Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, perhaps for most, it is some sort of recognition of the birth of the baby Jesus. Some may think of Him as a sweet child born to a poor couple when they were engaged in a long journey, who found shelter in in a stable and used an animal trough as the infant’s first crib. They would, of course, at some level be right. Others might think of that baby as the King of Kings come to earth to begin the mission of redemption. Those who believe this have embarked on their own journey, the journey of faith. For others—thought they are not others per se, since they can indeed be a part of either of these groups—Christmas is a time to remember. It encompasses the recollection of bygone Christmases, special rituals or practices that our parents or grandparents, were we lucky enough to have them, carried out.
Perhaps they built a Christmas yard and, as my mother Elaine would do, make up a story to suit the way she constructed the yard that year. Perhaps Christmas for them involved inviting someone over for Christmas, an older couple or a single old man, like Mr. Charles Miller, who lived across the parking lot from us in New Hope (see pp. 108-114 in the Curious Autobiography; Billboard Magazine, Oct. 29, 1938, p. 12). He loved coming to our small apartment for Christmas breakfast, loved having the fellowship and conversations with us. He had been famous for composing Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, which had been a Broadway score. He was, when we knew him as our neighbor, a pensioner, a widower, I imagined at the time, probably in his early seventies, though he seemed older than that, as he suffered from some degeneration of the spine and was slightly hunched over. Mr. Miller seemed old, even smelled old to me, though I was but a lad at the time. As far as I could tell, he was more or less a recluse, or at least reclusive. He rarely had a visitor, rarely went out. But Christmas morning was something he truly looked forward to, and for at least four or five Christmases in the late sixties and early seventies, Mr. Miller was a fixture at our Christmas breakfast. He loved to recall his days as a musician, composer, and, oddly enough, as a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Browns baseball team of 1912. I don’t think Mr. Miller spoke to too many folks so, when he made his annual Christmas morning visit, it was for him truly a joyous day.
For me even as a child, that family tradition, even if somewhat short-lived, as we would move away in a few years and I never saw Mr. Miller again, gave Christmas day real meaning, a real sense of caring for another person. I remember the value of those days, the human value, itself analogous in its mercy to the mercy that the innkeeper must have shown for that young couple with a baby some 2000 years ago, and the mercy that the baby showed and shows to all humanity.
So, if you celebrate Christmas, I think you would do well, in whatever way you celebrate it, to remember. For that is a human thing, whose intrinsic value is highlighted by the transcendent mercy that showed itself in humility in a manger of old, far away, yet nearer, perhaps, than we might think. Merry Christmas!
Christmas Excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes (pp. 108–114):
Simply being the neighbor of Mr. Charles Miller—the cowriter with Johnny Gruelle and Will Woodin of Raggedy Ann’s Sunny Songs, music that had made him famous some forty years before I knew him—helped me, if not to remove, at least to assuage the pain of some of the blotches on the escutcheon of my character. Mr. Miller’s deliverance came not by any words he said, though his words were kind, but merely because Sheila and I made Mr. Miller the object of our annual “Christmas ministry.” This sounds strange, I realize, because, as I have explained earlier, both Sheila and I (especially Sheila, but also I, if only incidentally) were practicing Jews. Yet I had recalled and now imitated my father’s various ministries to persons of poor fortune, many of which had been performed under the auspices of the church, of course.
Harry always went further than the mere parameters of any ministerial mission. If the church’s holiday ministry were to bring a poor family a Thanksgiving turkey, Harry would size up that family when he brought in the bird, accompanied, in accordance with the normal Jakesian attitude of generosity, by a full range of fixings and fresh bread and good Welsh Hên Sîr cheese. Having guessed the sizes of the children’s clothing, he would then go straight out to the army/navy store on Wyoming Avenue—for he loved to buy his clothes in that particular store—and buy ample amounts of clothing for the family. He would then put it in a box and leave it on the porch of the family so that they would find it when they came home. Indeed, Harry loved to use porches to give unexpected presents. On the occasion of my son’s fifth birthday, for example, Harry sent the excited lad out of doors to get the paper. Upon returning, my son delightfully discovered, hard by the front door, a shiny red bicycle with training wheels.
