Monthly Archives: December 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Day after Anything

AfterChristmasGiftsThe day after anything is the day after something. It’s too late for me to write about the something. For that something is Christmas, and that was yesterday. Even before that, last week, someone wrote to me privately about the last three blogs, “I don’t get it,” he wrote, “Christmas Yard? Is there a message here?” Well, I might say charily, there is. Yet I can’t expect everyone to get it. With such a story about a fictional place I could only hope to create a small window into the interior of Christmas, as if, standing for a moment on a snow covered street, one should unexpectedly cast a glance through the fog of one’s own breath in the crisp winter air to see into, ever so briefly, the home of a family not personally known to the viewer but perhaps long admired, wondering from afar, “What goes on in that family? What does a family like that do? How to they construct their family time?” This would be especially true if one comes from a family where time is never or rarely construed, where there isn’t a plan or a modus operandi in place for carrying on as a family, but merely a modus vivendi of mutual tolerance. I shall return to these familiar phrases, modus operandi and vivendi, in a moment, with a gentle adjustment of them both.

First, let me offer an apologia (“afterward”) about the tripartite series about a town called Christmas Yard, if you happened to have read it, in case anyone else might have had the same reaction as the aforementioned reader. The point of that story is to direct the reader’s attention and affection toward what, quite incidentally and indirectly, a family might be (or at least become) and, by extension, what any institution consisting of people might best encompass, whether that institution be a church or a town or society at large. One might deduce that this is my goal by effecting a contrast of the two churches in the last installment of the story. More generally, one can see this goal fleshed out in the combination of Elaine’s deep sense of social justice and my own still-in-progress sense of grace, especially when that kind of grace, sometimes known as charity, in fact, also dovetails with social justice.

But today I am writing about the day after anything, for there are rarely ditties or songs, blogs or essays written about the day after things; only those written about the event itself or anticipation of it become well known. To wit, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (not the day after), “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (not is heading back to the North Pole). Even non-Christmas songs like, “Until We Meet Again,” look forward, not back. It is safe to say that the day after anything, especially something that you’ve been looking forward to, could be a letdown. I have a friend who worked for years to get his PhD, and even the day he got it, as it turned out, was, to his mind, anticlimactic.

Another friend of mine’s daughter will be married in a few days. He recalls, not so many years ago, a moment in time when they shared at an event that likely no longer exists—for it is no doubt now deemed sexist or exclusive of fatherless families—called “Dads and Donuts.” dads with donutsHe told me that he recalls that day vividly, how much it meant to his daughter and more especially to him to go and have a little breakfast with his beloved child when she was, I think he told me, just in the fifth grade. He explained to me that he was so moved by that day that he thinks of it often as he prays for her, and that he will remember it fondly till the day he dies. And now she is to be married and start a family of her own.

For her, the day after she gets married will be the day after the biggest party nearly anyone has in their whole life. Afterwards, there will be, of course, a bit of letdown. But here’s where this term that I said I wanted to come back to is relevant—modus operandi—or really, modus gerendi would be better. There are a few Latin terms here that sound as if they come straight out of an old law book or at least an old grammar book. But lest they should become for you, owing to their erudite tone, somnolent or soporific, it will be useful, both for us on this day after Christmas and for my friend’s daughter on the day after her marriage, to reflect upon them for a moment, as we reheat a piece of pie piece of piefor breakfast or just relax and read the newspaper (or this blog).

For today is the day to put that old terminology into practice. Let’s start with the familiar modus vivendi, which may in fact be the way that any given family may have spent this past year. The implication of that Latin phrase, which, though it means “manner of living,” is most often simply a reflection of a live-and-let-live posture: “that’s fine, I’ll work around that, provided it doesn’t intrude too much upon my personal space.” Thus, modus vivendi really signifies a way of coping, or at best coexisting. While at times, of course, this has to be done, that is no way to conduct family.

Then there’s modus operandi. It’s a stronger term, probably too strong for how to manage one’s family, as it reflects a way of operating, the way one functions. “That’s his modus operandi,” someone might say, and certainly is the expression that detectives often shorten to “M.O.,” meaning the signature or trademark of someone, usually a criminal. And that’s not really a great way to conduct family, either.

That leaves us with the rather scarce modus agendi (or modus gerendi), both of which are so infrequently used that the former is automatically changed by the spell checker to agenda and the latter just underlined in red. But these archaic-sounding terms—and the latter is better—are what one really needs to know how to do to conduct family.  The former means “way of doing” the latter “way of conducting” or “managing,” and thus the latter is a bit better, because one doesn’t “do family,” one “conducts” or “manages” it.

