What Child Is This?

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It was a bitterly cold December day in 1989 in Leningrad (USSR), about a week before Christmas. A small group of us—all Americans—had traveled to the Soviet Union with a mission: performing as clowns, we hoped to bring a little joy, happiness and laughter to children confined to orphanages and children’s hospitals in Moscow and Leningrad. The leader of our mission was a quirky but brilliant physician named Patch Adams (portrayed by the late Robin Williams in the 1998 film Patch Adams).

It was the week before Christmas and we had just one more program to do before returning to the States. I put on my red rubber nose, goofy hat and my “Uncle Sam” clown costume for the last time. I joined Patch and the other clowns at the bus that would take us to a children’s orphanage where 200 children awaited our arrival.

Every clown has a “schtick,” and mine was a friendly hand puppet—a fuzzy mouse. The children squealed and giggled as I teased them with the mouse. One little girl, about six or seven years old, named Irinia, was especially fascinated by the puppet and followed me around as we entertained the children.

After we finished this final “gig,” we were walking down a long hallway toward the orphanage exit. I heard the sound of running feet behind me and heard a little girl calling Kloun! Kloun!” It was Irinia. I got down on one knee and she ran to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and gave me a big hug. She looked intently at me and said something in Russian. Our guide translated: “The child says, Please clown, do not forget Irinia.” Then Irinia gave me a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string, and I unwrapped it to find a small, grey flannel mouse. She smiled, then turned and ran back down the hall. As I watched her disappear around the corner, I was glad she didn’t see a clown’s tears.

Every Christmas we sing the beautiful hymn, “What Child is this?When I hear those words, I remember Irinia, a child who had so little to give, but gave what she had to a clown. That small, grey flannel mouse is one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received because it was a gift from the heart of a Russian orphan. I still treasure it.

Larry Bradford serves as the Interim Rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Longmont.

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