to give her to eat on this Christmas morning – but he had nothing useful to give. She continued to stare.
Her cheeks were hollow but her eyes shone like diamonds.
Slowly, the girl stretched both arms towards him with two clenched fists turned downwards. Her gaze never left his face. Then she turned her clenched fists so that they were pointing upwards.
Then…she opened her hands, palms-up.
As she opened her hands, he was surprised to see that there was a boiled sweet on each palm. She smiled the broadest smile and nodded, indicating that he should take one of the sweets.
She didn’t move or flinch as he reached out and took a sweet. “Thank you,” he said.
She didn’t understand what the English soldier had said to her. All she knew was that ten minutes previously, he had given all of his sweets away to the other children and she had accidentally taken two sweets.
She thought that she would give one back to the soldier, so that he too had a sweet.
That small, simple act of generosity by a hungry little Muslim girl reminded the chaplain of what we call “the Spirit of Christmas” is all about.