Which brings us back to the notion of the day after, a day that might be one of reflection, especially if it’s the day after Christmas, when one is reflecting on how one didn’t do Christmas well—it was just about ripping into presents, putting up with your child’s ingratitude or worse sarcasm, and laughing too often inappropriately or at least uncomfortably at your own husband’s crude joking. What was so inappropriate that mere laughter made you uncomfortable? Nothing, really, but—yes, there was something: Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday, but perhaps “it sure didn’t seem that way.” Maybe for you Christmas day seemed to encompass everything bad about the season, playing itself out as materialistic, greedy and snarky; simply put, perhaps it felt empty. No, this was not my Christmas, but if yours should have been something like it . . . .

Here’s where the observation about the day after Christmas and my friend’s daughter’s immanent marriage finally dovetails. It is, on this day after the holiday, as will be on the day after her ceremony, not the time to think about what went disastrously wrong or just had to be tolerated. Now is the time to change the expression from modus vivendi, upon which most Christmas celebrations (and marriages) are based, to modus gerendi. It is time, not next year, next month or even tomorrow, but today, to start managing your family. That way, when Christmas comes next year, it will be special, not just an excuse to binge spend and ravenously tear off pretty paper. It will be a time of joy and wonder not because its story is unfamiliar, but the opposite, precisely because the story is familiar, for you’ve prepared for it spiritually all year long.

Perseus quote
Bartholomaeus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555)—Portrait of a Knight of the Order of Malta (detail), Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemaeldegalerie, Vienna, Austria

For that to happen, a change in thinking must come, for the time to structure your days and measure carefully each moment begins the day after, which happens to be today. After all, that is the central aspect of that revolutionary but perhaps archaic-sounding idea that the Bible calls metanoia: a changing of one’s thinking. The little-read but profound Roman poet Perseus once wrote, vive memor leti; fugit hora (“Live mindful of death; time flies,” 5.153). Few have ever penned better advice. With each moment comes the opportunity to draw another breath, formulate a fresh thought, craft a better phrase. What better time than the day after to turn in a new direction, one very different than the present empty, unmanaged course?

It’s too late to wish anyone Merry Christmas this year, for it’s the day after. But it’s not too late, with a bit of Divine inspiration and guidance, to begin to manage one’s time, to conduct family, to produce a very, very happy new year, or in my friend’s daughter’s case, a new family. Blessings on that project, dear daughter, and on you, dear readers. May you find your modus gerendi, remember forever your own personal version of “Dads and Donuts” or “Moms and Muffins,” and, finally, Dominus vobiscum, which, more or less, is Latin for “Happy New (and Every) Year!”

after Christmas wish


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (part 3, A Christmastime Judgment)

Christmas yardIt was a dark evening, cold, overcast. In Christmas Yard Presbyterian Church, a single room, well in the back of the edifice, beyond the apse that lay behind the altar, glowed not with Christmas décor but with lights that would better befit a courtroom. There, the elders of the church sat in a semi-circle and pursed their lips as the head elder paced back and forth in front of Reverend Griffith who was seated on a chair in the middle of the semi-circle. What did he think he was doing? Had he gone to the home of a black man? What exactly was he doing there? They didn’t want people like that in their church. And to the house of a Jap?gavel

“Don’t you know that we’re at war with the Japs?”

“The Pínqióng family is not Japanese. They are Chinese.”

“It is no different,” Iawn Angharedig, the head elder said, “These are troubled times. I heard you went to see Germans, too. Whose side are you on?”

“I’m not on a side, Mr. Angharedig.”

“Not on a side? Reverend, we are at war. Everyone is on a side.”

“Then I am on God’s side.”

“Is that why you went to a brothel? And you took a little boy with you, a Jew?” he snarled. ”And you visited the mother, too, a Jewess? And you brought them Kosher food? Did you use church funds for that?” All was not well in Christmas Yard.

It was not a matter of weeks but merely days until Reverend Griffith was shown the door of that church. Years passed. Mr. Umaskini eventually had a hard time walking, though well into his old age he stayed rent-free in the house that Foramen Acus owned, frequently visited and supplied with food by the former reverend Hugh Griffith and by a young pastor fresh from seminary, who preached not in the Yard but at a church under the table. The Pínqióng family was not detained in the Japanese internment camps that President Roosevelt created during the Second World War because that family was, in fact, not Japanese. Mrs. Llymder never remarried; she died a widow, but like the Pínqióng family and the Armut family, she had begun going to church, and therefore at least had a proper funeral.

Yet though Reverend Griffith had done her funeral, the church under the table was not a parish whose reverend was named Griffith. It was not a church with a steeple or stained glass windows or a rectory. It met in a large building outside of Christmas Yard. That building in fact was freshly refurbished. It was a place, under the table, where unwed mothers had been going for years. Yet, though it still served that clientele, it was no longer dilapidated and the church met there on Sundays. It had been refurbished plentifully by Foramen Acus, at his personal expense. That church’s young pastor’s name was a funny one, for he had a Jewish surname, but nearly everyone just called him David.

