The road to Grandma's house was long, and the journey seemed to take forever, at least in the eyes of an energetic six-year-old like Sarah. There were many towns to pass, and viewed from her strapped-in car seat, they all looked pretty much the same. The only thing that made any of them stand out among the rest was that Grandma called one of those towns home. But despite the long ride, 45 minutes really didn't seem so bad, after all, when Sarah considered the warm hug and freshly baked cookies waiting for her at the end of the road.
And once a year the trip itself was almost as exciting as the destination. For once a year every Christmas Eve Mom and Dad packed the car with delicious Christmas pies and presents wrapped for aunts, uncles and cousins. Then with Sarah snuggly buckled in the back seat they headed off again down the long road to Grandma's house.
What made this trip so special was the abundance of holiday decorations to see along the way. In houses the soft glow of candles shown from windowsills, while across the lawn strings of colored lights adorned evergreen shrubs. Office buildings posted large Christmas trees at entranceways to greet incoming visitors, while nativity scenes at churches reminded the faithful of the true Christmas spirit.
With large colorful signs each town boasted its own unique claim to Christmas cheer. Sarah's Dad read the signs as they passed.
Welcome to Greenville
See Forest County's tallest live Christmas tree.
Welcome to Cathedral Square
Christmas carols played twice a day on the state's largest pipe organ
Welcome to Steepletown
Chime in the hour from the region's oldest bell tower.
"What will the sign say at Grandma's town, Daddy?" Sarah asked.
"It will have a very special message this year," he told her. "But let's wait until we get there to read it."
Sarah agreed, "Okay, Daddy."
Earlier in the year, the mayor of Middleton, the town where Sarah's grandma lived, called a meeting for all the townspeople. "We don't do anything special or grand for Christmas," he explained to the crowd. "We don't have a professional choir to sing The Messiah; we don't have enough snow to build a giant snowman; and none of our buildings are old enough to offer tours of a historic site. All the other towns are known for something great at the holiday season, but we are just a bump in the road. We need to do something great to make a name for ourselves."
At that point the voice of a little boy spoke up. It was the mayor's five-year-old son Reuben. "We already have a name, Daddy," Reuben reminded him. "It's Middleton."
A chuckle rose from the crowd. A little embarrassed, the mayor spoke softly to his son. "Yes, Reuben, we do have a name. But what Daddy was trying to say is that we need something special to make people from all over want to visit our town at Christmas."
Once again the little boy spoke, "We need Jesus."
The crowd murmured uncomfortably, but no one dared to silence Reuben, because he was the mayor's son. He continued, "Wise men with lots of gold and spices came from far away to see Jesus. The shepherds came too. And even the angels from heaven came. And heaven is a long way away."
The crowd fell silent. And with the tears of a proud father welling up in his eyes the mayor said to Reuben, "Son, I think you are closer to heaven than you realize."
Back in the car Sarah's head began to nod, as she started drifting off to sleep. She was startled when her dad suddenly announced, "There's the sign, Sarah!" It was a purple banner stretching the entire width of the street. On it were written in bold white letters only two words, words that even young Sarah could read. "Welcome, Jesus!"