Philipps Brooks, the author of the celebrated Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” once wrote that preaching is the communication of truth through personality. The preacher has a personality, a life, and so does every member of the congregation. Each should connect with and inspire the others. With that understanding as background, I offer you a very personal set of Christmas memories, in hopes that they may evoke memories of your own.
Several years before my dad’s death we drove down to eastern North Carolina to attend a family funeral. It was one of the last road trips I made with my dad, just the two of us. We left Winston-Salem a little before lunch, made the drive, attended the funeral, greeted the few family members dad still remembered, and ate a sandwich. 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 plain we hardly noticed it. On the way back, the same little town was resplendent with light, and totally transformed. As I drove, my dad kept up a running commentary on all the color. He commented on elves dressed in red and green, and on Frosty the Snowman, and the reindeer that leapt from corner to corner. He absolutely effused over Santa Claus, whose full-figured likeness dominated the town square. Then, with no warning at all, dad stopped in mid-sentence, and said:
“Wait a minute, Worth! There is no nativity! I have not seen a single angel, shepherd or wiseman, and the Holy Family has been left completely out. It is as if Jesus had never been born! I am afraid that the leaders of this town have lost the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings.”
Then, looking over at me across the darkened automobile, he said, “Worth, that would make a good idea for a sermon,‘Don’t Loose the True Gift of Christmas in the Wrappings!’”
Now, please make careful note of this: My dad did not say that the true gift of Christmas must be enjoyed without the wrappings. He said that we should not loose the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings!
Like most of you, when I was growing up, we always enjoyed the wrappings. We always put-up a Christmas tree, visited Santa Claus, exchanged gifts, and gathered for a big Christmas family feast.
1. Now, in those days, there must have been lots where people could go and buy a Christmas tree; but we never patronized them.
When I was in high school, my mom put up a shinny, silver aluminum tree, like the ones you can still see in a Doris Day movie; but, in the long ago days before aluminum, we always went out and cut our own.
My Dad was good friends with a farmer by the name of John James. On a Saturday in early December, he would grab me and grab the the ax and drive out to the John James Farm. Mr. James would hook his tractor to a tobacco sled, and my dad and I would climb in. Mr. James would pull us around the farm, until we spied just the right tree, always a cedar. Then dad would hop out of the sled with the 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. I can still smell those trees, and feel their spiky needles against my skin.
When we arrived back at home, my mother would take charge of the decorations. Mom had exactly five boxes of Christmas tree ornaments, each containing about a dozen single-color, glass balls , in red, blue, green, gold, and silver. We would arrange these on the tree, and then drape it with 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. Finally, mom would pop pop-corn, and bring out needles and thread, and we will string a little pop-corn, and eat a little pop-corn, and string a little pop-corn, until the tree was heavy with white.
2. At my house, we had the wrappings, including a Christmas tree, and when I was younger, even got to pay a visit to Old St. Nick. 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. Even now it is hard for me to imagine a world without Sears. Anyway, we usually parked dad’s 1953 Plymouth station-wagon in the lot on Four-and-a-Half Street, and entered the store from the parking deck. I can still remember the smell of the hot nuts and fudge, and candies that wafted-up the those stairs as we made our way down to the store. And I can still remember the details of our passage. We walked past the jewelry counter, on the right, and the toy department, on the left, and the housewares, and the hardware, and the garden supplies. At last, al the way against the back of the store, there was Santa, usually at the end of a long line of kids my age. Most of them 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, as my mother always warned me, “Santa will not visit a child is too greedy.” Thank-God, I always made the cut! He always stopped by, and he always honored me by drinking the milk, and eating the cookies that I left out for him. In those days, there was no higher approbation.
