Thursday, December 25, 2008

Everywhere, Everywhere Christmas Tonight!

What a rare privilege to be writing a column for Christmas Day, 2008, one to be published on that very day. Thank you, Mr. Frank Bradley, for allowing me the delight of writing for The Union Sentinel since July, 2003. To all my faithful readers and the staff at The Union Sentinel—a joyous Christmas and bright hope for the New Year.

Here are words of a poem, turned into a Christmas carol, by the Rev. Phillips Brooks:

Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!
Christmas in lands of the fir-tree and pine,
Christmas in lands of the palm tree and vine,
Christmas where snow peaks stand solemn and white,
Christmas where cornfields stand sunny and bright;
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
Christmas where children are hopeful and gay,
Christmas where old men are patient and gray,
Christmas where peace, like a dove in his flight,
Broods o'er brave men in the thick of the fight;
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
For the Christ-child who comes is the Master of all,
No place too great and no cottage too small;
The Angels who welcome Him sing from the height,
"In the city of David, a King in His might."
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
Then let every heart keep its Christmas within:
Christ's pity for sorrow, Christ's hatred for sin.
Christ's care for the weakest, Christ's courage for right,
Christ's dread of the darkness, Christ's love for the light.
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight.
So the stars of the midnight which compass us round
Shall see a strange glory, and hear a sweet sound,
And cry, "Look! the earth is aflame with delight,
O sons of the morning, rejoice at the sight!"
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!

Dr. Brooks also wrote a better known Christmas carol, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." We sing it every year in our churches and in community concerts. He wrote the words of that carol in 1867 after spending a sabbatical visiting the Holy Land. He rode horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and assisted with the midnight Christmas Eve service in the Church of the Nativity in 1865. Dr. Brooks wrote of that experience:

"I remember standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again, it seemed as if I could hear voices I knew well, telling each other of the wonderful night of the Savior's birth."

And so was born, two years later, in recollection of his experiences in the Holy Land, the words of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" which Lewis Henry Redner set to music. Redner was organist at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia where Dr. Phillips Brooks was pastor.

The same musician, Lewis Henry Redner, set to music Dr. Brooks' words entitled "Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight." This Christmas carol has not had the widespread appeal of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but the poignancy of its words encompass the whole world with the author's desire that everyone, everywhere celebrate Christ's birth. This poem has a buoyancy and excitement that bespeaks the Christmas spirit.

It is notable that Bishop Phillips Brooks (born December 13, 1835 in Boston, Massachusetts, died January 23, 1893 in Boston) has been termed the "greatest American preacher of the 19th Century." During the Civil War, he was pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Philadelphia. His loyalties were with the Union and he supported President Abraham Lincoln in his Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. Brooks delivered one of the funeral sermons at the death of Lincoln. In 1869 he became rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston where he remained until he was made Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891 until his death.

Were that the words of his poem/song could be true on this Christmas, 2008: "Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!" But Christmas is everywhere that loving hearts remember the meaning of Christmas and why we celebrate. It may be in the midst of war or in a poverty-laden household, as Brooks wrote in part of a stanza sometimes omitted from "O Little Town of Bethlehem": "Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door, The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more!"

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 25, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reid chairs bring Christmas memories

Sarah Souther Dyer is shown at age 100. Her favorite chair (not this one in which she sat for her 100th birthday picture in 1957) was a Jason Reid-made straight chair which she sat in by the window of her living room and looked out toward New Liberty Baptist Church. From the Reid-made straight chair, she also entertained children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with stories of "the old times" which she remembered so well.

The old Reid-made chairs were utilitarian pieces, bought from Jason Reid or his sons who were the chair makers of "Upper" Choestoe region of North Georgia.

My grandmother, Sarah Evaline Souther Dyer (1857-1959) had her favorite chair. It was always beside the fireplace, positioned so that she could be warmed by the fire and at the same time look out the small window to the right of her fireplace in the 1850 house built by her father and occupied by Sarah herself and her husband, Bluford Elisha Dyer (1855-1926), the house where they reared their fifteen children—that is, those thirteen who made it to adulthood.

