Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas at poet Byron Herbert Reece’s house

Byron Herbert Reece composed several poems about Christmas. I have taken writer’s license in this story to imagine how he might have written the poems during a week of snow leading up to Christmas as World War II raged in 1942. He still had regrets that he was rejected for service at his physical examination because of a nervous tic in his face. Having lived in the same community as Poet Reece, growing up on a neighboring farm near his family, knowing how we all lived during the wintertime, and having heard him speak as a lay preacher at Salem Church, it was not hard for me to imagine this story:

It was a week before Christmas. Hub Reece, as his family, friends and neighbors knew him, went on his regular rounds feeding and caring for the farm animals, milking the cows and making sure all the animals were comfortable in the barn alongside Wolf Creek.

Returning to the house that cold winter morning, he noted how the clouds formed over nearby Blood Mountain. Snow is in store, he thought, and soon Choestoe Valley and these mountains will be a fantasy-land of white. Already, ice crystals were forming along the edge of Wolf Creek as the water flowed over time-worn stones. He heard the melody made by water on rocks, its rhythms beating out iambic lines that played on the chords of his imagination.

The odor of bacon, eggs and hot biscuits met him as he opened the kitchen door. His mother, Emma Lance Reece, took the pail of milk. Hub quickly washed up and the family sat down to a hearty early morning meal. Hub and his father Juan discussed the weather, both noting the signs of impending snow.

“I’ve shored up the animals,” Hub told Juan. “And there’s enough wood on the front porch for both the fireplace and the kitchen stove to get us through several weeks of bad weather.”

“And enough food in the cellar and preserved, even for Christmas,” said Emma. We can use the cured ham for our Christmas dinner, and I will make a stack cake from the dried apples.”

“Don’t forget the peanut brittle and the candy canes we enjoy making from sorghum syrup,” said Eva Mae, Hub’s sister, a teacher at Pine Top School. “I’ll make these Christmas treats,” she said.

With all the crops gathered in and the animals sheltered in their stalls, Hub Reece had a luxury on his hands seldom known to this farmer-poet. Time. Time to write poems that edged his imagination as poignantly as if the Muse were there in person dictating what he should write. “Excuse me,” Hub said. “feel strangely moved on this cold day to go up to my attic room and write. I will sit by the chimney where I will be warm from the fireplace below.”

“Hub,” his mother addressed him. “What about Christmas at church” You know if a big snow comes, our pastor may not be able to travel the roads from Blairsville to Salem Church for the Christmas service. Since you’ve been made a lay preacher, you may have to substitute. Do you have something in mind, if this happens?”

“Mother, you’re always thinking up ways for me to preach!” Hub teased Emma.

“Don’t worry, Mother. We’ll have Christmas at Salem Church one way or the other.”

Comfortably settled in his attic room, Hub began thinking about Christmas and its deep meaning. How could he get its truths into simple and meaningful lyrics? Taking his pad and pencil in hand, he began to write: “When I think of Christmas time/It’s not of candlestick nor chime, It’s not of bells nor mistletoe/ It’s of a Babe born long ago.” The lines almost wrote themselves, coming in steady cadence until ten stanzas were on the page. He read what he had written. How could he improve its message, rhythm, rhyme? The poem covered Christ’s life from birth to death in a simple but profound poem. The last stanza was a plea for the present age to keep Christmas with reverence and honor: “Therefore let My Birthday be/A time of joyful jubilee/With the Host hosannas sing;/I am born anew to be thy King/On Christmas day,/On Christmas day,/On Christmas day in the morning.” [When I Think of Christmas Time was later published in A Song of Joy and Other Poems, p. 112-113].

He was in an extremely creative mood. He thought of the newborn lambs in their own barn. His mother wanted them to raise a few sheep so she could process the wool and use it to knit socks, sweaters and scarves for the family. He wrote: “Since Christ was a lamb O/A lamb O,/A lamb O, Since Christ was a lamb O,/Blessed are the sheep.”

The four stanzas pictured Christ as a baby lamb, a child, a man, the Savior. When he read his penciled lines, he felt a sense of accomplishment. Could he sing this poem if the occasion arose? Maybe so. [Since Christ Was a Lamb O was published in Songs of Joy and Other Poems, p. 114-115.]

