Grateful isn’t a word that automatically springs to mind when I think about myself as a child.

My family wasn’t awash in money, but there was always food on the table and our home was always warm, thanks to our wood stove.

I didn’t give much thought to what it would feel like to go without, nor did I spend a lot of time being thankful for what I had. I guess I took it all for granted.

But a visitor to our farm one Christmas changed that.

It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve. I was helping my mother with my favourite holiday task… making hard sauce for our plum pudding.

In the midst of putting candied cherries on top of the butter and icing sugar swirls, there was a knock on the door. My mother answered, and there stood a man I’d never seen before.

He was probably in his 30s although to my young eyes he looked much older, with deep creases in his forehead and cheeks. He was dressed in old cowboy boots and a shabby jacket that was far too thin for a Nova Scotia winter.

He told my mom that he was on his way to spend Christmas with his family, but that he needed a place to stay for the night. He asked if he might sleep in the barn.

Without hesitation, my mother told him he was welcome to stay, but that he’d be much more comfortable on our living room couch. He wouldn’t have any of it. He insisted the barn was just fine for him, adding that he wouldn’t be any trouble.

Mom said he should at least come in for a cup of tea and a meal. He accepted the tea and some Christmas baking, but declined supper; he said he just needed a place to rest.

My mother set about finding blankets and a pillow for him and together we made up a bed in some clean straw.

While we were doing this, my dad quietly milked the cows. He was a man of few words and if he had any misgivings about our guest or the sleeping arrangements, I never heard them.

An hour or so later, Mom sent me out to the barn again, this time with a plate of hot food. The man was already asleep. I set down the plate beside him and left.

In our home, we followed the tradition of opening our presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. This particular year, though, the gifts didn’t have the allure they normally would. I couldn’t stop thinking about our guest.

Where did he come from? Where was his family? Why was he not with them? I resolved that the next morning I would try to have my curiosity satisfied.

I knew I’d have to do it quietly; my mother would berate me for showing bad manners if she knew of my plan to interrogate this man.

Early the next morning, even before my dad started the milking, I snuck out to the barn, bearing gifts of more hot tea and Christmas baking.

But our guest was already gone. The only evidence that he had been there was an empty plate and some neatly folded blankets.

That night, lying in bed, I thought again about our visitor. I hoped he’d made it home OK.

My mind drifted to how delicious our Christmas dinner had tasted; better than in previous years, perhaps.

I thought about how comfortable my bed was. Funny, that I hadn’t noticed before just how soft the flannelette sheets were, or how good the hot water bottle felt resting under my bare feet.

Whatever material presents I received that year have long since faded from my memory.

The true gifts that Christmas were the lessons I learned about generosity and gratitude, the first from my mother and the second from a complete stranger.

Merry Christmas everyone.