But back to the Reid-made chairs and how people came to own them and how the chairs bring back Christmas memories.

Jason Reid (20 Sept. 1851 - 27 April 1934) knew the chair-making trade from the inside out. He had a workshop at his farm in the vicinity of Union Baptist Church in the Choestoe District of Union County. He would select the best of the wood from the forest from which to make the chairs, have it sawed and let it cure. He fashioned the posts and framework of the chairs by hand, deftly making the parts in his workshop.

He made the seats of the chairs by weaving them from white oak strips soaked in tubs of water to make them pliable. He taught his sons how to make chairs. Later, the boys had the advantage of a lathe and other more modern tools as they continued the work of chair-making. Helping Jason by taking care of the house and children was his loving wife, Martha J. Reid (24 March 1857 - 14 March 1919).

The Reid family made chairs long before their products were considered craft items. Sales of the chairs did not bring in lucrative money to the Reid business. The straight chairs, and maybe sometimes rocking chairs, made to order, were produced in the Reid wood-working shop. People came to the Reid house from nearby homesteads to buy chairs as they had the money to do so. Later on, the word about Reid-made chairs spread beyond Choestoe. The products were hauled by covered wagon over the Logan Turnpike to the market in Gainesville to be sold and distributed from there.

My Grandmother Sarah Souther Dyer had her favorite chair. We all knew it as "Grandma's Chair." My grandmother would have been 75 from my earliest memory of her, and from then on until her death at 101+ years, she held court from her Reid-made chair in her special corner as my family and her many other family members and friends visited her. She had been a Choestoe mid-wife and a woman who kept up with national and world affairs by reading the newspaper. Her impaired hearing prevented her from listening to radio broadcasts (after she got his modern convenience in her home), although I can remember her straining to hear President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his "fireside chats" during World War II. Reading, trying to listen to radio, or entertaining family and friends were all done by Grandma as she sat in her straight-back Reid-made chair.

She was definitely the matriarch of the family. When she spoke, we listened. I can't remember that she made much "to-do" over the Christmas holidays, for I never remember seeing a Christmas tree in her little room, nor any holiday decorations on her plain wooden mantel. It's not that she didn't believe in Christmas. She definitely did. But always practical, she never sought frills and excesses in anything she did. From her, seated as I remember her in that straightbacked chair, we learned many stories of "how things used to be," and we listened with wide-eyed awe.

In addition to the woven seat of her Reid-made chair, Grandma had some wooden baskets that fascinated me as a child. The structure of the baskets looked much like that of the seat of Grandma's chair, woven from white oak strips. "These baskets my mother Nancy Collins Souther (1829- 1888) and my father, John Combs Hayes Souther (1827- 1891) bought from the Indians that peddled them by our house. Those Indians had hidden out in the caves in the mountains to avoid being taken on the Trail of Tears." We would touch gingerly the egg basket and the larger basket used for laundry that Grandma told us about.

"And this chair I'm sitting in," she would continue with her story of old-fashioned items in her house, "was made by Jason Reid who lives up on the river and has his chair-making shop there. If you buy a Reid chair, you'll have one that sits well, and one that will last" Grandma affirmed. I wondered if somehow chair-maker Jason Reid had learned to weave his white oak strips into chair seats from some of those Indians or their descendants. I'm sorry now I didn't ask her about that.

I don't know who got Grandma Dyer's chair in the distribution of her property following her death. But in my mind's eye, I still see our family matriarch enjoying her "throne chair," the simple though elegant product of one Jason Reid who took pride in his products and taught his sons how to carry on the trade of chair-making.

Fortunately, although I don't have Grandma's chair, I am the happy owner of two later Reid-made chairs. One is a rocking chair which my parents used to rock me when I was a baby. I was able, in recent years, to have the seat replaced by an authentic craftsman who knows how to weave nearly the same pattern the Reid brothers wove long ago into the seat of the chair. I also have one of the Reid straight chairs, with the seat restored.