Just as quickly, Hub penned five more Christmas poems: As Mary Was Awalking, The Gifting, In Palestine, It Fell Upon a Winter’s Morn, and The Little Blind Boy of Bethlehem. The words flowed in story-poems of the Advent, giving aspects of the nearly unfathomable truths of Emmanuel, God-with-us. [These poems were published in The Season of Flesh, p. 59-65.]

“Byron Herbert Reece!” he heard from below. When his mother used his full name, she meant that he listen and heed. “Your dinner is ready. Come down and eat it before it gets cold.” Dinner for the Reece family, as for most country families, was the noon meal. He took his journal with him and over the hot meal shared what he had written that morning.

While Hub had been writing away the morning in his attic room, snow had come slowly. The mowed hayfield was a white expanse of beauty alongside Wolf Creek and the trees had been turned into a winter wonderland of Christmas loveliness. Eva Mae had dismissed school early at Pine Top School, urging her students (all who walked to school) to hurry home before the snow got too deep. She had made it home safely in her old car before the roads got too filled with snow.

On Christmas Eve Hub hitched the mules to the family wagon. It would be a better vehicle than Eva Mae’s car to take them the two miles to Salem Church. Emma had prepared bags containing gingerbread men she had made, using sorghum syrup for sweetening instead of rationed sugar. She had also put into each bag an apple preserved from their fall harvest and stored in their apple barrel for Christmas enjoyment. These would be little gifts for the community children who came to the Christmas Eve service. Eva Mae loaded the small Christmas tree she had used at Pine Top School, already decorated with strings of popcorn and ornaments made by the children.

As the mules drew the wagon on toward Salem Church, the lines of one of his poems pounded at the edge of Reece’s mind and he quoted it almost in rhythm to the wagon wheels on the snow: “When the land is white with snow.../And always the wind comes on to blow.../Turn to peace, remembering/That the twice divided year/Is quartered toward the spring. [Published in The Season of Flesh, p. 56.]

Surely enough, as Emma had predicted, the roads were too bad for the pastor to travel from Blairsville to Salem. Soon Juan had a good fire going in the potbellied stove that heated the white-frame church building. Eva Lou placed the tree on a table near the altar, and Emma’s goodie bags were arranged underneath the tree. People began arriving, stamping the snow from their shoes on the steps leading up to the church house door. Hub Reece read the Christmas account from Matthew and Luke. And as his own offering to the Christ Child, he read the poems he had composed the week before as he took out time from his farm chores made possible by the inclement weather. He made up a tune to Since Christ Was a Lamb O and sang it. That was followed by congregational singing of Away in the Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Angels from the Realms of Glory, the words and tunes familiar to all.

After the gifts were distributed and a prayer for the blessings of Christmas led by the lay preacher, Byron Herbert Reece, the congregation was dismissed. Some lingered to talk about the war, the weather, how they had been blessed with good crops that year.

Juan and Hub banked the fire and closed up the stove. Eva Mae took her Christmas tree, and they quickly looked about to make sure the church house was neat before closing the door.

On the way back to the Reece home on Wolf Creek, Emma and Juan were filled with parental pride that their son could speak so boldly and beautifully about Christmas and write poems that gave added insight to its meaning. Eva Mae was awed at her brother’s ability with words.

Hub Reece had his own thoughts. Why was he blessed with the gift of words?

Coming from some deep well of inspiration and understanding, he was composing in his mind another poem, one that declared his life’s ambition. He would write the words down as soon as he was warm in his attic room at home: “Unto a speechless kingdom I/Have pledged my tongue,/I have given my word/To make the centuries-silent sky/As vocal as a bird.../And I being pledged to fashion speech/For all the speechless joy to find/The wonderful words that each to each/They utter in my mind.” [The Speechless Kingdom, published in Bow Down in Jericho, p. 114]

[Note from author: Thank you, Sentinel readers, for following my column throughout 2005. I have brought each article to you with joy and thanksgiving. God bless you and yours at Christmas. —Ethelene Dyer Jones]

c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published December 22, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Time to be Counted Among Those Keeping Christmas

I feel a holy indignation toward those who are trying to take Christ out of Christmas. A subtle movement is under way in America to be “politically correct” about our most revered time of year. Dark and daunting, this action by a minority would seek to rob us of the meaning of Christmas.

It is not the possible loss of our wonderful traditions that angers me most. It is the apathetic way we Christians stand aside and allow the season to be just that, “A Season of Happy Holidays.” And when a minority dictates what will offend and what is acceptable, we generally keep quiet. I, for one, want my voice to be heard.

