By JD Rockel
December 27, 2026
With Christmas being on a Friday and all the events leading up to it, the DeLuca family did not go to the Christmas Eve service at Orchard Hills Church as they normally did. Instead, they waited until Sunday morning and went with the entire Weston family. In addition, Tony invited Harold and his boys to come over Sunday evening for dinner and a gift exchange. Everyone was delighted with the plan.
The Weston family arrived at the DeLuca’s house about half an hour before dinner. Renata had sent Lee and Sofie to their friend’s house to spend the night. The rest of the family scurried about cooking, setting tables, and making sure everything was perfect.
Tony was the first to the door. “Welcome, everyone. We are so glad to have you with us for the holiday.” The girls hovered as closely as possible to help their men with coats. It had been snowing and everyone was enjoying a white Christmas. Harold and his sons did their best to knock snow off their shoes before stepping inside.
“I’ll take those gifts from you, Harold. Considering the snow, we would appreciate you removing your shoes.” Tony continued, “We bought new slippers for each of you for this very purpose. The girls helped pick out sizes. I don’t think it was too hard as they only had medium and large.”
Tony and the girls laughed to try and lighten the mood. This was the first time the whole Weston family was over for a full evening. And being Christmas, they were acutely aware that Harold might be feeling down without Abigail. The house was brightly lit with many decorations. An overloaded and brilliantly lit Christmas tree was the centerpiece.
Tony walked over to the tree and put the gifts under it. The girls took the boys’ coats and Tony took Harold’s. Rosa offered to take the three coats to a bedroom. John went with her down the hall in his socks. The slippers fit the other two, they were all sized large, and once the shoes were lined up by the front door on a boot parker, the remaining men ventured into the house further.
Renata was hovering just behind the leather sofa wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. “Harold, Jerry, you are looking amazing after that ordeal. How is the arm healing, Jerry?”
“It’s healing well EM.”
“EM?” Harold sounded confused. “Who or what is EM?”
Renata, Jerry, and Ella laughed. “It stands for ‘Ella’s Mom’”, Jerry offered. I started using it on my first day here when Ella and I watched videos.”
“It was somewhat my doing,” Renata added. “Hearing ‘Mrs. DeLuca’ made me feel rather old. Jerry came up with ‘EM’ and I haven’t discouraged him.”
“Well, if it’s OK with you, I have no problem,” Harold said.
“Believe me, Harold, Jerry is polite and respectful every time he’s here.”
“Regarding my arm, EM, it has been itching up a storm which I understand is very good.”
This time Harold laughed at the ‘EM’ reference. He appeared to be relaxing. Renata was very glad.
Rosa and John returned from the bedroom and Rosa ran ahead to get his slippers. “Here you go, John. I hope they fit.”
John put his hand on Rosa’s shoulder for balance to put them on. Rosa didn’t mind John’s touch at all. “They fit great,” John said, smiling. “And they are fuzzy inside. My favorite.”
More laughter. “Liam, I don’t want you to be left out.” Renata gestured to the kitchen inviting Liam to join them. “He has been a great help getting dinner prepared.” Liam came around the kitchen island. His head was down, and his shoulders slumped forward a bit. He looked a bit awkward to Renata. Social events like this were not his favorite times. He experienced the trap of falling too deeply into conversations that were intended to be small talk. As a result, he tended to hold back during social settings.
Rosa and Ella were sensitive to this awkward time in their younger brother’s life. They did their best to let him be involved when the boys were over. But this was understandably difficult as each of them wanted to be as alone as possible with their boyfriends.
“We haven’t made big plans for the evening,” Ella started, “except for the gift exchange. But perhaps we could play a board game after dinner. Liam has a big collection of games from Candy Land on up.”
“I do not have Candy Land,” Liam voiced defensively. Everyone laughed loudly.
“No, you don’t, Liam. I’m sorry. Liam does have a great collection of fun and challenging games.”
Renata tried to squelch any negative emotions. “Maybe the boys would like to look through your games after dinner, Liam. I’m sure they would find something new to try.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Ella looked at Liam apologetically. Renata knew that look in her eyes.
“It’s OK Ella. I would love to show Jerry and John my games later.”
A kitchen timer beeped. Renata excused herself and went to the stove. After looking under a few pot covers, she announced, “Dinner’s ready.”
Small talk at dinner was fun for everyone. There were no difficult topics or probing questions. Everyone was jovial and helped clear the table after they were done.