Neither of these chairs would rate very high as luxury items or fine furniture. But the memories they evoke are priceless. Sitting and rocking at family gatherings bring many recollections of humble families and how we "made-do" during the Great Depression. We were taught the values of family solidarity, responsible citizenship, and Puritan work ethic. Sitting in these chairs, our parents taught us by both word and example at simple Christmas celebrations and all year long.

I will take a little time during Christmas season, 2008, to sit in the old family rocking chair and read the Christmas story from Luke 2. That action will connect me to the Reid chair makers of Union County and to parents and grandparents who made all the difference in who I am today.

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published December 18, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Christmas at Valley Forge 1777

Many of us have ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. Whether they were with General Washington at Valley Forge or at Cowpens or King's Mountain or any of the other notable battlegrounds of our War for Independence, they were there to lay down their very lives as the price for freedom.

Let us take a little time to recall Christmas, 1777, during that war… Christmas in wartime is especially difficult, and so it was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1777.

"These are the times that try men's souls," wrote Thomas Paine in his well-circulated pamphlet entitled "The American Crisis." His opening line became the pivotal description of the Continental Army that fought against great odds to win freedom.

Indeed, Valley Forge stands as a monument in time attesting to the trying times General George Washington and the Continental Army faced.

Was there any hope for the struggling nation against the British? Was the dream of freedom to be lost amidst the cold, illness, death and deprivation of harsh winter? The Continental Congress had been forced to flee Philadelphia under British occupation. Little hope remained for support or supplies to feed the starving troops.

There they were, twelve thousand tattered troops with their General, George Washington, encamped at Valley Forge. Despite the bitter cold and the seemingly insurmountable odds of disease, starvation and lack of provisions, from this lowest point of the Revolution, the troops were trained and drilled into fighting form. A miracle was taking place as men shuddered in the fields of Valley Forge.

Dr. Albigence Waldo was one of the doctors ministering to the troops at Valley Forge. His diary gives us insight into both the pathos and glimmers of hope of that Christmas, 1777: "Universal thanksgiving! A roasted pig last night! God be thanked for my health, which I have pretty well recovered. How much better should I feel, were I assured my family were in health. But the same good Being who preserves me is able to preserve them and bring me to the ardently wish'd for enjoyment of them again." (*Dec. 18th, p.88)

On December 25 Dr. Waldo wrote: "We are still in tents."

Of General Washington, Dr. Waldo stated: "He has always acted wisely…His conduct when closely scrutinized is uncensurable. Were his inferior generals as skillfull as himself—we should have the grandest choir of officers ever God made." (*p. 89)

General Washington from his cold tent began a letter to the President of the Continental Congress, tendering his resignation, citing "abandonment to starvation and neglect."

In the midst of his writing, General Washington heard sounds coming from the field. Was it a mutiny, as one of his officers had predicted? He braved the falling snow and bitter wind, going from platoon to platoon where fires glowed, embers sputtering and hissing against the snow. Pots on the fires at each location gave off strange odors of whatever provender the soldiers had found of wild game to flavor their gruel.

At each location he was met with shouts of "Long live the United States! Hail to our Chief! May Liberty prevail!"

At one stop General Washington asked, "Have you not suffered enough?"

The lieutenant in charge responded, "Having come this far, we can but go the rest of the distance. With you to lead us, we can't lose!"

Washington and his aide made their way back to the General's tent. When they arrived, they found garlands of holly and cedar twined around the marquee that identified the headquarters tent, and draped above the tent-flap door. General Washington took the letter he had started to Congress. He burned it at the fire his aides had built outside his tent. "May God relieve your sufferings, if the Congress will not. And a good Christmas to you!" he said.

I am not sure of the timing, but I like to think that it was at this point that General Washington fell to his knees and prayed at Valley Forge.

He spent the remainder of that winter encouraging and training his troops. By June, 1778, they were ready for an advance against the British.

Christmas, 1777, bleak, comfortless and cold as it was, became a time for building hope.

