I started composing this piece as a commentary on memory, not as a Christmas story at all. My memory is still in good shape at 69, but I’m processing new information differently, and less efficiently. When confronted with new information, I automatically try to put it in context, and that brings up a host of related memories, adding a dimension to the new datum which I didn’t have as a college student 50 years ago. Unless I can contextualize, the new input doesn’t register. In the days when most information was passed along orally from person to person, this would have made me a great storyteller. I think that there is a little old granny lurking in my psyche, sitting at my spinning wheel by the fire and regaling grandchildren with tales of the past.
This morning I was with half a dozen people in a self-help group who were sharing anecdotes and opinions, and the discussion turned to the lack of public recognition of the community aspect of Christmas. These people were older and remembered, mostly with fondness, a time when there were Christmas trees in public places, and overtly religious festivities did not have to be conducted behind closed doors, out of the purview of the politically correct.
This prompted me to share a memory from more than sixty years ago, which is still vivid in my mind and became more so when I told it. In 1954, when I attended first grade at Condon elementary school in Eugene Oregon (where I still live) I had the opportunity to take part in a school-wide Christmas pageant that included my good friend Dicky K. singing a solo of “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and a play about a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary. As the smallest kid in the entire school I was selected to play the part of the child of a needy woman, played by a sixth grader. The central character in the story, a German clockmaker from hundreds of years ago, spent a long time making a beautiful clock to present to the statue of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus in the Cathedral as a votive offering on Christmas Eve. There was a legend that the statue would come to life and accept the best offering, though no one could remember this having happened in living memory. At the last minute the clockmaker sold the beautiful clock to get money for a woman in desperate circumstances, and had only the apple he had saved for his supper to bring as an offering. The statue came to life and accepted it. The take home lesson, that God, or Jesus, or the Virgin Mary considers private generosity to the poor to be better service than conspicuous public gifts, was not lost on me at age six and is a good lesson at Christmas or at any other time.
A little sleuthing on the internet turned up the source of the story I remembered, a children’s book by Ruth Sawyer called “This Way to Christmas” published in 1916. The clockmaker episode, one of many, was made into a short play in 1939, and that is probably what I encountered in 1954. The text of the entire book is available in the public domain.
Set in the context of the whole book, the story is even more inspiring and timely. The main character of the book is a boy whose parents are doing medical research in the front lines in Europe; he is spending Christmas with his former Irish nanny who now serves with her husband as a caretaker at a snowbound summer resort. A few people, all more or less outcasts and isolated from each other, are spending Christmas in this nearly deserted town. The narrator of the clockmaker story is an elderly German immigrant railroad worker with a heart of gold, shunned by other members of the community because of hysteria against Germans during World War I. Other characters – an old negro caretaker, a trapper and guide from the Balkans, a Hispanic lady with her invalid son, and Johanna, the Irish nanny relate traditional Christmas stories from their cultures, and the book ends, first with Peter the artist’s tale of Santa Claus going on strike and making Christmas happen at the last possible moment with the help of mythological spirits (fairies, brownies, giants, dwarfs etc.) from many traditions, and then with a communal feast at the inn where Johanna and her husband are caretakers.
The title refers to a sign inviting everyone to Johanna’s house for a feast, but also to David’s search for the “locked-out fairy,”, a supernatural being from one of Joanna’s stories in which the fairies all emerge briefly on Christmas Eve and return to their “holt” promptly at midnight. The stories are strung together by David’s search for the locked-out fairy which never got back to its holt. It is a well-written parable about the contributions of immigrants, the importance of being welcoming to them, and the role of war in keeping people separate.
I hope this book becomes a theme for the coming Christmas; it is as timely as it was when it appeared just over a hundred years ago. What other signposts are hidden in my memory, ready to point down “rabbit holes” when the time is ripe for uncovering old information in a new context?
Photo is a plate from the book, This Way to Christmas – Public Domain