John and Jerry joined Liam to look at board games. They returned with three, placed them on the cleared dining room table, and invited everyone to choose a game to play. Tony and Harold went to sit by the fireplace while Renata joined the five young gamesters to see what games were for the choosing.
Liam explained the games. “These are probably the most eclectic three games I have. We chose ‘Ticket to Ride’ in case the adults wanted to play, ‘Wingspan’ for its ease and beauty, and ‘Pandemic’ to raise unbridled fear and anxiety.”
“I’m just interested in seeing what you guys choose,” Renata chuckled.
“I have no interest in fear or anxiety,” Rosa interjected. “Tell me about ‘Wingspan’.”
Liam came to life and spent the next five minutes expounding the virtues of the game.
“Let’s do it then,” Ella said, wanting to play.
The young adults began to spread out the game board and pieces.
“I’m leaving now,” Renata said as she left the room. “Have fun.”
Renata joined Tony and Harold in the family room. Harold sat facing the fireplace and Tony was on the other couch to his left. Renata sat next to Tony setting a Bible in her lap.
“I am so glad that Jerry is recovering well,” Tony was saying. “That was an experience not to be repeated.”
“Indeed no,” Harold replied. “I am so grateful Ella kept a clear head and could help him right away.”
“I asked Ella about what was going through her mind,” Renata added. “She seemed to know what to do. She said it was more instinct than thought. I want to believe God was guiding her. I don’t know how she would know what to do otherwise.”
“No matter how it happened, I am so very thankful.” Harold’s eyes glistened in the firelight as tears formed.
Tony probed a bit deeper. “While Jerry’s injuries were unquestionably stressful, I’m sure this time of year has its stress with memories of Abigail. How are you holding up?”
“I can’t deny that I am struggling. If Jerry hadn’t recovered, I don’t know where I would be. Jerry talked with me the other day about his new belief in Jesus. He was elusive when I asked why he chose to believe, but he is convinced Abigail is in heaven with Jesus. I want to believe him but I’m still struggling with the concept of salvation.”
“We would never minimize the difficulty that comes with any decision,” Renata said to assure Harold there was no judgment here. “Everyone is different. For some people, it seems obvious to believe while others can never come to accept the story of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. I’m glad you are considering what you have heard from us and in church. We will do anything we can to help you understand. But we won’t force it on you.”
“I appreciate you saying that Renata. I do feel comfortable talking with you two and I haven’t felt pressured by anyone at church. It is refreshing compared to stories I have heard from friends.”
“Harold, tell me if I am close to understanding your concerns. I think we can all agree that we don’t live up to the standards of a perfect, holy God. He is the standard of right and wrong for everyone. Am I correct that it is His requirement for eternal punishment that gives you trouble?”
“Yes, Tony. That seems to contradict the message that God is love.”
“I understand. That is a valid point. Let me try to explain it this way. God uses concepts and pictures that are common and understandable to us. Right versus wrong; good versus evil; light versus darkness. Living in this world, the difference between right and wrong may seem gray at times. We all tell little white lies, don’t we? We try to justify these wrongs by saying, ‘I did it for the greater good’.
“But to God, anything that is less than His perfect righteousness is considered unacceptable. He cannot tolerate it. I think you have already mentioned your understanding of this, Harold.”
“Yes, Tony, that makes sense to me. A perfect God wouldn’t tolerate any wrongdoing.”
“To understand eternal punishment,” Tony continued, “we need to understand the bigger picture of God’s plan for us. First, God had created the angels to have fellowship with. They see His glory because they live in His realm. But God created them with free will and because of self-centered pride, some of them rebelled.”
“That sounds like humanity to me,” Harold said.
“Good,” Tony continued. “You already see the connection. I think God saw the level of fellowship that existed between the angels and Himself and devised a way fellowship could be even deeper. What if God created beings that didn’t see His glory directly, but saw a reflection of His glory and perfection in the realm in which they lived?
“God created space and time for humanity. He created a universe so vast that even with our advanced telescopes we can’t see all of it. He created the earth with such diversity and complexity it couldn’t have evolved naturally. And He created life on the earth to reproduce itself. There is no evidence angels can do this.”
Harold looked off into space, deep in thought. “So, I think you are saying that by only giving us a picture of God’s greatness through the world around us, our recognition of God as creator makes our love for Him deeper than what the angels experience.”
“I admit there’s a bit of speculation in this,” Tony replied, “but it makes sense to me.”
It was clear Harold was connected to the conversation. “Fair enough, but how does this relate to eternal punishment?”