Do we have the fortitude to boycott stores that refuse to put “Christmas” in any of their advertisements or in their decorations? Those who refuse any reference to the birth of Christ as the reason for the season? Those that have prohibited the Salvation Army personnel to stand outside stores with the familiar kettle and bell asking for donations for people in need? Are we willing to be counted among those who care about Christmas and send letters of protest to stores that make huge profits from the season but are unwilling to admit what the season means and why we celebrate it? Why we buy gifts in the first place?

If you detect a sense of being “fed up” flowing through these lines, that’s exactly what I am—fed up with those who are in the minority yet are getting their way about our important age-old customs that speak of our faith. I’ve been active in sending messages of protest. According to Agape Press and the American Family Association, our voices are being heard. Big merchandisers are taking another view of Christmas and promise that, even though it is too late this year, next year will be different in their advertisements and approach to Christmas.

Many “pro” and “con” arguments are being aired about Christmas. To list a few let us look first at the date, December 25.

It is true that we don’t know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. December 25 is an “assigned” date, taken at the time of the Roman saturnalia which already existed and was pagan in nature. In my thinking, the date is not a matter of argument. The Bible tells us that “in the fullness of time” God became flesh and dwelt among men.

Another argument is that there wasn’t even an inn in Bethlehem, so how could there be “no room in the inn” for the Holy Family? For those doubters, scholars tell us that inns for wayfarers date back as far as the Exodus, Joshua, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Public inns existed throughout the Greek and Roman Empires. The wayside inns had water available for travelers, a walled-in space for protection, rooms for rent and a keep for animals. For those who argue that Bethlehem was too small to have an inn, the stopping place might have been a private dwelling with rooms to rent. The inn-keeper helped the Holy Family find room among the animals. His was a hospitality house much like Jesus referred to later in his parable of the Good Samaritan.

Agnostics argue that the information in Luke about a census is wrong and does not match Roman history of the period. Herod the Great died in AD 4 and Cyrenius was Governor of Syria in AD 6-9. How can there be truth in such a disparity in time?

Scholars place the birth of Jesus at 6 B. C., not AD 1 as we so often assume. Considered in this light, Jesus was born during the time when Herod ruled. Records show that Cyrenius functioned as military governor in Syria synonymously with the political governor, Sentius Saturnius. The reference of the census in Luke is of a general census of the Roman world for both taxation and military conscription. Gamaliel, the Jewish historian, stated that Judas of Galilee rose up in rebellion “in the days of the census.” We must remember that our calendar has undergone many changes from the pivotal point in time when Christ’s birth began to mark Anno Domini—“in the year of our Lord.” But there is history to confirm a census at the time of Jesus’ birth.

It takes faith to overlook the arguments of the naysayers against Christmas.

As we walk through the malls and drive through our towns during days leading up to Christmas, 2006, we will find changes from the familiar. In many places nativity scenes are banned because such a display might “offend.” The Christmas tree is called a “holiday” tree. The word Christmas is absent from advertising. Christmas carols are muted or the words have been changed so as not to mention the Holy Family. Imagine singing these words to the melody of “Silent Night,” that beloved carol made famous by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr. The new words go: “Cold in the night, no one in sight, winter winds whirl and bite, how I wish I were happy and warm, safe with my family out of the storm.” The pessimism of these new words holds no candle to the promise of the original words of “Silent Night.”

I have a very strong conviction that the majority of Americans still want Christmas in its truest sense as the apex of this “holiday season”. Why then do we stand idly by and let the minority water down, steal, and seek to hide the very meaning of Christmas?

I, for one, am ready to stand up and be counted for Christmas which I love and cherish. Keeping Christmas holy and full of its intended meaning is both a heart-acceptance and a mind-acceptance, something to hold in deep faith. I hope readers will seriously consider and join me in a “holy” Christmas, the time when God came to earth, Emmanuel, God with us. This news is transcendent and to persons among whom there is good will, it is held in highest reverence.

c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 15, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Christmas Truce of 1914

On Christmas Day soccer games were organized and enemy soldiers laughed and sported as they engaged in the games. I heard the story of how enemies during the Great War, which we call World War I, the “war to end all wars,” had a truce on Christmas Day, 1914.

