AMERICA'S best-known Yuletide poem begins, " 'Twas the night before Christmas." With its images of new-fallen snow and dancing sugar plums, it's a keeper.
But my favorite Christmas poem is by the American philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, who is more focused on the days after we've opened all those gifts.
It goes like this:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
May these four tales inspire you to "begin the work of Christmas" once the last crumbs of fruitcake are gone.
Three weeks ago, Patty Bispels, 48, came home from work to find a big box on the front porch of her Croydon home. It held seven days' worth of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts.
A packing slip showed that the box should have been delivered to another house on the block.
She walked over, knocked on the door, and "Edna" answered (she asks that her photo and real name not be used). She was 89 and widowed, she told Patty, and received a weekly food box from a nonprofit that provides meals to the elderly.
Edna had lived on the block for 50 years. Her son was deceased, and her daughter and grandchildren lived out west. She'd thought about moving there, but preferred her own space and things. Still, her days were too quiet and lonely. She'd spent Thanksgiving by herself, watching TV.
Patty, a hospital executive, had moved to Croydon in September. She sometimes got lonely, too. Her daughter, 20, lives with her but was rarely home, she told Edna. And she missed her old neighborhood friends.
"We talked and talked," said Patty. "The time flew."
Patty offered to help decorate Edna's home for Christmas, but Edna had gotten rid of her decorations because no one stopped by anymore. Friends and loved ones had all died or moved away.
"I felt so sad," says Patty. "Here was this really sweet, interesting woman, and she was all alone."
The next day, Patty bought Edna a tabletop tree and decorated it. She also asked Facebook friends to send Edna Christmas cards. They responded with sweet notes, gift cards, and even a huge poinsettia.
"I didn't know what the heck was going on!" says Edna.
The two women are now great friends who talk every day. Patty brings Edna little treats and puts out Edna's trash for her. Edna asks about Patty's day at work. This week, when Patty hosted a Christmas-cookie-exchange party at her home, Edna was the guest of honor. Everyone wanted to meet her because they'd heard so much about her.
"It was nice to hear voices that weren't coming from the TV," says Edna. "Patty is just about the nicest person I've ever met."
Says Patty, "I think that box on my front porch was divine intervention. We needed each other."
Kevin McCann, 47, was having a rough day in rehab. In October 2015, he'd come down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, in which the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system, causing paralysis. Within days, he went from feeling fine to fighting for his life in an ICU.
He survived those first terrifying weeks, eventually entering Moss Rehab Hospital in Elkins Park for inpatient therapy to regain strength while his nerves slowly regenerated. His prognosis was hopeful, but he was worried.
Kevin owns StoneSearch Partners, an executive-search firm. But he lives for his side gig: lead guitarist and vocalist for the Bucks County-based Little Red Rooster Blues Band.
"I'm all about the music," says McCann, whose band formed in 1988 and was inducted into the International Blues Hall of fame in 2015. "It gets into you."
One slow weekend at Moss, a second-year physiatry resident named Drew Isleib rapped on Kevin's door. Isleib, 38, who was a professional musician in his younger years, was hunkered down at Moss in anticipation of a blizzard. He had two guitars - his own and one from the therapy room - and asked if Kevin wanted to jam.
"I was afraid to say yes," says Kevin, whose fingers were fine but who hadn't the strength to lift his arm. The men used an ingenious sling - attaching an Ace bandage to an IV pole - to allow him to play. Over the next four hours, the men strummed, sang, and noodled over the frets.
It was bliss.
"I actually forgot I was in a hospital," says Kevin, emotionally. "Until that day, I'd been afraid to think about ever playing again. I didn't want to face what I'd feel if I couldn't. That day was a turning point. I was rusty, but I knew that playing again wasn't an if but a when. It was the most powerful moment in my recovery."
Drew was moved, too. As a resident, the exhaustion and responsibility sometimes felt like something to "get through," he says.