Such were the days of joy when we lived in my father’s house. But I return to Mr. Miller, whose special breakfast we served, every Christmas from 1968 to 1971. This gentle little old man incidentally provided me with a baby step toward redemption, not by works—lest I should have boasted, which, I confess, I did—but by the infusion of grace, through faith that had not yet come to me, but was en route, if coming in a slow boat. Among his rich and varied accomplishments, Mr. Charles Miller had briefly played professional baseball when he was twenty years old for the 1912 St. Louis Browns. […] Mr. Miller and I lived just behind Rob and Rich’s store, and we slowly became friendly. Mr. Miller was virtually a shut-in by the mid-1960s, when he was already an old man, and Sheila and I invited him to Christmas breakfast. We knew he was not Jewish, and, though we were, we knew that he should not spend Christmas Day alone. Added to this was the fact that he clearly enjoyed our company. So, each year on Christmas Day, I would prepare him pancakes and bacon, though Sheila meticulously avoided eating any—nor would my son. I perhaps snuck a piece or two during the preparation of the unclean meat, but, I rationalized, this was only to ensure that it was properly cooked so that we would not make Mr. Miller ill.
The delightful old man therefore offered Sheila and me a good excuse to celebrate Christmas, something I had sorely missed ever since quasi-converting to Judaism in 1964. I had always loved the story of the wise men, and, nearly as much, I wistfully recalled Christmas carols, with their eternally optimistic message of hope for humankind. Besides, having Mr. Miller over gave me an excuse to set up the Christmas yard, which I had loved to do since childhood. The Christmas yard, in turn, provided a reason to get a Christmas tree, which afforded me the opportunity to trim the tree and decorate the apartment, and of course to send out Christmas (and Hanukkah) cards, which gave me a pretext for celebrating both holidays, though emphasizing Hanukkah, of course. And celebrating Christmas allowed me again to create a space for my parents in the holiday season, because they could then visit us, mutely rejoicing in my gradual return toward Christendom with every Christmas present they gave their grandson. Perhaps to deemphasize the material aspect of the holidays, I would always tell my son in advance of Christmas specifically what Harry and Blanche had bought him, and then instruct him to act surprised on Christmas Day.
“Why, Mother, why?” he would ask.
“Because you don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
“No, not that. Why,” he would inquire, “do you tell me every year what they bought me in advance?”
“So that you can act surprised,” I would say with a mildly aggravated tone.
“No,” he would say, “I mean, why don’t you just not tell me so I can actually be surprised.”
“Because, if you were not to like what they bought you, you would not want to hurt their feelings, would you?”
“But Mother, in that case I could just act like I liked whatever it was that they bought me. Besides, I always do like what they buy me.”
“Just shut up and act surprised. More tea, Mr. Miller?” I said on Christmas morning, 1968, changing the topic of conversation.
“Yes, that would be fine, thank you.”
“What was it like writing all that music, you know, for the Raggedy Ann musical?”
“Well, it was exciting. We were in the big town in those days, in New York, I mean. Johnny Gruelle and I would go to the apartment of one of our closest friends, Will Woodin. Locking ourselves in for the whole weekend, we would just compose, and we would compose for hours. I mostly wrote down the musical scores while Johnny worked on the lyrics with Will, though we all worked on all of it together. I was the purest musician, and Johnny was the storyteller, while Will, whose true gift lay in keeping the finances, did a bit of both. Those were great days, and I was able to quit my job at Harms music and start my own business. There were tough times, as well, because in the midst of all our activity the stock market crashed and the whole country suffered in, well, you know, Elaine, the worst of times. My company survived, but just barely. Still, we had a lot of fun in the midst of the storms of life.”
“My mother spoke many times of those years,” Sheila said, “often with tears in her eyes.” This was a fitting statement, for I thought I saw a bit of moisture coming to the eyes of Mr. Miller himself, whether it was merely his age or the nostalgia that the moment afforded us all.
“Yes, those were hard times, but Christmas always got us through, not simply because it was, and is, such a hopeful season,” Mr. Miller explained, “but because the sales of my musical scores did much better during that season of the year.”
“Did you write more music with Johnny Gruelle and Will … what was his name?” Sheila asked.
“Yes, we did work on a few more pieces together. But Will—Will Woodin—was only a musician on the side. His day job was that of a financier, and had our compositional trio stayed together, I’m sure Miller Music Co. would have made it much bigger than it did, for after leaving Harms—a name I always thought was too foreboding to have lasting success—I set up my own music business. And Will, well, boy did he make it big! Having garnered quite a name for himself in the financial world, he was tapped by none other than President Roosevelt to be the secretary of the treasury. This occurred during the critical years as America struggled out of the Depression. So fine at what he did was Will Woodin! About the same time Johnny had been having some health issues, so he moved to the warmer climes of Florida, which spelled the breakup of our team. Ah, but we had some great days in New York in the late twenties and early thirties.” He paused reflectively and added, “You know, my dears, I have no regrets, no regrets at all. It really was a wonderful life.”
