For several weeks now, the TV Guide feature on my television has been displaying title after title of Christmas-themed movies. And the Hallmark Channel continues its tradition of broadcasting holiday films, premiering 31 originals this year alone.
There are also classic Christmas movies, the ones that make us feel we have not had Christmas if we have not watched them at least once: Home Alone, Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life and, appropriately, A Christmas Story. I am pretty much a White Christmas gal myself, so far having watched Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing the title song twice this month.
And seldom does a Christmas pass without some reference to A Christmas Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim and those time-period ghosts. My favorite Christmas short story, however, is O. Henry’s poignant The Gift of the Magi – I am reduced to tears no matter how often I read of Jim and Della’s unselfish gifts for one another.
As lovely and Christmasy as all these creations may be, however, they remain on the outskirts of true stories of the season. There are just two narratives that bring Christmas into clear focus for me.
One of my must-includes is Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Moore. Some families read the poem every Christmas Eve, although that was only an occasional tradition at home.
However, as a fifth-grader I recited the entire thing for the annual Christmas program at school. On center stage in the gym at Concord School I sat in a rocking chair with several first-grader “grandchildren” on the floor in front of me, listening as I waxed poetic about Santa’s “round belly” likened to a “bowl full of jelly” and his “droll little mouth.” In a feat of mental exercise I am not sure I could recreate now, I had committed all fourteen stanzas to memory.
Although A Visit from St. Nicholas is secular in nature, it embodies a spirit important to children and adults alike, one explained by editor Francis Church: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…the most real things in the world are those that neither children nor man can see…Santa Claus exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion…
The only other Christmas story IS the Christmas story, which I also learned to recite. My one-year-younger sister and I were assigned scripture from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke as our part in the Christmas program one year at my Aunt Miriam’s church in Bellefontaine. I am not sure how we accomplished it, but we managed to deliver all twenty verses in perfect synchronization.
We learned the lines from the King James Version of the Bible, which I still find contains the most beautiful language of all versions available. Some sections were not completely comprehensible to a ten-year-old: a decree from Caesar Augustus and Mary being great with child.
But other verses seemed just as glorious then as they do today. There were the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night… when suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. Finally, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…
Over the centuries, that everlasting tableau of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in a manger has been translated into other settings and situations. I read one recently in which a child was born to great jubilation in a homeless shelter, tended to by parents facing hard times and surrounded by other residents bestowing upon him modest gifts.
During Christmastime at school, I had my fourth-year German students read The Three Dark Kings by Wolfgang Borchert, a German author of postwar literature. A destitute man, huddling with his wife and newborn son in a shack whose only heat and light came from the fire of damp wood burning in a small stove, was visited by three former soldiers of the just-ended war. Injured and penniless themselves, they gave the baby – whose face was illuminated by the light of the fire – a small wood carving and two yellow bonbons: the best they had.
My absolute favorite story, however, is one that I discovered years ago in a German version of Reader’s Digest. It centered around a typical school Christmas program that ended in anything but a typical manner.
On the evening of the program, the gym was filled with miniature angels, shepherds, kings, sheep, a tired couple searching for overnight accommodations – and scores of parents in the audience. The second-grade teacher had assigned the role of innkeeper to Walter, a head taller and two years older than his classmates. He was kind and obedient but challenged; nonetheless, his teacher felt he would be able to deliver his few lines with appropriate sternness.
Walter stoically sent Mary and Joseph away; but as they turned to leave, he called them back, his face glowing in excitement: “Wait, you can have my room!” Some spectators that evening felt Walter had ruined the program, but others believed it was the most Christmas-filled nativity story they had ever experienced.
So, dear readers, on this Christmas Eve I wish us all the ability to exalt in the hope that exists in the generous spirit represented by Santa Claus, that exists in the birth of every child regardless of era or location, that exists in the golden heart of a Walter…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.