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!
It was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?
“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”
“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”
“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”
“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”
“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”
“Then I am on God’s side.”
“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.
It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.
Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.
“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)
The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.
Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”
“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”
Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.
* * *
Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”
“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”
“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”
“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”
If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.
In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”