*[Source material found in Colbert, David, ed., Eyewitness to America . (New York: Pantheon, 1977). "Winter at Valley Forge" by Dr. Albigence Waldo, p. 87-90.]

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published December 11, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: A Beloved Christmas Carol

Christmas is upon us and we’ve barely recovered from the wonderful feasting and family gatherings of Thanksgiving.

With the short days and early darkness of this particular season, it is well that we have special holidays to boost our spirits. Already we hear familiar carols played in many places—over music systems in stores and from our own cassette disk players, radio and television.

Can you recall when you first heard and sang American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's carol, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"?

I thought back to our two-teacher school at Choestoe where I attended as a child. Our teachers always prepared us for a big event, "The Christmas Program," to which our parents and the community were invited. It was sometime during my early elementary school days that I was first introduced to and memorized the words of Longfellow's poem that was set to music composed by John Baptiste Calkin.

Of course I didn't learn many facts about either the poet or the composer back in those early elementary school days. I just memorized the words and learned to sing them to the tune. But from those early years, this particular Christmas carol has remained a favorite of mine, and still is to this day.

The spark for poetry and music was ignited away back in those years at that county school, and fed and nourished as well at the country church by the same name.

Since then, I have learned the story behind the carol, and it, too, is both sad and inspiring.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a northerner, born February 27, 1807 in Portland, Maine. He showed great promise as a student, and by the time he was six, it is said that he already knew Latin grammar, could spell, read and multiply. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but the lad, who entered Bowdoin College at age fourteen, had a bent for writing and for languages. Bowdoin hired him as a professor of Modern Languages and sent him on a trip to Europe to learn more about the languages he would teach. Between the years of 1829 through 1835, he was a beloved young professor at Bowdoin, writing his own textbooks because none were available for the modern languages courses he taught.

He then became a professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, and continued in that position from 1836-1854. It was while there that he began in earnest his writing career. He knew much sadness during these years. His first wife, Mary Storer Porter, whom he wed in 1831 died following the loss of their first child in 1835.

He met Frances Appleton in Europe. She was the daughter of Nathan Appleton, a prominent Boston merchant. Their marriage was exceedingly happy. Their home became a meeting place for noted poets and writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Charles Sumner and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Longfellow became known as "The Fireside Poet."

Tragedy visited again. His wife Frances died in a house fire on July 9, 1861. He never quite recovered from the grief of her passing. He filled his days with writing and traveling, preferring on several occasions to take his motherless children on extended tours of Europe. He wrote over twenty books and numerous poems. He died March 24, 1882 and was laid to rest in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two years later, his bust was placed in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey in London, the first American poet to receive that honor.

There is some confusion as to whether Longfellow wrote the seven-stanza poem, "Christmas Bells," on Christmas Day 1863 or 1864. In 1862, the aging poet received word that his son, Lt. Charles Appleton Longfellow, had received a severe wound to his spine. Some have said that the poem on which the carol is based was as much "anti-war" as "pro-Christmas."

In 1872, after the terrible conflict while the nation was still recovering from war, a composer, John Baptiste Calkin set five of Wadsworth's seven stanzas (with only slight changes) to his tune, "Waltham." In later years, other melodies have been used as settings for Longfellow's Christmas poem, but the most popular is the one composed by Calkin.

If you are a fan of the "Casting Crowns" contemporary musical group, you might hear the 2008 version by Mark Hall, lead vocalist, as he sings "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" in the Christmas album, "Peace on Earth."

Read again Longfellow's inimitable Christmas poem. It will inspire you today as it did people who heard it in 1872 when it was first set to music. Two stanzas are repeated here, the 3rd and 4th of the carol. The 3rd refers to the despair brought on by war; the 4th forsees the end of war and restoration of peace:

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men!"

Longfellow's words still have a strong message of optimism and hope for us today in the midst of an economic decline and, as our ancestors would say, "perilous" times. Listen to the Christmas Bells. They still ring out, 'loud and deep'!

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 4, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.