(Slightly Adapted From Thomas S. Monson, “The Spirit of the Season,” Christmas Devotional 2009.)
It happened in December of 1970, in the congested Atlanta, Georgia Airport. Thousands of weary travelers were stranded because an ice storm had seriously delayed air travel, and these people were trying to get wherever they most wanted to be for Christmas–most likely home.
As the midnight hour tolled, unhappy passengers clustered around ticket counters, conferring anxiously with agents whose cheerfulness had long since evaporated. They, too, wanted to be home. A few people managed to doze in uncomfortable seats. Others gathered at the newsstands to thumb silently through paperback books.
If there was a common bond among this diverse throng, it was loneliness–pervasive, inescapable, suffocating loneliness. But airport decorum required that each traveler maintain his or her invisible barrier against all the others. Better to be lonely than to be involved, which inevitably meant listening to the complaints of gloomy and disheartened fellow travelers.
The fact of the matter was that there were more passengers than there were available seats on any of the planes. And, when an occasional plane managed to break out, more travelers stayed behind than made it aboard. The words “Standby,” “Reservation confirmed,” and “First-class passenger” settled priorities and bespoke money, power, influence, foresight–or the lack thereof.
Gate 67 was a microcosm of the whole cavernous airport. Scarcely more than a glassed-in cubicle, it was jammed with travelers hoping to fly to New Orleans, Dallas, and points west. Except for the fortunate few traveling in pairs, there was little conversation. A salesman stared absently into space, as if resigned. A young mother cradled an infant in her arms, gently rocking in a vain effort to soothe the soft whimpering.
Then there was a man in a finely tailored grey flannel suit who somehow seemed impervious to the collective suffering. There was a certain indifference about his manner. He was absorbed in paperwork–figuring the year-end corporate profits, perhaps. A nerve-frayed traveler sitting nearby, observing this busy man, might have identified him as an Ebenezer Scrooge.
Suddenly, the relative silence was broken by a commotion as a young man in military uniform, no more than 19 years old, conversed animatedly with the desk agent. The boy held a low-priority ticket. He pleaded with the agent to help him get to New Orleans so that he could take the bus to the obscure Louisiana village he called home.
The agent wearily told him the prospects were poor for the next 24 hours, maybe longer. The boy grew frantic. Immediately after Christmas his unit was to be sent to Vietnam–where at that time war was raging–and if he didn’t make this flight, he might never again spend Christmas at home. Even the businessman in the grey flannel suit looked up from his cryptic computations to show a guarded interest. The agent clearly was moved, even a bit embarrassed. But he could only offer sympathy–not hope. The boy stood at the departure desk, casting anxious looks around the crowded room as if seeking just one friendly face.
Finally, the agent announced that the flight was ready for boarding. The travelers, who had been waiting long hours, heaved themselves up, gathered their belongings, and shuffled down the small corridor to the waiting aircraft: twenty, thirty, a hundred–until there were no more seats. The agent turned to the frantic young soldier and shrugged.
Inexplicably, the businessman had lingered behind. Now he stepped forward. “I have a confirmed ticket,” he quietly told the agent. “I’d like to give my seat to this young man.” The agent stared incredulously; then he motioned to the soldier. Unable to speak, tears streaming down his face, the boy in olive drab shook hands with the man in the gray flannel suit, who simply murmured, “Good luck. Have a fine Christmas. Good luck.”
As the plane door closed and the engines began their rising whine, the businessman turned away, clutching his briefcase, and trudged toward the all-night restaurant.
No more than a few among the thousands stranded there at the Atlanta airport witnessed the drama at Gate 67. But for those who did, the sullenness, the frustration, the hostility–all dissolved into a glow. That act of love and kindness between strangers had brought the spirit of Christmas into their hearts.
The lights of the departing plane blinked, starlike, as the craft moved off into the darkness. The infant slept silently now in the lap of the young mother. Perhaps another flight would be leaving before many more hours. But those who witnessed the interchange were less impatient. The glow lingered, gently, pervasively, in that small glass and plastic stable at Gate 67.
President Monson then writes,
My brothers and sisters, finding the real joy of the season comes not in the hurrying and the scurrying to get more done or in the purchasing of obligatory gifts. Real joy comes as we show the love and compassion inspired by the Savior of the World, who said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these . . . ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).