It had been five months since the war began in Europe. British, French, Belgian and Russian forces were allied in defensive warfare against Germany. In the “no man’s land” that delineated the eastern and western fronts, signs in broken English began appearing along the German lines on Christmas Eve, 1914, with the message, “You no fight, we no fight.”

Were the signs a ruse to ensnare the allies in yet another German trap? The weather was cold. In the trenches both allied soldiers and the German troops experienced all the dread of war. Christmas season seemed to maximize their loneliness, deprivation, separation from families, the bitter cold and discomfort of a severe winter, the fear of war with its mortar shells, and, even worse, face-to-face confrontation with the enemy bringing mortal wounds at any time with bayonet or gunfire. Add to that the monotony of field rations as visions of sugarplums and the Christmas feasts they had enjoyed back home came to mind again and again.

“You no fight, we no fight!”? Daresome, indeed. Had the allied forces the courage to venture forth to see if the Germans actually meant to declare a truce or if it was a dirty war trick to get the allied forces into a position for good aim.

Some from warring factions met, bayonets at rest. They shook hands, and shared gifts they had received in care packages from home, miraculously delivered by Christmas Eve.

Throughout the German battlefield, the strains of “Silent Night” sounded with lyrics in the language of the soldiers. The tune was familiar, having been used throughout most of the churches in Europe since Franz Gruber composed the music in 1818 set to words by Father Joseph Mohr written two years earlier. The lovely and simple carol had become a favorite at Christmastime.

In language native to soldiers on every side, the words were raised to the stars that twinkled in the cold December sky as the chorus of the music echoed along the trenches. It was a “Stille Nacht,” a night of wonder when enemies celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace. Guns were silent. The men slept more peacefully in their trenches that Christmas Eve night, drawing their field blankets about them in an effort to find some creature comfort from the biting cold.

On Christmas Day soccer games were organized and enemy soldiers laughed and sported as they engaged in the games.

Officers on both sides could hardly contain their consternation. They had not ordered cessation of hostilities. The soldiers had managed it on their own. One French general, still suspecting the move to be a trap set by the Germans, ordered explosives laid just in case it was a trick. Another fear of the allied officers was that such action on the part of enemy troops would damper plans to defeat the enemy. After all, what soldiers would want to fight and kill those with whom they had enjoyed Christmas?

After that unique Christmas truce in 1914, hostilities continued for almost four years with America joining the Allied Forces on April 6, 1917. It was not until November 11, 1918 that Armistice was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

A historical commentator has written of that Great War, “the war to end all wars”:

“It was more than a war between nations. It was a war between what was and what was to be. The ‘old world’ was dying, and the new world had yet to be born. People of all classes and nations saw it as a great cleansing fire that would accelerate this battle and lead to a better world. But, when it was over, more than men had died in the mud of the battlefields. The naive dream of progress, along with the innocence of the pre-war world, faith in God, and hope in the future all died in the trenches of Europe.” (from ww1). This was indeed, a pessimistic view of the results of the Great War. Faith did not die, nor did hope.
During a time of truce on a German battlefield at Christmas time, 1914, the strains of “Silent Night” lifted through the cold of wintertime to become a sacred moment of shared beliefs and mutual yearnings for peace on earth among men of good will.

[Note: The news of this event was published on January 9, 1915 in The Illustrated London News under the headline “Saxons and Anglo-Saxons Fraternize on Battlefield.” The article had pictures of smiling soldiers from both sides engaged in greetings and friendly games.]

c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 8, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

December Comes: Take a Look at Some Presidents With December Birthdays

The poet A. E. Houseman penned the sentiments I feel when I realize how rapidly December descends upon us and how near Time hovers at the end of 2005.
The night is freezing fast.
Tomorrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past.” (-A. E. Housman, 1859-1936)

This name of the last month of our calendar year actually gets its name from the Latin word “decem” which means tenth. Like November, October, and September, the three preceding months, December is misnamed for the Latin words meaning numbers tenth, ninth, eighth and seventh, because these months held these positions in the Roman calendar until the two months of January and February were added in the seventh century B.C. under Roman Emperor Numa Pompilius. Emperor Julius Ceasar revised the Roman calendar again in 46 B.C. His calendar had 365 and 1/4 days and was known as the Julian Calendar until Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 ordered the system we know now as “leap year” with an extra day coming every four years in the second month, February. We live and work, therefore, according to the Gregorian calender, and rarely do we consider the old meaning of the word “December” as deriving from the Latin word meaning tenth.