3. When Iwas growing-up, Santa was the bringer of gifts, but not the only bringer of gifts. My parents always gave me something, even if it usually was something to wear. And my Uncle Paul was usually good for something, and my Aunt Ella Mae, my cousin Robert’s mother, always had something for me under the tree at my grandmother’s house. In those days, both my cousin Robert and I were deep into the cowboy life. This must have troubled my Aunt Ella May. I suppose she did not want her best boys to grow up to be cowboys; because one year, in those long ago days of innocence, she pulled a switch on us. She wrapped two large packages and left them under my grandmother’s tree, one for me, and one for Robert. When the time came, and we tore into them, we were devastated. She had given each of us our very own Betsy Wetsy Doll! After that, all I can remember is all my aunts and uncles and cousins laughing at us with tears streaming down their faces. For many years, the rest of that day remained a total blank. Then, just a couple of years ago, my cousin Robert sent me a picture of us holding those dolls. We are both dressed as cowboys. He is wearing a flash little suit, complete with chaps and a vest, and the vest is embroidered with the name of Hop Along Cassidy. I I am dressed more conservatively in a cowboy shirt, and jeans, boots, and a black hat. Both of us are wearing a pair of chrome plated-pistols. Robert is clutching his Betsy Wetsy to his chest with a look of chagrin on his face. I am holding my Betsy Wetsy, with one hand, by the hair, and the look on my face is one of pure disdain. Today, on eBay, a Betsy Wetsy will fetch a tidy sum. I will not profit from that, for I am quite sure that my Betsy Wetsy suffered a tragic and violent demise, and ended up in a shallow grave in my backyard, at 10 West Devonshire Street.
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. Usually, I was closely supervised, and I came home with things like handkerchiefs, and scarves and neckties. Then, one year, I went without supervision to the Arcadia Drugstore. I bought my dad a bottle of “Old Spice,” and my mother a bottle of “Evening in Paris.” My dad was an Old Spice Man. He used it up and tossed the bottle as he always did. I fear my mother did not appreciate her “Evening in Paris.” Several years ago, when I had to empty my parent’s house, I discovered the very bottle I had given her, more than five decades earlier, its contents mostly intact. The full bottle reminded me of a fulsome prayer my mother once prayed on my behalf. I was deeply troubled at the time, and she began her prayer, “O Lord, you know that I love you, and you know that I love my son even more…” That says it all.
4. I have to mention one more thing: The Christmas Family Feast. I was an only child, but my mother had two brothers and three sisters, and I had more first cousins than I could easily count. In those days, when I thought I would always belong to the youngest generation, when we went to my Pop and Granny’s for Christmas Dinner, there was not a single empty chair. We had special guests, too. I particularly enjoyed it when my dad brought along an old bachelor preacher named J. George Brunner. My Grandmother would always ask Mr. Brunner to say the blessing, and it was always a memorable event. Mr. Brunner was in the habit of asking God’s blessing upon every item on the heavily laden table, individually. “O Lord,” he prayed, “Thank you for the turkey and dressing, and for the gravy, and for the ham garnished with pineapple slices, and for the green-beans, and yams, and for the mashed potatoes with lumps in them, and for real butter, and for coconut cake, the fried apple pies, and all the..” His prayer went on much longer—but I will not detain you any longer, for 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.
Consider the music. I heard songs like Jingle Bells and White Christmas on TV, but I don’t remember that we ever sang them. Instead, we sang carols like those we still sing in church.
Today, I love Christmas lights, but we never had lights on our Christmas tree. Our lights were the candles at the Christmas Eve lovefeast. I loved it when everyone had a candle, and the lights of the church were darkened, and the preacher, usually my dad lifted his candle high, saying, “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world…’ And Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world…let your light so shine that others may see your good works and give glory to your father who is in heaven.’”
Likewise, 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, and read the Christmas Story, always from the King James Version. Have you ever noticed that, thought better translations are available, certain texts like the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s prayer, and the Christmas Story don’t really sound just right in anything else.
More than sixty years have come and gone since my first Christmases. The old John James farm is now a golf course. And my grandparents, and my parents, and most of my aunt’s and uncles are gone, and one of my cousins, and a great many of my very best friends. They have all made their exit into what some believe to be the long, dark, endless night. At the age of 70, I can see the darkness looming out ahead for me, and for you, but thanks to the true gift of Christmas, the Son of God and Son of Man who was born in Bethlehem, a light shines in that darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. My favorite Creation Story is found in John 1: “In the Beginning was the Word…all things were made through him.” And my favorite Christmas Story 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 believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
So, enjoy the wrappings, but don’t loose the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings!
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
Fries Memorial Moravian Church