More Than Cordial: A Story of Christmas, Compassion, and Chocolate

Just like most families, the family I grew up in had certain traditions and predictable patterns of activity during the Christmas season. My mother would make her famous chocolate chip cookies, we would decorate the Christmas tree (always with tinsel), and we would wait until Christmas morning before anyone was allowed to open their presents.

I would, however, sneak out of my bedroom several times—starting at about 3:30 a.m.—to try to catch a glimpse of what surprise might be under or around the Christmas tree with my name on it. This was because my dad had a knack of always making sure he had one big gift of some kind waiting for me (and my older brother before me) that was truly a surprise. In particular, I still remember two bicycles and a telescope during my childhood and teenage years that were complete surprises on Christmas morning, to my dad’s credit.

My mother also had a pattern each Christmas regarding her gift giving, one that was subtle yet consistent. For as long as I can recall, each Christmas—either wrapped in gift paper or pushed into my stocking—was a box of Queen Anne Cordials, those relatively inexpensive chocolate covered cherries found in many grocery and department stores each holiday season.

Without fail, year after year, my mom made sure she bought me a box of Cordials. All through my childhood years. All through my teenage years. All through my college years. Even after I was married—even after I had kids—she would ensure that I received a box of Cordials from her.

Now, it wasn’t because I loved the taste of Queen Anne Cordials and couldn’t live without them that my mother gave them to me. The truth is, they’re okay (and if you know me at all, you know that it is almost impossible for me to pass up chocolate in any form!). But it was something my mother wanted me to have every year. It was her way of quietly saying, “I love you, I’m always here, and I’m always praying and thinking about you.”

On November 16, 2005, she passed away. I was 46 years old. The next month, on Christmas morning, I realized something was missing.

For the first time in my life, there were no Queen Anne Cordial Cherries under the tree.

When my brother and I spoke that morning by phone (we live 2,400 miles apart), he shared with me that he, too, realized that something was missing. He, too, had been receiving a box of Cordials for decades as well. Neither of us had known that all those years; our mother had made sure we each had a consistent and tangible reminder of her love at Christmas.

Five years passed. I switched schools and was teaching high school Bible, as well as administrating. One class session during Bible journal time in December, each of the students was writing about and then sharing a Christmas tradition in their family. After each one had shared, the class asked me what traditions we’d had in my family when I was growing up. I told them about my mother’s faithful giving of the Cordials throughout my lifetime, until she passed away. Very compassionately, one of the students asked me how it made me feel when the boxes stopped coming. I shared the sense of loss and the realization they she had given me the Cordials every year, as a demonstration of her love. Ultimately, I said I missed her and her unfailing gift of remembrance each Christmas. In a sense, Christmas wouldn’t quite be complete any longer. We prayed and class was dismissed.

At the end of the week, on the last day of school before Christmas break, one of my students came to my classroom at the end of the day. A couple of her friends trailed behind.

“May I come in?” she asked. I waved her and her friends in as other students left my room. She sheepishly stepped forward and handed me a small, wrapped box.

“Thank you, Jessica,” I replied politely. I appreciated her gesture, and turned to place the gift by my small class Christmas tree, next to several other student and parent gifts.

“Mr. Nichols, you might want to open it now,” she said sweetly.

I said okay, turned to get the package, and began to unwrap it. As the gift wrapping fell to the floor, I was caught completely off guard. I just stood motionless, as if frozen in time. There, in my hands, was a box of Queen Anne Cordial Cherries. I could not keep the tears from forming.

She smiled. “I felt your mom would want you to have these.”

I tried to utter the words to express my thanks, but for a few long moments I was simply not able to. The students gently gave me a group hug. “We love you, Mr. Nichols. Merry Christmas.”

In each of her remaining years in high school, Jessica would come to my room or office on the last day of school before Christmas and bring me a small wrapped box. Even after she graduated, she returned as long as I was at that school to bring me a box of Queen Anne Cordials. Each time, we would share tears and laughter, and get caught up on life.

Not many years after she graduated, I had the honor of performing her wedding to another former Bible student of mine, who had joined in her remembrance gift-giving at Christmas. Her gift of kindness, sprung from the faithfulness of my mother, had drawn us all together. She and
her husband have moved and I now serve at Alta Loma Christian School. But the memory of her heartfelt gift as an extension of my mother’s love will never be forgotten.

The smallest act of love can have an enormous, deeply felt impact, especially over time. Never underestimate the power and genuine emotional result that comes from an act of kindness, generosity, and love.

Back in the day as a little boy, I would still pick my mother’s chocolate chip cookies over eating Cordials, every time. But these days, I cannot pass the stacks of Queen Anne boxes in the store at Christmastime without pausing beside them, pushing back a tear, and thanking God for a faithful mother…and a remarkably sensitive and caring student.

And you know what? Somehow, when I do eat Queen Anne Cordial Cherries now, they seem to taste better than they ever did before.
May the Lord provide your life and mine with Cordial-givers for as long as we each have breath.

Merry Christmas, and we’ll see you around campus in the new year.

Dr. Vance Nichols
Head of School
Alta Loma Christian School

Dr. Nichols (BS, MS, EdD) also serves as an adjunct professor of education and on the MSEd Specialization Advisory Council at California Baptist University, and on the Private School Advisory Committee for California State Assemblyman Marc Steinorth. He recently completed a three-year term as commissioner and chair of the ACSI Southern California Regional Accreditation Commission, and was an educational researcher, organizational leadership theorist, and 2015 Innovation Scholar at the University of Southern California. His most recent published research—“Schools At Risk: An Analysis of Factors Endangering the Evangelical Christian School Movement in America”—can be accessed online via the USC Digital Library at: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll40/id/294584/rec/82