A man, not very old, and not very young, sat unobtrusively at a balcony table overlooking the shopping centreís Christmas tree and Santa grotto. Dressed in todayís fashions, he sported a street-credible, orange hairstyle, and completely normal lip-ring. He looked very much one of the crowd - there was nothing much to distinguish him from anyone else wandering about or standing near. Unless you looked closely.
Those that did look closely would notice some things missing from this average looking man. He didnít have the wild anxious looks of those around him. He didnít have that furtive dissatisfaction, or manic grasping for lifeís experiences. He didnít have anything to prove. And he was complete. He knew the Truth. He lived it.
Jesus - for that was his name - stirred his coffee, and casually looked about at the people rushing here and there. It was Christmas, and the rush had started. He moved one of the two vacant chairs at his table with his foot and without effort turned it slightly to the aisle. He looked up and smiled as another man approached.
Gotama sat down in the chair. He was dressed not unlike his companion, appearing very non-descript. He also had the same quiet calm, the same totally at-ease nature.
They sat in silence for a time, observing the Christmas crowds about them: a woman carrying a small child wheeled a pram containing shopping bags; two school girls met up with three young boys and exchanged greetings; An old woman looked - perhaps in memory - through the window of a clothes shop containing íyoung missí fashions. People scurried here and there; others loitered by doorways. The cafť itself was closed and empty, but everywhere else was a hive of activity. Xmas Karols squawked from hidden speakers, and fluffy metallic tinsel hung from the high roof. Santaís Grotto, complete with wooden reindeer, and long queue of parents and children, twinkled and sparkled with traditional Xmas splendour. Only Santa was absent.
"Do you see the people?" Jesus asked. He gently indicated the scurrying hoards about them.
"So busy." Said Gotama.
"So busy." Echoed Jesus.
"See how they queue for the Santa" said Gotama. "Very dedicated."
"That woman at the front has spent her last dollar to bring her children to Santa - a little boy and girl. And that man there would rather be at home, but queues patiently so that his little girl can meet Father Christmas and pat the wooden reindeer." Jesus said.
"Such is the spirit of xmas," explained Gotama. "They give up their time, and their money to bring pleasure to their children"
"Not only to their children", pointed out Jesus. "See the girl on the escalator - she has spent her weeks wages buying for her sister. And the elderly gentleman at the cigarette shop - he has bought two very expensive cigars for his son."
They looked back to the Santa Grotto queue. It had grown even larger.
"They are good people", observed Gotama, "which makes it all the more sad".
"Yes." replied Jesus. "Good people, with good intentions. Sacrificing their time, and money for their families. Very sad".
A well padded, if overdressed, old man was sitting near these two friends, and had overheard much of their conversation. He patted his big white beard, straitened his red suit, tightened his black belt, and stood up. Santa Claus moved - slowly but deliberately - to their table. As he approached, they both turned their attention to him, and Jesus gestured to the vacant chair.
"Please sit for a while - if you have time" he said.
The Santa Claus looked at each in turn. Then - slowly for he was a very large man - sat down. He looked curiously at both of the men sitting with him.
After a minute, the Santa Claus spoke.
"I heard you speaking," He said "not that I was listening as such, but, well, I couldnít help hearing. What did you mean - ívery sadí? If all these people in the spirit of Christmas are sacrificing their money to buy gifts for their family, or taking their children to see, err, Santa, well, what is sad about that? Isnít that something good?"
Jesus and Gotama looked at each other. There was perhaps a twinkle in their eyes.
"You ask how such gifts of the heart could be sad?" asked Jesus. He smiled.
"Yes." Santa replied.
"You ask how such gifts of the heart could be sad?" asked Gotama. He also smiled.
"Yes." Said Santa, "Thatís what I asked"
Jesus looked from Santa back to the bustling shopping centre. He looked at the patient tolerance of the single mum comforting a crying child. He knew that she had forsaken her lunch for the week to pay for the treat that was soon to come. íThe Santa treatí.
He looked back at Santa.
"What are these people giving their friends and loved ones this Christmas?" he asked.
"Well, I donít know. All kinds of things I suppose." Said Santa. "Dolls, racing car games, perhaps cigars for the dads, oh, socks definitely."
"Yes," said Gotama, " you speak correctly. And what are the mothers and fathers below in that queue giving their children?" He indicated the Santaís Grotto and itís ever lengthening queue.
"Well, a great time for only ten-ninety-nine" chorused Santa, almost unconsciously. "They get to sit on Santaís knee - if they want - and a photo, and a chocolate bar. Itís one of the highlights of childhood - sitting on Santaís knee."
"The things you have named are all pleasant. And bought through great sacrifice and with a good heart, itís true." Jesus said. "They will bring happiness to many people this Xmas."
"So thatís a good thing then?" asked Santa.
"No" said Jesus. "A waste".
"A bad thing. Such a waste. So sad." said Gotama.
Santa looked confused.
"A waste?" he asked. "How can any gift be a waste?"
"Those gifts do bring happiness", Jesus answered, "but that happiness does not last. It is soon gone - fleeting memories that leave only a painful desire for more. Such gifts only serve to bind the receiver to unhappiness like chains." He looked deeply into Santaís eyes. "So they are sad. And even more so when purchased with such sacrifices"
"If such sacrifices were spent on other gifts", said Gotama, " glorious, and noble gifts that would last a lifetime - and beyond - those would be wonderful gifts indeed, gifts worth giving."
"Gifts that would lead the receiver to the Truth of who they really are" said Jesus.
"To help them realize the Love of God," said Gotama.
"And to realize the Nature of All things" said Jesus.
"To ascend to The Kingdom of Heaven" said Gotama.
"To love all, unconditionally" said Jesus.
"To prepare for the, err, Coming." Gotama winked at Jesus, who smiled.
"To waste precious lives in pursuit of anything else can only be sad," said Jesus. "Do you understand?"
But Santa Claus did not speak. He did not understand. How could he?