This remembrance is personal. However, it is my hope that
my memories of Christmas may remind you of your own. Remember
a classic novel is set in a particular time and place, and deals with
particular people, yet it tells a universal story. WNG
Several years before my dad’s death we drove down east in late December to attend a family funeral. It was one of the last trips I made with my dad, just the two of us, and I really enjoyed it. We left Winston-Salem about lunch, drove to the little Eastern North Carolina town, attended the funeral at 4:00 p.m., greeted the few family members dad still remembered, and stopped for supper at burger joint. Then, as darkness fell, we pointed the car back up the road to Winston-Salem. The road was completely different after dark. On the way down, we drove through one little town that was so drab we hardly noticed it. On the way back, the same little town had switched on its Christmas lights, and it was transformed. We were treated to some of the most lavish and colorful decorations we had ever seen. As we passed through the business district, we saw numerous depictions of the Elves hard at work. There were snowmen, and snowflakes, and the reindeer leapt from corner to corner. Santa Claus himself occupied a place of honor in the main square. As we drove, dad delivered a running commentary on the abundance of beauty added to that drab little town by all the lights. Then, he stopped in mid-sentence, and said:
“Wait a minute, Worth! There is no nativity! They did not set out a single angel, shepherd or wiseman, not one, much less three; and the Holy Family has been left completely out. It is as if Jesus had never been born! I am afraid that this town has lost the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings.”
Then, always on the lookout for his next great sermon idea, Dad quickly added, “Worth, that would preach: ‘Don’t Loose the True Gift of Christmas in the Wrappings!’”
Now, please notice, that my dad did not say that the true gift of Christmas must be enjoyed without the wrappings, he simply said we should not loose the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings! At my house, when I was a boy, we always enjoyed the wrappings. For instance, we always put-up a Christmas tree, visited Santa Claus, exchanged gifts, and gathered for a big family meal.
As I look back on those days, I don’t remember Christmas tree lots like we have now. We may have had them, but in my family and neighborhood, either people put up an aluminum tree with colored lights, like the one in the window of Thalhimers on 4th Street, or they went out in the woods and cut a Christmas tree of their own. Dad used to know a farmer named John James, whose daughter, Virginia Barber, is still a member of this church. We used to go to the James’s farm, and Mr. James would hook his tractor to a tobacco sled, and my dad and I would climb in, and Mr. James would pull us all over his farm, until we spied just the right tree, always a cedar, and then dad would hop out with an ax, and, quick as a wink, or two, or three, or ten—-anyway pretty quick, we had a tree of our own to take home and decorate.
My mother made a big deal of decorating the tree. She had exactly five boxes of Christmas ornaments, each containing a dozen, single-color, glass, Christmas balls in gold, silver, red, green, and blue. We also had boxes of icicles made from tin foil that we bought at the drugstore. The icicles had to be tin foil, not tensile, because tensile was too light and did not hang properly. We did not have lights; but mom always popped pop-corn, and we would string a little of that, and eat a little of that, and string a little of that, until we could drape the tree with a garlands of white. My grandmother always used snow from an aerosol can on her tree, but mom would not permit it on ours. Dad bought a can one year, but mom pointed out that it said “Flammable,” right on the can, and she would not take the chance.
We had the wrappings. We had a Christmas tree, and I was permitted to visit Santa Claus, too. Back in the day, there may have been more than one department store Santa in Winston-Salem, but the only one I ever saw was in the Sears and Roebuck Store that was located on 4th Street, across from Modern Chevrolet. We usually parked dad’s 1953 Plymouth Suburban station-wagon in the lot on Four-and-a-Half Street, and entered the store through the upper entrance. I can still remember the smell of the hot nuts, fudge, and candies that wafted-up the those stairs to the parking lot as we walked down them. And I can still remember the long walk to the back of the store. We walked past the jewelry counter, and the toy department, and the housewares, and the hardware, and the garden supplies, and at last, there was Santa, seated on his elevated throne, usually at the end of a long line of kids my age. Most kids sat on his lap; but even as a youngster, I never did want to do that. I much preferred to keep my feet on the ground, shake-hands with the old gentleman, and speak to him face to face. I was always careful not to ask for too much, because, I knew, as my mother often told me, that Santa Claus had to keep something for the other children. When Clyde Manning proofed this sermon, she old me her mother simply told her and her sisters not to be greedy.