“God is eternal. The beings He creates for fellowship are eternal. We have been placed in this time bubble and because of sin, we die a physical death. But our soul, the essence of our being, lives on. The Bible says there are two destinies for all created beings, both us and angels. If we live in fellowship with God through Jesus, we live forever with Him. If we trust in ourselves, our eternity is separated from God in hell.
“The punishment is determined by how we lived our lives on earth. To what extent did our life reflect our selfish desires? However, because of God’s nature, even one infraction of His perfect ways justifies punishment. No one can justify himself before God. Hence, the only way we can be justified before a holy God is for a holy human to be punished. Jesus took our sins upon himself and paid our penalty. Salvation from eternal punishment only comes by believing Jesus died for us.”
Tony paused and Harold once again looked off into space to formulate his thoughts. “So if I understand you correctly, because God fashioned us to live in this constraint of time, we have to choose whether to accept His gift of salvation before we die physically.”
Renata jumped in, “You’ve got it, Harold. There is a verse in Second Corinthians chapter five that summarizes the whole story beautifully. Paul writes, ‘So we tenderly plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Turn back to God and be reconciled to him”. For God made the only one who did not know sin to become sin for us, so that we who did not know righteousness might become the righteousness of God through our union with him.’ God transforms us into righteous people when we accept the sacrifice of Jesus.”
“Well put, Ren.” Tony added, “I know this sounds complicated when we try to explain all the details. I do not have all the answers, but what I believe with all my heart is that Jesus is God. As the Son of God, He was born without a sin nature and lived a sinless life to be an example of how we can live with God’s power. He took our sin upon Himself and died on a Roman cross. After three days in the tomb, he rose from the grave. He ascended to heaven and will come again to give us new life and rule the earth as King.”
Tony was done and the three sat in silence for a long moment.
After a few moments Harold broke the silence. “So, you are saying that it is belief and acceptance of the work that God has done on our behalf that saves us. I will have to let this all settle for a while, Tony. You and Renata have been wonderful to me and my boys. I especially appreciate that you aren’t pushing me to make a decision.”
“Honestly, Harold,” Renata said softly, “it is hard not to push. We realize how great the stakes are, eternal life versus eternal punishment. But we also know the decision has to be solely yours. God wants a relationship with you above all else. He loves you. From what I have heard, Abigail understood that. Making this decision means a lifelong commitment. We are just here to help.”
Another pause of silence. Renata could see the glistening of tears in Harold’s eyes.
Suddenly, from the dining room came an exuberant, “We won!”
“We won!” both girls screamed. Their giggling and laughter filled the house.
Running out of the dining room Ella said, “Mom, Dad, Rosa and I beat the boys playing Wingspan.”
The three adults twisted to see the commotion. “That’s wonderful, dear,” Renata replied. “I think this would be a wonderful time to make some hot cocoa, bring out the cookies, and open presents.”
“Not fair, you guys!” Liam shouted as he followed the other two boys out of the room.
“What happened?” Renata stood up to start preparations for snacks.
“Rosa and Ella only selected grassland birds. Everything just fell into place for them. We didn’t stand a chance.”
“Sounds intriguing. Way over my head, though. You boys put the games away and us girls will make cocoa.”
Harold and Tony had stayed seated during the commotion. “I think we will just stay here out of the way, Ren.”
“Good idea, Tony. Enjoy the fire and chill.”
“Is that possible, Mom,” Liam asked with a smirk on his face, “to chill in front of a file?”.
“Very funny. Just clean up, Liam,” Renata said chuckling.
The three boys collected all the game pieces and eventually came back out with the boxes. Down the hall they went to put them away. It was obvious the three had bonded as a team.
Rosa and Ella joined their mom in the kitchen. Rosa went for the cocoa and Ella found cookies in a bottom cabinet. Renata got some plates and ceramic mugs ready to pass out.
“Is anyone lactose intolerant?” Rosa called out. No one responded. “I’m making all the cocoa with milk then.”
It took a few minutes for the milk to heat. Rosa was the best at making milk-based cocoa. She never scalded the milk. A skill Renata had yet to master.
The boys returned before too long. “Go find a place to sit, boys,” Renata instructed. She carried in the dishes allowing each one to take a plate and mug.
The boys split up to make room for the girls on the sofas. Being the odd one out, Liam left space for the others and sat on the end near the fireplace. Ella brought out a big tray of cookies and placed them on the coffee table in front of the sofas. A few more minutes passed, and Rosa called out, “The cocoa’s ready.”