One of my favorite columns in the daily newspaper to which I subscribe is “Today in History.” If your newspaper carries this syndicated column, perhaps you, as I, delight in seeing the list of important events and births that happened in December. As Poet Housman wrote,

“And winterfalls of old/Are with me from the past.”
With December dawning the day this issue of Sentinel is published, let’s look at a few significant dates in Decembers past.

Fifty years ago, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her stance has been noted as one of the significant events of the Civil Rights Movement that spurred bus boycotts, marches and voting privileges for her race. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. She died October 24, 2005. Born Rosa Louise McCauley, she lived in fear as a child, heard the Klu Klux Klan ride and demonstrate in her neighborhood in Pine Level, Alabama, saw them burn houses and perform lynchings. She was the first woman in America who was chosen for the honor of lying in state in the rotunda of the nation’s capitol at her death, an honor usually reserved for presidents.

Three United States Presidents thus far had December birthdays. Martin Van Buren was born December 5, 1782 in Kinderhook, N.Y. The eighth president of our country, he was the first chief executive to be born an American citizen after the United States became an independent nation. His term of service was from March 4, 1837 through March 3, 1841. Van Buren died in his hometown of Kinderhook on July 24, 1862.

The seventeenth president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was born December 29, 1808 in Raleigh, N.C. He had a rugged childhood. His father, a handyman at a tavern, died when Andrew was 3. His mother had to take in washing to care for her children. Andrew did not go to school as a child, and was apprenticed early to a tailor where he learned the trade and also how to read. At age 16 he left Raleigh and went to Greenville, Tenn., and set up his own tailor’s shop. At 18, he married 16-year-old Eliza McCardle. She was much better educated than Andrew, and taught him how to write and to read better. He began to walk to a school that would let him participate in student debates. His quick mind, booming voice, and familiarity with current events on which the teams debated made him a champion debater and prepared him for his career in politics. He was first on the town council, then mayor, next congressman, at age 45 became governor of Tennessee, following which he was elected for two terms to the U.S. Senate. Johnson remained in Congress at the outbreak of the Civil War, and in 1864, he was nominated from the “Union” Party as Vice-President for Abraham Lincoln’s second term. No one foresaw Johnson becoming president, but when President Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson became president, serving from April 15, 1865 through March 3, 1869. Civil unrest and the strong impetus on punishing the rebelling south made Johnson’s term one of trials and troubles. In fact, Congress tried to impeach him, but by one vote Johnson remained as president. The seventeenth president, with the nickname “Tennessee Tailor,” died July 31, 1875 in Carter Station, Tenn.

The next president with a December birthday was Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president, born December 29, 1856 in Staunton, Va. Son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers, at one time his father’s church in Augusta, Ga., was turned into a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers. Educated at Davidson College, the College of New Jersey and later at Princeton, he received a degree in law and for a short time practiced law in Atlanta, Ga. He received a Doctor of Philosophy degree from John Hopkins University and began to teach. He became president of Princeton University in 1902. In 1910 he was elected governor of New Jersey and in 1912 was elected president of the United States. His term of service was from March 4, 1913 through March 3, 1921. When he was reelected to a second term in 1916, his slogan had been: “Wilson kept us out of war.” But when German warships began to sink American ships in the Atlantic, Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. Following the Armistice in 1918, Wilson worked hard on his famous “Fourteen Points” peace plan and for the establishment of the League of Nations. However, because the U.S. Senate would never vote to join the League of Nations, Wilson’s dream of America becoming a leading member was not realized. He was married first to Ellen Axxon of Rome, Ga., who died during his first term in 1914. They had three daughters. He married Edith Bolling Galt in December 1915. When Wilson suffered a massive stroke on October 2, 1919, his wife Edith read government reports, shielded him from visitors and relayed his decisions. He finished out his second term as an invalid and died quietly in Washington in 1924.

Rosa Parks, Civil Rights proponent, and three U.S. Presidents had December birthdays, as well as a host of other notable people. But the month reminds us more of the birthday of Emmanuel, God with us, which we celebrate on December 25, although the exact date of His birth has been lost in the mists of time. The fight is on to call the season only “Happy Holidays” and omit any mention of Christmas, which means “birthday of Christ.” My hope is that we all remember the “reason for the season,” and as December comes we will prepare hearts to celebrate the best birthday of all time.

c2005 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 1, 2005 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.