The Vow

It had only been a few months since Emma’s dad had married Cynthia in their huge backyard in Ohio. The day before the wedding, Emma’s dad had sat with her on the back porch steps and gently asked, “You like Cynthia, don’t you?”

Emma had shrugged and played with a blade of grass, not wanting to look her dad in the eye. “She’s okay. I guess.”

“I know she can never take Mom’s place, but—”

At this, Emma had dropped the blade of grass and stared directly in her dad’s face. “I’ll never love her like Mom.”

Her dad had sighed. “Just give her a chance, okay honey?”

It hadn’t been too bad at first. Between soccer and choir and her friends, Emma could ignore Cynthia. That is, until the day Emma’s dad took her rock climbing at the Y right after Thanksgiving.

“You know how Cynthia grew up in Germany?” Emma’s dad tried to sound casual as he helped Emma fasten her harness. “Well, now her company is sending her there for two years.”

“Wow. I guess you’ll miss her.” Emma tried not to grin. With Cynthia gone, it would be just her and Dad . . . like before!

But Emma’s dad hesitated. He wrinkled his brow and turned her so he could look into her eyes. “Honey, we’re going, too. To Germany.”

Even though Emma’s feet were planted on the ground, she felt as though she were plunging to the floor from the top of the rock wall. “To Germany?” she whispered, hoping she had heard her dad wrong.

“I’m a writer, I can do that anywhere,” her dad explained. “And we’re enrolling you in an international school right after Christmas.”

So less than a month later, here Emma was, in Germany. She cracked open the window and craned her neck to see the spires of cathedrals and castles she couldn’t name as the frosty air bit her nose. A snatch of song drifted up from the street—

Stille Nach, heilige Nacht

She thought about her grandparents at home, putting up their Christmas tree without her. She thought about her best friends Lindy and Joy, putting on their Christmas play for the neighborhood without her. Emma had no one but a city full of strange people speaking a strange language. She scowled and muttered under her breath, “It’s all Cynthia’s fault.”

Emma decided she could never love Cynthia now. Never. She leaned further out the window and saw lights twinkling in the dusk. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder. Whirling around she saw Cynthia right behind her.

“That’s the Christkindlmarkt. It means Christmas Market.”

“I don’t need to learn German,” Emma said coldly, turning back to face the window.

But Cynthia continued, “The Christmas Market used to be my very favorite thing when I was a girl. C’mon, I’ll take you.”

Emma set her jaw and shook her head, but across the room, Dad muted his cell phone.

“I’m on a conference call, honey. You go with Cynthia.”

Sighing, Emma tugged on her jacket and hat and set out into the crunchy snow with Cynthia.

A group of girls about Emma’s age giggled as they passed, and one smiled and waved. Emma kept her head down.

“You’ll have to try some Lebkuchen,” Cynthia said smiling. “That’s gingerbread.”

Emma didn’t respond. But as they approached the market stalls crowding the city square, amazing smells of gingerbread and roasting chestnuts crept out to meet them.

“There’s the Tannenbaum!” Cynthia pointed across the market excitedly.

Emma gasped as she caught sight of a huge Christmas tree covered in lights and intricately carved stars, rising 50 feet above them.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Emma couldn’t help but exclaim.

At the base of the tree, Emma spotted a real, live camel and some sheep. “I saw one of those in Columbus. It’s a live Nativity!” She darted forward, Cynthia hurrying to catch up. There were more animals: cows and a donkey.

Emma saw Mary and Joseph huddled around a wooden manger, acting out the Christmas story from the Bible.

“Would you like me to tell you what they’re saying?” Cynthia offered.

But Emma shook her head stubbornly. “No. I know the whole story.”

Emma watched, enthralled, as Mary cradled the tiny baby, gently shushing the small bundle as he began to fuss. Emma’s eyes widened as she craned her neck to get a closer look. “It’s a real baby!”

Then ragged shepherds arrived. One carried a real lamb. Joy filled their faces as they saw the infant. “Oh, look,” Emma giggled, “that sheep just licked the baby!”

The wise men came next, their rich robes bright in the candlelight as they led their grumbling camel. Each wise man knelt before the baby, offering a gift and speaking words Emma couldn’t understand. “They’re treating him like a real king,” she observed. “Like God’s Son!”

A lady in a red coat approached, handing out printed cards. “Es ist schon, no?”

Emma started to shake her head but then took a card anyway. And suddenly, she was curious. Swallowing, she turned to Cynthia and asked, “What do the words say?”

Cynthia peered down at the card. “It’s about the live nativity. Some verses, I think.”

“From the Bible?” Emma asked.

Cynthia nodded. “First John. Let’s see . . . Darin ist die Liebe Gottes zu uns. ‘This is how God showed His love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.’”

Emma tried to read along and make out the unfamiliar words. “Is that all?”

Cynthia shook her head and continued, “‘Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . . . if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.’” Cynthia stood up straight and tilted her head in interest. “I haven’t heard that before. It’s beautiful.”

The lamplight softened Cynthia’s sharp face as Emma nodded slowly. Somehow she’d forgotten. Christmas wasn’t just about friends and having things the way she wanted them to be. It was about God showing His love by giving Himself! She frowned, trying to make sense of it.

“I guess it’s like God loves other people through us.”

Cynthia smiled at Emma’s words. “I never thought about it that way.”

Emma cast a sideways glance at Cynthia. “Me neither. I thought you either loved someone . . . or you didn’t.”

That’s when it hit her: She didn’t have to make herself love Cynthia or all the new people around her in Germany. She just needed to allow God to show His love through her. She took a deep breath. Maybe she had a hard time accepting Cynthia, but she could let God love Cynthia through her.

“Cynthia, how do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in German?”

Cynthia smiled. “Froeliche Weinachten.”

Emma twisted her mouth like Cynthia and attempted, “Fro-lika Vine-ochten.”

“That’s good!” Cynthia nodded encouragingly.

The group of girls they’d passed earlier squeezed by in the crowd. This time, Emma gave a tiny smile and waved. “Froeliche Weinachten!”

Cynthia held out her hand as the crowd threatened to separate them. Emma hesitated for a moment and then took Cynthia’s hand.

“Could we try some Leb . . . um, gingerbread?” Emma asked.

“Of course!” Cynthia said excitedly.

Even though it was freezing outside, Emma began to feel warm inside. It was true she was in a strange place. But there was a whole new world ahead, just waiting for her to show God’s love.

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