Rosa walked in with a teapot. “Who wants hot cocoa?” she asked.
People held out their mugs as Rosa moved past. “It’s very hot, so be careful.”
Renata glowed at how nicely Rosa and Ella had been to their guests. Ella settled in next to her mom and Jerry. He was trying not to scratch his arm, still wrapped in the large bandage. When Rosa finished pouring the cocoa, she set the pot on a trivet on the coffee table. With a contented grin on her face, she sat down next to John. He put his arm around her shoulder, and she snuggled in next to him.
“How are we going to distribute the gifts?” Renata asked.
Ella lit up. “In our tradition, the youngest handed out presents. Until Liam was old enough, Rosa did the job; I was born first, you know.”
“Yeah, and I have been stuck with the job ever since,” Liam added. Everyone laughed hard. “Lee and Sofie should be here. They can take over now.”
Jerry joined in the fray, “Dad was our Santa every year.”
Harold’s eyes opened wide.
Renata quickly rescued Harold. “We shouldn’t impose on our guests tonight. Tony, would you please do the honors?”
“Sure, I would love to.” Tony got up and went over to the tree. He selected three gifts and came back to the sofas. “I found one for Harold, one for John, and one for Jerry.” Tony handed them out and sat back down next to Renata.
“Jerry, open yours first,” Harold said.
“The tag says it’s from you, Ella.”
“I hope it doesn’t traumatize you, Jerr. I bought it before your accident.” Ella’s face showed trepidation as she bit on her finger.
Jerry untied a simple ribbon and ripped the wrapping paper off. He froze when he saw the box but continued to open it. “It’s a pocketknife,” he said, holding up the knife. “I can handle this. I appreciate the thought Ella, I think. Thank you.”
Ella’s face brightened up as Jerry leaned over and kissed her. She happily returned the kiss.
“John, how ‘bout you go next,” Harold said.
John’s gift was a lot larger. It had a big red bow on it. John took the bow off and put it on Rosa’s head. She giggled and reached up to feel it there.
Ripping off the wrapping paper, John looked at the book inside. His face went briefly blank and then brightened up. “It’s a study Bible. I have been wanting one for myself.”
“I did some research and I think this one will serve you well,” Rosa said, looking at him with a big grin on her face.
John put the Bible in his lap, wrapped his arms around Rosa, and gave her a big hug and kiss.
When John finished his kiss, he took the lead and said, “OK, Dad, it’s your turn.”
“The tag says it’s from Tony and Renata.” Harold ripped the angel-covered wrapping paper off and held up a leather-covered Bible. “Wow, this is thin compared to the ones you guys carry. What’s been left out?”
Tony and Renata laughed. “Don’t you worry, Harold, all the Bible books are in there,” Tony assured. “I thought you could start with an easy-to-read Bible without all the extra notes and references.”
Harold noticed there was a bookmark already in the Bible. He opened it and found the gospel of John.
“I highly recommend you start there, Harold. I think it’s the clearest description of the life of Jesus.”
Harold wiped a tear away from each eye. “You guys have been unbelievably nice to us all. I realize the girls have their reasons to be nice to my boys, but your kindness and generosity have spoken volumes to me.”
Renata glanced over at Jerry and John. More tears were being wiped away. “We hope we are reflecting a little of the love of Jesus to you,” she said.
“I hate to ruin the moment,” Ella said, “but can we get our presents now?”
More laughter ensued and Tony stood up to find more gifts. He found gifts for Liam, the girls, Renata, and himself.
John spoke up. “Jerry and I want the girls to open their gifts last.” A shocked look of disbelief and curiosity erupted on both girls’ faces. “Liam, why don’t you go first.”
The girls kept quiet as Liam began opening his present. “Awesome,” he said when he saw what was inside. “It’s a book of Hubble AND James Webb telescope images.”
Rosa offered, “I helped John pick it out for you. You are so into physics and astronomy right now.”
“Thank you so much, guys. I really appreciate this.”
“You’re next, Mrs. D,” John added.
“OK.” This wrapping included a bow. Renata took it off and reached over to put it on Tony’s head. “The tag says it’s from you, Harold.” When the Christmas tree-covered paper came off, she found a plain cardboard box. The tape holding it closed came off easily and Renata looked inside.
She took some tissue paper out and froze, eyes wide with astonishment. “Harold, it’s beautiful.”
“Let us all see, Mom,” Ella said, leaning over toward her.
