Restoring a Real-Life Scrooge to Life

Dickens’ classic, much-loved Christmas tale isn’t only purely fiction because similar stories of Christmas restoration can play out in surprising ways in real life too.

Sonja Schreffler with daughters Alexandra and Anastasia, and holding son Jude
Sonja Schreffler with daughters Alexandra and Anastasia, and holding son Jude (photo: Courtesy of the Schreffler family)

We’re all familiar with the much loved Christmas Carol. This time of year Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, nephew Fred, and Tiny Tim usually pay a visit to our homes in some way or other. Their story is a perennial favorite because there’s truth in it. It touches the heart as it also inspires us.

Maybe we’ve even seen a spinoff happen in some way or other in a real time, like one in Omaha, Nebraska, in America’s Heartland 4,290 miles from 19th-century England.


Stave One – The Beginning

“We need to do something at Christmas.” Sonja Schreffler said, repeating the words of the Father Damien Cook, at the time he was pastor of St. Peter Church in Omaha.

He asked the church’s St. Vincent de Paul Society to come up with an idea. “We started an angel tree,” Sonja explained, “to take gifts to seniors at low income senor facility.” That apartment complex place was located near the church.

“We would take the exact same package of gifts, often items they could not afford like laundry detergents, and ketchup to go with their meal,” Schreffler said. She, her children, and the others would fill bags with these necessities the people couldn’t get with food stamps.

“And we’d give a special gift, too, in addition to the basic needs,” she continued. These gifts would be presents such as pillows, books, a variety of things.


Stave Two – The Challenge

“That’s what brought us each year to Mr. Hartman (we’ll call him),” Sonja said. But he did not greet them or react like the others who were welcomed them with anticipation and joy.

“Every year he would sit and be so angry and make everyone uncomfortable,” Sonja explained. “He didn’t like the church and us being there because we were from the church.”

The action was a type of carbon of the old Ebenezer himself. We know Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley was dead seven years when that story opened. Yet Scrooge had been practicing his unapproachable, “Bah, Humbug” mood longer than that. Just so, this contact with Mr. Hartman and his reaction at Christmas (and Thanksgiving too) went on for eight years.

“We would always say Hello! And he would never accept a gift,” Sonja went on. But like Scrooge’s nephew Fred, she, her children and the others in the group were not going to give up.

Finally, she set a specific goal when the time for the next year’s visit rolled around.

“This year he is going to receive a present from us,” she said. “Even if it’s just a card he would accept. We had the present for him — a cap and a card.”

When they arrived that year, he wasn’t in the common area on the first visit before Christmas. So they made the trek to his room where, Sonja said, “We slipped the card under his door.” Everyone was wondering what would happen next.

With a bit of surprise and a great helping of great joy, Sonja emphasized, “It was not coming out! Somehow this got to him.” Their spirits of those Christmas Pasts and this Christmas Present had an effect.

Next visit close to Christmas, Sonja, the children and everyone else hastened to the door. “We noticed he was there sitting by the door. I saw his hat. I saw his plaid shirt and kakis.”

“Hello, Mr. Hartman! Merry Christmas!” everyone said. He smiled at them.

“I have a present for you, would you accept it?” Sonja asked.

“Yes, he said. When he did, he even looked at them and said, “Thank you.”

“We were so pleased he took it,”

Sonja couldn’t wait to share the story with all the volunteers not there that day but who kept smiling and being pleasant to Mr. Hartman all those years despite the icy response.

Did the change continue for the Christmas Spirit yet to come?


Stave Three – The Next Year

“Next year he also accepted,” Sonja said. He was so proud of the Christmas gift. “He changed his life.  Then every month we’d bring fresh vegetables. And he would open the door for us.”

Along the way she learned what likely made him so detached and unfriendly for so long. “He had no one else. That’s why he might have been so angry. He was alone, had never married, and his only relative was a sister who died. He was lonely and hurting.”

It may sound like an old cliché, but friendly persistence worked. Sonja reflected, “We never know what is behind those faces we see on the corner.” She paused for a moment, then continued — “Love changes everything. It is so true for him.” After that, “The children laughed, and he did too.”


Stave Four – The Surprise

Even after Mr. Hartman was feeling more joyful, he kept to himself. But things were different. “He had a smile on his face,” Sonja said, obviously joyful herself at the change that came over Mr. Hartman and happy that they made a difference for him.

But then they were surprised to learn that Mr. Hartman suffered from the onset of rapid dementia. It kept him in the hospital because he was unable to care for himself. Last March he passed away. Sonja and the children along with the patriotic scouting organization American Heritage Girls Troop from St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, Nebraska, would visit his graveside to pray for him. Mr. Hartman was a veteran.

And as in all the years past, Sonja continued working with the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, as did other of the Christmas volunteers and visitors.

“Then the most amazing this happened in May,” Sonja explained. “When we got the mail, there was a card thanking us for what we had done, and for being part of Mr. Hartman’s life.” The card was from the woman who was the manager at the apartment complex and who became his final guardian. There was something else inside the card that made everyone’s eyes open in some astonishment.

“It was a check to the church for $10,000 for the St. Vincent de Paul Society! It was from him!” Sonja said.

That wasn’t the end of the surprise.

“Because of the check,” she emphasized, “Mr. Hartman ended up helping others at the home. Now we can do a little more for the others there this Christmas.”

Looking at everything that happened, Sonja came to the conclusion, “It was him that was a gift because he was our opportunity to serve Christ through him.” And with his change of heart, in the end, Mr. Hartman ended up serving Christ too.”