"But after my experience with Kevin, I really got the sense that I was where I was supposed to be," he says. "I got into physiatry because I'm inspired by the prospect of helping people recover function. To be part of Kevin's recovery was a privilege. Hearing the impact that afternoon had on Kevin reaffirmed what I've chosen to do with my life."
Last week, Kevin, who is 95 percent recovered, returned to Moss for its holiday party and played with a bandmate in the therapy room where he once struggled to walk. The highlight was when Drew sat in on a few songs.
"What a difference from last year," says Kevin. "What a joy."
Almost everyone at Hill House apartments in Chestnut Hill knows Fran Duffy, 68. Those who don't have probably eaten the baked goods she sets out every day in the lobby.
She doesn't eat them herself. Two massive strokes have left her unable to eat (she uses a feeding tube) or speak (she uses an iPad to communicate). And her right side is partially paralyzed.
But Fran manages to bake, every single day. Boxes of her chocolate-chip cookies and mini cheesecakes cover her kitchen counter; lemon bars sit in the fridge, awaiting the next sweet-toothed recipient. She makes them for the homeless men and women who attend the Welcome Church downtown, run by her friend Violet Little, an Episcopal priest. The rest she shares with Hill House.
"After my second stroke, Violet said, 'Maybe you should get involved with others' " to feel useful again, says Fran. "So I started to bake and it grew to making sandwiches" for the homeless two days a week (a friend drives the food to the church).
Fran, who is divorced, used to bake sporadically with her two now-grown daughters when they were young. Now she whips up confections every night.
This time last year, Fran dropped her iPad, breaking it. The incident basically rendered her mute.
The Hill House staff noticed right away and quickly took up a collection to buy her a new iPad. As word spread among residents about the plight of their favorite baker, donations poured in. Within days, there was enough money to buy Fran not just a new iPad, but a sweet case for it and some perfumes she liked.
It was their thank-you for keeping them so deliciously satisfied.
"Delight. Disbelief," she says. "Because I was just doing something I love. I need people to eat what I make, or I'll have to stop."
Will "Koz" Kozlowski and Sean McAllister, bike cops and partners in the 16th District, were flagged down last June by resident Connie Lotz. She was frustrated that thieves had taken the Belgian blocks she used in a small neighborhood parklet to edge some trees.
Sean saw that the blocks needed to be cemented to the pavement. He and Koz offered to do the deed if 16th District Capt. Altovise Love-Craighead approved it.
"The captain is all about community engagement," says Koz. "We love it. We do a lot of projects in the neighborhood."
Love-Craighead issued a veto.
"They'd be carrying blocks and cement," she says. "If they were injured, I couldn't defend my decision to let them do the work. I felt bad saying no, but I had to."
The officers told Connie they'd do it on their own time, if she didn't mind waiting a bit. Koz's pregnant wife was due any minute.
"I have to admit I was skeptical they'd come back," says Lotz.
Two weeks later, during July Fourth weekend, they returned - buckets, cement and tools in hand. Koz was an exhausted dad of a brand new baby girl, but there he was with Sean, sweating in the heat.
"Mrs. Lotz said, 'You're a new dad! I can't believe you're here!' " Koz recalls. "But when we say we'll do something, we mean it."
Love-Craighead laughed when the officers sent her a photo of themselves laying the blocks.
"Hey, Captain, guess where we are?" they texted.
She was not surprised. The guys are known for giving back to those they protect and serve.
"At Christmas, they give toys to kids. They get tickets to sporting events and hand them out," she says. "They never want any attention for it. They just do it."
Indeed, Sean just spent $158 at a dollar store on Christmas cards, lottery scratch-off tickets and small toys. During these holidays, when he and Koz have to pull someone over for running a stop sign or making an illegal turn, they'll skip the citation and instead hand the shocked driver a card or scratch-off. If kids are in the car, each gets a wrapped toy.
"It's so funny," says Sean. "They start out mad and we say, 'Relax, you're not getting a ticket today. Here's a Christmas card and a gift, OK?' Their whole attitude changes. They're laughing and happy."
May God bless us, every one.