Along time ago, my mother, Elaine Jakes, gave me a gift. It was Christmas time, the first Christmas in New Hope, Pennsylvania, whither she had migrated from Shermans Dale, a tiny hamlet near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital. Though she had gainful employment in Shermans Dale teaching fifth grade in Blain Elementary School, with all due respect to the “Mustangs” mascot, she had left that dale because, frankly, she didn’t like it.
And neither did I. I didn’t like being isolated from other children—we had moved from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia where there were plenty of other kids to play with on my block—and she didn’t like how the unrefined attitude of the rural townsfolk could manifest itself. It seemed a place, to my mother, devoid of the grace that she had grown up with and, at the very least, admired in Kingston, where her parents had a church home and a true home. To me, it was simply a place devoid of other children.
Yet soon she moved to and dwelt in New Hope, and there she and Sheila celebrated Christmas, even though by then we were Jewish. I think that the reason for this obviously non-Jewish celebration was not simply because my mother had been raised in a Christian (Welsh Presbyterian home) and had never quite given up on the notion of Christmas but also because an aged and quite lovely pensioner, Mr. Charles Miller (erstwhile briefly professional baseball player and composer of the musical score for Raggedy Ann and Andy), lived right next door to—or rather, just across the parking lot of—our downtown New Hope apartment at 14 West Bridge Street; and he was alone for Christmas.
Elaine and Sheila’s inner goodness could not brook such a situation: he simply had to have Christmas breakfast, and thus we should celebrate Christmas, at least for Mr. Miller. Of course, I did not argue, because that should mean that I would likely receive not simply Hanukkah gifts but also at least something for Christmas, as the situation dictated.
And so it was the festive occasion, with Mr. Miller enjoying a lavish Christmas breakfast of pancakes and bacon (sic) and me sneaking a piece or two of bacon myself and, better yet, receiving the undo reward of an extra holiday gift or two. But the greater gift was not the gift of the gifts but the gift of Elaine’s storytelling, for she took the opportunity to set up a Christmas tree—Mr. Miller simply could not come to a house adorned merely with Hebraic Hanukkah decorations. It was not that I had to put my dreidel away or not don my yamaka. The shamash and the first candle (to the far right) of the menorah would burn brightly. Though technically, since in 1967 the first day of Hannukah was not until the 26th, it should have been lit the next night, Elaine moved it up to Christmas day for Mr. Miller’s sake.
Thus, far from hiding it, we would put on display the polytonal multi-culturalism of our curious household, while at the same time celebrating Christmas for Mr. Miller, though perhaps more than simply for him, for Elaine ever adored Christmas: in reality, the celebration of Christmas would be for us all. And one important aspect of that celebration occurred the night before, when we hurriedly set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas yard, something of great fun and greater consequence for a young lad, for it involved storytelling. And that is a gift that lasts.
The story of the Christmas yard, which begins in this blog and will have three more installments this month began with hastily placing a number of small houses inherited from her grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Evans, made of thick paper and covered with glitter paint on a small platform beneath the Christmas tree. Now I think many a family may have a similar tradition. Elaine did not simply create a small yard, a replica of a town where “Santa” comes, but she created a town that needed social justice, a town that needed grace. She did not articulate it in those terms; that I will do. Rather, she created the town and its environment and thus deserves credit here for seeing that these would be the very issues that dogged our society then and continue to dog it now. So, what began with Elaine, who even on her long journey toward personal grace was acutely aware of her own and the world’s need for it, continues here. And now, the story of the Christmas yard.
Under a large tree lay a small town, small enough, but also big enough. It was small enough for anyone to know nearly everyone else. The fresh pine scent of the large tree that loomed over the town—a tree decorated once a year by the townsfolk to celebrate Christmas, though not all of them went to church or even believed in God—pervaded the town, particularly after its denizens had climbed the tree to adorn it with bands of colored paper meant simply to make the tree look more festive. Small boxes meant to represent presents, all neatly wrapped, dangled from its branches, which were themselves bedecked with garlands and tinsel—the old fashioned kind made of actual tin alloyed with lead—that gleamed in the bright moon’s light.
There was no particular year for the setting of this Christmas or this town, though one could tell by examining closely the style of the small replicas of automobiles that the year that the artificial yard beneath the Christmas tree was meant to represent must have been something like 1940, or perhaps 1945 or, in any case, thereabouts. It was a time a long time ago now, not quite a century, but certainly a long time. It was a town that never existed, but really did exist, or at least exemplified what existed, and showed the potential for what humankind might strive toward or, perhaps better stated, be receptive to.
But I leave that aside for now to get back to the Christmas yard and what made it unique, beyond the obvious fact that it was the subject of Elaine’s story, Elaine’s unending gift of storytelling. And so, to get back to it, I shall merely repeat the gist of her story. It began with not simply the lay of the yard into two sections—the poor section and the rich—or even the dichotomization of the Jews and the Christians (which from the Jewish perspective were gentiles) or other races. It began rather with a pastor, appropriately named Reverend Griffith, out for a walk.
