What does Christmas mean to you if not everything? For many of us, it is a time of sadness and depression; while for others, inexpressible light and joy.

It's supposed to be a time of blessed relief, and yet it reminds us of the loneliness of the stable on a hill outside of Bethlehem. The rough trough ... the desperate infant cries ... the forsaken stable ... a baby born in poverty and rejection.

Can we really celebrate amid the world in such chaos? I wondered about this state of affairs as I managed a Christian book and gift shop in downtown Charleston just before Christmas Eve in 2009.

Envision the gift store at the busiest two corners of downtown Charleston, an antebellum, historic, Civil War town decorated with Christmas wreaths hanging from the gas lanterns and horse and carriages strolling by with tourists.

The store was stocked with Christmas gifts with Christmas music serenading us on the store speaker system. It's a high-end merchandise store geared toward a more prosperous clientele with money to spend on gifts and books.

At that very moment I had a Currier & Ives feeling, full of cheer and peace. Somehow, I had forgotten the stable, the trough and the baby. I had forgotten about the real meaning of Christmas in this world of electronic devices and wizardry.

The store door opened and in walked a weary, sad-looking man wearing raggedy clothes and with two front teeth missing. His hair hadn't been washed in maybe a week. I was on the telephone finishing up a call and as I gazed at this man, I surmised he was a homeless person looking for directions or wanting to use our bathroom.

I approached him and asked him if I could help him. He was holding a small plastic grocery store bag with something heavy inside. He looked me straight in the eye and proceeded to tell me he was a homeless man living in a cardboard box in one of the city parks. Since he didn't have any warm shoes to protect his feet from the cold wintry nights, he was given three pair of new tennis shoes as a gift by a compassionate observer.

"I only needed one pair of shoes," he told me. He glanced down at his feet, wearing the most beautiful white tennis shoes.

As I looked down at his shoes, I gasped, feeling the air being sucked out of my lungs, holding back tears with great sorrow in my heart.

He then said: "I figured I only needed one pair of shoes, what with living in a cardboard box and all, so I saw your Christian store sign out front and came in to give you the other two pair of shoes; then, maybe two other men could have shoes as well."

The story of the trough and stable began to flicker in my heart as I said to myself: "Thank you Lord for visiting me today ... I needed to hear your voice and your message."

As I looked at him with my moist eyes, and tried to tell the homeless man that I would make sure his shoes would go to the right person at the store, he disappeared as quickly as he had entered, and when I turned around, he was gone.

I asked myself, "What was God telling me to pass on with this tale of great servitude and sacrifice?"

Maybe he was telling us to write to a soldier serving our country, lonely and afraid, and let him know we love him or her.

Maybe he was telling us to write to the president and tell him we were praying for him and his family.

Maybe he was telling us to support a missionary who was telling the good news in a faraway land.

Maybe he was telling us to support the Salvation Army with some money the next time we passed by the pot.

Maybe he was telling us to smile at the retail attendant who was having a difficult day and just getting by in life.

Maybe he was telling us to go to someone who hurt us and tell them we forgave them.

Or maybe he was simply telling us to act as Christians over Christmas, so he could love all of us ... through us.

Maybe all we have to do is do what he tells us and he will take care of the rest.

Maybe he was telling us, most of all, that he loves us.

Maybe he was reminding us of the real meaning of Christmas.

Lee F. McVay is a creative essay writer at the Summerville Writer's Guild. He is semi-retired and lives in Ladson.