“Mr. Miller, did you really play pro baseball?” My son piped in. “Mom said you did.”
“Well, as a matter of fact,” he said, stretching forth the neatly wrapped box that his old and wavering hands had brought with him, “I have a Christmas present for you, son. You open it, and I will tell you about my not-so-stellar baseball ‘career.’ ”
My son opened the box to find within a beautiful new baseball mitt. Mr. Miller explained the gift: “It’s a Rawlings infielder’s mitt, signed by Eddie Mathews. You know Eddie Mathews, don’t you? He was the famous third baseman of the once Boston, later Milwaukee, and lately Atlanta Braves.” He paused as my son turned the mitt over in his hands, sliding it on his left hand. “Mathews, you know, took Milwaukee to the World Series championship in ’57. What a fine long career Eddie had! He finally retired, playing his last season with the Detroit Tigers, just this past year,” Mr. Miller said smoothly, though it was clear that he was carefully reviewing the details of Eddie Mathews’s career in his mind even as he spoke.
“You can use this mitt for any infield position, except first base. I think you’ll turn out to be an infielder, son; I just have a feeling. You have a good baseball look to you, and a good baseball name.”
“Wow, Mr. Miller,” my son said, “I never had a mitt before.”
“Break it in well, my boy, and put plenty of oil on it. Oil’s the best stuff for a new mitt.”
So the next day my son went to Ristorante Villa Vito and oiled his mitt with a generous helping of Signora Favoroso’s olive oil, in which she had been soaking three cloves of garlic. For this reason his mitt always smelled more delectable than those of the other boys.
“My baseball career, I’m sorry to say, was, unlike Eddie Mathews’s, very short lived. I only ever played one game, coming up to bat twice, and grounding out both times. But my moment of fame, such as it was, came on a diving play in the infield. I was the St. Louis Browns’s new shortstop, young—if you can imagine it—energetic, and known for my glove. You know what I mean by ‘glove,’ don’t you? It’s baseball talk for fielding ability.
“Now I wanted to show the manager, George Stovall, that I could really play. The Browns had been terrible the year before and were not doing so well even for George, who had just taken over his managerial role, and was thus trying all kinds of things to get the team on a winning track. He wanted a good defensive unit, and when he heard about my fielding capabilities, he put me out there at shortstop in the seventh inning, hoping for my defense to help the team close out that game with a win. This was important because we had lost more than a hundred games in 1911 and we were on a similar trajectory that year. So here I was, fresh to the majors—I had only been called up at the end of June—playing what would be my one and only game on August 19, 1912, against the crosstown rival St. Louis Cardinals.”
“Oh, the nineteenth of August. That’s my birthday!” I piped in.
“It was the bottom of the ninth, and, as I said, I had batted twice already, to no avail, but now I was in the field at my shortstop position and ready to help our team close out this game with a win. A runner was on first, and there were two outs. Crack went the bat, and the ball went toward our third baseman at a clip. Lunging to his left, Jimmy—Jimmy Austin—snagged the ball and then zipped it toward second where I had to reach for it. The ball was thrown low, toward the legs of the base runner in full slide. I caught the ball, and tagged the runner, but I heard a loud popping sound as I tagged. Nevertheless, I managed to get the ball out of my mitt cleanly and fire it off to first base, completing the double play and getting us a badly needed win.”
“What was the popping noise?” my son asked.
“When I looked down at my arm, I saw my hand just hanging there by the skin. The wrist bone was completely severed, and the pain was, well …” He paused and lifted his left hand, pulling up the sleeve of his old man’s cardigan sweater to display the slightly misshapen limb. “I could never play baseball again. But as you can see, over time it healed, if a little crooked. That’s why I pursued my second love, music, and became a musician. And, thus, my life healed, too.”
It was time for cheese now, and I brought out my cheese plate, thanking God without words that Mr. Miller had forced me to keep Christmas, if not in my heart, at least in my home. It’s funny, I thought to myself, how Christmas is like the pungent smell of certain types of cheese. It has a kind of buoyancy, an annoying obstinacy. I later realized that Christmas shares that characteristic with Welsh Presbyterianism. Though we had eaten breakfast less than an hour before, Mr. Miller indulged in a sizable hunk of Hên Sîr cheese on a Carr’s water biscuit.
“The face on that cheese plate is, for all its luster, rather disturbing, Elaine,” Mr. Miller said, as I served him a second piece of the flavorful Welsh cheese. “Would it be possible, do you suppose, to turn it round the other direction?”
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.