Now though the Reverend Griffith of her story bore the same name as the Reverend Griffith in whose church she had grown up, Elaine made it quite clear to me that this Reverend Griffith was not the historical pastor, who in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920 delivered the keynote address at the Presbyterian General Assembly encouraging all Presbyterians “to live out Jesus before the world.” No, the character in the story, she said, was “based on” that Reverend Griffith, but was not him. Of course I had deduced that already, as the Reverend Griffith before me was a leaden figurine about 2 inches tall. Yet that is what she said, as she opened her story.
Christmas was in the air, just a few days away, when Reverend Griffith was, as he was every Monday evening, out for a walk, when a lad of about nine years, whom Elaine called David—“It’s the name I wanted to name you,” Elaine quipped, “but your father wouldn’t let me”—recognized him from a distance and ran up to him.
“Can I help you carry those packages, Reverend?” he asked politely.
“May, not can, David… and no, no need; I’m just about my errands.”
“Can I come with you, then?”
“May, not can, David… and no, you should stay near your home, my friend, as I’m going about the entire Yard.” The town was called Christmas Yard, and the residents often shortened it to the “Yard,” sometimes with an adjective inserted between the article and the truncated name proper.
“But Christmas Yard is a small town, and I’ve been everywhere in it. I know it all so well.”
As David was an only child without a father, the reverend thought it better not to take him along. “I’m off now, and you stay here. Is your mother home? You should stay home.” And having given the lad this final directive, off went the right rector with his packages bundled with string and brown paper tucked under his left and right arms. Indeed, the nine-year-old David was perceptive to notice that the promenading pastor could have used some assistance.
Yet, Elaine was careful to note, David was a curious lad. He just had to know where the reverend was going, so he surreptitiously followed the pastor. How I loved it when my mother used adverbs to which none of my other friends had regular access. Thus did she surreptitiously cause my vocabulary to wax.
David noticed that the reverend took his many packages not to the public crèche—for they were legal in those days—where there was a collection bin for presents for the poor. Rather, reverend Griffith carried them a long way, to the extent that anything in the Yard was a long way off. He crossed over the railroad tracks, passing over a small completely-wooden bridge beneath which was a glistening ice covered pond (represented by a small mirror) hemmed by a snow made crisp with frost, and approached what was perhaps the smallest house in the Yard, though it was not uncomely. There dwelt the Pínqióng (pronounced “Pin-chiong”) family, Elaine said. Mr. Pínqióng worked in a factory outside the yard, under the nearby divan, and Mrs. Pínqióng made cookies and biscuits for the Yard’s only restaurant, the Golden Pump. Though they were very poor and barely made enough to buy the ingredients to make the cookies to sell, you might nevertheless smell Mrs. Pínqióng’s baking throughout our own home sometimes, Elaine said, during the Christmas season. That was the first house where the reverend stopped.
After a few minutes the good pastor came out with a few less packages and proceeded to cross over by two streets to Mr. Umaskini’s house. Now Mr. Umaskini lived alone. Though his name sounded Italian to me, I could see from the figurine who represented Mr. Umaskini that he was a person of color, so I asked if that was in fact the case. Apparently, I could tell from Elaine’s response, David had asked the reverend the same question when he had emerged from Mr. Umaskini’s modest home, shaking hands with him on the porch, and indeed, Mr. Umaskini was, as David thought, of African descent, and, like the Pínqióngs, poor. Reverend Griffith then proceeded to the house of another poor person, this time a Welsh woman named Mrs. Llymder, and then to the very small house, nearly a hut, of the Armut family, German immigrants.
“Why did you go to the houses of those people?” David asked after the Reverend espied him following and signaled for him to come along for the remainder of his mission.
Detecting something perhaps a bit more than mere surprise in David’s voice, Reverend Griffith responded, “Because they’re people.”
“Do they go to your church?”
“No they don’t. Not yet.”
“Why did you visit them then?” David wondered aloud.
“To bring them packages.”
“What was in the packages?”
“It’s not so much what is in a package as it is what it means,” the reverend responded cryptically.
“What did it mean?” the curious lad kept probing.
“You mean, what does it mean?”
“Why do pastors always have to sound like philosophers?” the precocious lad queried.
Their conversation went on a few more minutes in this vein, with David never learning what was in the packages or quite ascertaining precisely why the peripatetic pastor had gone to the houses of folks who were not his own parishioners in the first place. He deduced that it had something to do with Christmas, with the true meaning of Christmas.
And this is where the story of the Christmas Yard begins, with a unique expression of love by a Welsh Presbyterian pastor for those different than himself, those who did not belong to his flock. But it will not end here. It will continue, as did (and does) Elaine’s story. I hope to find you curious about what comes next, next week. For now, goodbye, in the truest sense of that word, and though it is still a few weeks away, Merry Christmas to you, in the most expansive sense of that expression.