Renata took the gift out of the box. “It’s a porcelain angel.” She held it out for all to see. Rosa left her seat to take a closer look.
“Harold, where did you find this?” Renata was beaming.
“It belonged to Abigail. We have a collection at home that we keep as a remembrance of her. It was a hobby of hers, collecting angels.”
“I am humbled that you would share this with us. Abigail is now a part of our family as well. We will all treasure this, Harold. Thank you so much.”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Weston,” Ella offered. Everyone’s eyes glistened with tender tears.
“OK, Tony, your turn,” Harold said, trying to avoid more tears.
Tony paused a moment to regain his composure. His gift was long and narrow. He tried to rip off the paper, but there was so much tape on it that he couldn’t find a starting point.
“Jerry, may I borrow your knife? I think someone has tried to make this difficult for me.” He looked over at Harold who wore a crooked smile.
“Sure, Mr. D.” Jerry handed him the knife, fully closed. Tony pulled the blade out and carefully began to pick away at the tape. After a bit of struggle, he found a sweet spot and was able to slice through the entire length of the wrapping. He carefully closed the knife, not wanting to ruin the evening’s festivities with a careless cut.
“What in the world is this?” Tony pulled out what looked like an eighteen-inch-long wooden match. The stick portion was square, and the tip had a red blob that looked like a match tip. Harold kept his quirky lips tight together as Tony investigated the match.
Finding a lever near the bottom, he flicked it. A flame shot out the tip. “It’s an electric match.”
Harold broke his silence. “Remember when you asked me why your tabletop grill sent a fireball up toward your face? This match should help keep that from happening again.”
Rosa was the first to laugh, followed quickly by everyone except Jerry and John. Their perplexed faces called for an explanation.
Ella turned to the boys and through her laughter said, “When we were about six years old, we were on a picnic at Menomonee Park. Dad had trouble getting his electric match to stay lit in the wind and propane built up in the bottom of the grill. When he finally got the match to stay lit and put it down into the grill, a fireball shot up into his face. He fell backward onto the ground and his eyebrows were all singed. We were all scared until he opened his eyes and started to sit up.”
“Just remember, Tony,” Harold struggled to say amidst his laughter, “the match goes down into the grill first. Then you turn the propane on and click the match.”
“I remember, Harold. And this gift will ensure I never forget.”
Rosa reminisced, “Ella, do you remember the Salamander we caught that day?”
“I sure do, Rosa. We were all so intrigued by that little thing.”
“And as I recall,” Renata added, “Ella was convinced it was a girl Salamander. She said, ‘a girl knows these things.’”
The room erupted in laughter. Renata raised her cocoa mug and said, “Here’s to a wonderful friendship. Merry Christmas to all.”
“Merry Christmas,” everyone replied.
“Wait a minute,” Rosa interjected. “We haven’t opened our gifts yet.”
The laughter continued. Jerry finally gained some control and was able to say, “Ella. Rosa. John and I want you to open your gifts at the same time.”
With puzzled looks, the two girls complied. Their presents had little bows on them, and the bows quickly ended up on the boys’ heads.
Under the gift wrap were jewelry boxes. The girls carefully opened their boxes at the same time. They lifted out necklaces, each with intertwined hearts, but distinct from one another.
Jerry continued to explain, “John and I both want to declare our love to you two. We know it’s too early to consider marriage, but you can consider these promises to continue our relationship. I love you Ella and want that love to grow.”
“And I love you Rosa and want our love to grow,” John added.
Ella and Rosa lunged at their beaus and hugged them. Tears flowed freely down their faces and onto the boys’ shoulders.
Ella spoke first. “Oh, Jerry, hearing you say that makes me so happy. I know I said it before, but when you were cut and laying on the school floor, I was afraid my life was over. I see now that God can use the most awful events to bring the best results into our lives.”
Rosa added, “I agree with Ella, John. I am so happy right now. God has spared us from tragedy, but we don’t know what the future holds. I only know that I want to face the future together with you.”
Rosa wiped the tears off her face. John and Jerry were beaming. Everyone else was sharing in the joy of the moment. Renata especially couldn’t hold back her tears. The boys helped Ella and Rosa put the necklaces on. More hugs and kisses followed.
Tony stood up and held his hands up in the air with his palms facing down as a covering over the families. “Almighty God, our loving heavenly Father, thank you for this evening. May our families be bound together in Your love and grace. We ask Your blessing upon us in the name of Your son Jesus.”
Everyone responded, “Amen”.