Santa was the bringer of gifts, but not the only bringer of gifts. My uncle Paul, my dad’s brother, usually brought a gift by for me, and my Aunt Ella Mae, my cousin Robert’s mother, always gave me something. Both Robert and I were deep into the cowboy life, and, I suppose, Aunt Ella Mae wanted her boys not to grow up to be cowboys. Anyway, one year, she surprised Robert and me with a different kind of gift. She put the matching gifts under the tree at Granny’s, and marked them “From Santa.” We were initially delighted to get something extra. Then we tore open the packages to discover a matching pair of dolls, both named, “Betsy Wetsy.” All of our aunts and uncles roared with laughter, and they kept laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The rest of that episode is a blank for me; but, several years ago, my cousin Robert sent me a picture of us holding those dolls. Both of us are dressed up as cowboys. His flashy little suit, complete with chaps and a vest, was embroidered with the name of “Hop Along Cassidy.” I am dressed more conservatively in a cowboy shirt, jeans, boots, and a black hat. Both of us are wearing a pair of chrome plated-pistols. He is clutching his Betsy Wetsy to his chest with a look of chagrin on his face. I am holding mine down by my side, either by a leg, or by the hair of her head, I don’t remember, and the look on my face is one of pure disdain. Today, a Betsy Wetsy will fetch quite a sum on eBay. Despite my shame I have been tempted to go on over to 10 West Devonshire, and sneak into my old back yard, and see if I can find the shallow grave where I put her after she met a tragic and violent end, on December the 26th, 1956.
When I was growing up, I received gifts, and I gave gifts. In those days, my mother always gave me enough money to buy my father a gift, and my father always gave me enough money to buy my mother a gift. Year after year, I bought mom a nice handkerchief, and I bought my dad a pretty nice tie. Then, one year, I saved up my allowance and went to the drugstore without supervision. I bought my dad a bottle of “Old Spice,” and my mother a bottle of “Midnight in Paris.” Interestingly enough, several years ago, when I had to empty my mom’s house, I found that empty bottle of “Midnight in Paris,” still in the original box.
I have to mention one more thing. The traditional Christmas family gathering. In those days, when I thought I would always be A member of the youngest generation, we went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas Dinner and there were no empty chairs. I was an only child, but I had five aunts and uncles, on my mother’s side alone, and more first cousins than I could reliably count. We had special guests, too. I particularly enjoyed the years that my dad brought an old bachelor preacher named J. George Brunner to eat with us. Dad always asked Mr. Brunner to say the blessing, we enjoyed his blessings, because they were like a preview of good things to come. He always took time to thank God for every single item on the heavily laden table, one at a time, “O Lord,” he prayed, “Thank you for the turkey and dressing, and for the ham with pineapple slices and cherries, and for the green-beans, and for the mashed potatoes with lumps in them, and for real butter, and for the coconut cake, and the chocolate fudge tunnel cake….” His prayer went on much longer, for the feast was abundant and diverse, but you get the picture.
When I was growing up, our Christmas never lacked for wrapping! However, there was no danger that we would loose the true gift of Christmas in that wrapping.
Take the songs we sang. I don’t remember that we ever sang “Jingle-Bells,” but it seems like we were aways singing carols like, “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night.” Indeed, my first solo was part of a trio. Steve Calloway, Lenny Canada and I played the Three Wisemen, and we sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
I told you that we did not have lights on our Christmas tree; but we always had them at the Christmas Eve Candlelight Lovefeast. I always loved it when the preacher, always my dad, held up his candle and told us how Jesus had said, “I am the Light of the World.” And then he would invite us to lift up our candels says, “And Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world…’”
Then there was Christmas morning. In those days, we always had gifts under the tree; but we never opened them until dad took down his big Thompson Chain Reference Bible, in the King James Version, and read the Christmas Story. He had read it the night before, at the lovefeast, but he always read it a second time, just for our family.
More than sixty years have come and gone since my first Christmases. John James’s farm is a golf course, and Granny and Pop are gone, and dad is gone, and most of my aunts and uncles are gone. Even one of my cousins is gone. Others who have lived as long as I have have even more vacant seats around the Christmas table. However, despite all these changes, for some of us, hopefully for most of us, the true Gift of Christmas is still as longed for, appreciated, and treasured, as it ever was. For though we know we can never return to those long ago Christmases of yesteryear, the True Gift of Christmas continues to give us hope, for today and tomorrow. As we grow older we see that night is coming, but beyond the night, there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This makes us bold to believe that we are moving toward a future that is even more special than our past, a future in which every person we have loved and lost, has some part to play, and the part they play, and the part we play, will never be diminished. That hope is possible, because the true gift of Christmas, the child of Bethlehem, grew-up to become not just a man, but the Man, the Son of Man and Son of God who showed us the Father by showing us Himself. Then he died for our sins, and rose again to give us a future and a hope that is beyond our wildest expectations. My dad always read the Christmas story from Luke chapter two, twice, on Christmas Eve, and again on Christmas Day. The rest of the year, he often used a different version of the Christmas story. It is found in John 3;16. Do you know it?
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.