“Guten morning, Reverend Goldstein,” said the last holdout on formality, Mr. Ganz Armut. Even Mrs. Armut called David by his first name, though the Armut grandchildren, all seven of them, called him “Reverend David.” “It vas a gut zermon, ‘dis day,” Mr. Armut added, which phrase he pronounced with a thick German accent, thick though he had lived in Christmas Yard for nearly three decades. “A gut vun for zhe holiday. I like vat you say about Hanukah in your zermon, zu, und Christians needing zu love everyone, Jew und gentile both. Also, Merry Christmas, Reverend!” (Though by “also” Mr. Armut meant, “anyhow”, as Germans do when they use the word and pronounce it “alzo”—not “additionally” as an English speaker uses it.)

The last one out of the room that was designated as the chapel was Hugh Griffith, erstwhile pastor, now parishioner, though he sometimes would give a sermon when David needed a week off. He was late coming out because he was hanging signs on the bulletin board about the Pínqióng caroling event to be held in Christmas Yard. The caroling gang would depart from the Pínqióng family home—no longer crowded with children, though during the holiday it was brimming with life, as their children had by now their own children. Thence would they proceed singing hither and thither, all around the Yard. Reverend Griffith, who had been unmarried until he was in his forties, had no children of his own, though he thought of David as his son, as Joseph must have the King of Kings. Legally, in any case, David was, by then, Hugh’s stepson, for Mrs. Goldstein had become, a few years before, Mrs. Griffith.

Foramen Acus bestrode the Griffiths as he left the church about the same time, and they all made the long walk back to Christmas Yard. “Merry Christmas!” he said, “I am looking forward to caroling with the Pínqióng family next week. Lord knows, some of the folks in the Yard need to heed the words of those good songs of Christmas.”

“Indeed, we are, too, “Mrs. Griffith said glancing at Hugh, whom people now thought of more as “Hugh” than as “Reverend Griffith.” She then added, “Thank you for all you do for this church, Acus.”

“It’s my pleasure; God has blessed me with plenty of money,” Foramen Acus responded, and then added, “As you know, the good book says, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. …’

Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter
Charles Appleton Longfellow, hymnwriter

Thus did they carry on for the twenty minute trek back to the Yard, until, en route, as if to practice for the Pínqióng caroling, they sang a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” putting a little extra emphasis on the final stanza.

*   *   *

Elaine’s story ended. I said to her, “Thank you, Mom. It was a good story, but do things like that happen in real life? Do folks really care about people like Reverend Griffith, and do stories really work out so that kids without dads, like me, in the end get dads like Reverend Griffith?”

“Well,” Elaine added, “David never had Reverend Griffith as a dad until he had grown up. And, remember, Reverend Griffith lost his job. And nobody cared for the Armut family because they were Germans, or the Pínqióngs because they perceived them to be Japanese.”

“No, I know, it must have been hard.” But then I added, “But it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?”

“Yes, it did, dear,” Elaine said, and she added, “And it will for us, too.”

If, dear reader, you wish to know how it worked out for Elaine, who in many ways was the Mrs. Goldstein of the story, you will need to read the Curious Autobiography. It’s not quite as sentimental (dare I even say sappy?) as Elaine’s story of the Christmas Yard, but you’ll recognize at least one of the characters, for the Reverend Hugh Griffith shows up there, too.

In the meantime, until you read that book or this blog again, Merry Christmas. May you hear the bells on Christmas day, and may they mean as much to you as they came to mean to the Pínqióng family, Foramen Acus, and the Armut family. “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (Part 2, The Spirit of Christmas)

Those of you who read last week’s blog may recall where we left off in our story. That story was about a small town called Christmas Yard located beneath a large pine tree that the townsfolk climb to decorate each year to celebrate Christmas, whether those people were religious or not. Those who were not, simply did so to acknowledge that this time of year is especially kind and gentle, a season admirable at least for its effects if not for its faith. The religious folk then, as they still do today, acknowledged its spiritual side, inviting others to join them in the celebration, whether merely in appreciation of the general goodness of the season or an expression of faith in the specific goodness of God.

And that was, the reader may recall, more or less, the basis on which Reverend Griffith was operating when he took his Monday morning walk around Christmas Yard, carrying packages to be delivered to folks who had never gone to his church but had palpable needs. He visited an old Welsh woman, Mrs. Llymder, who over her parents’ objections had converted to Catholicism when she married her husband and, even though he died some twenty years before at the age of 49, had remained Catholic after his death. Another whom Reverend Griffith visited, Mr. Umaskini, also lived alone, having worked mainly manual labor jobs—his last being in a glass factory—until his health had run out. He now lived in a house owned by his last boss, the owner of that same glass factory, located outside the Yard under the divan, where also Mr. Pínqióng (pronounced Pin-chiong) worked. That factory owner, a man with the interesting name of Acus Mitis Dives, was a mild-mannered man of wealth, whom everyone familiarly called Forman Acus, which title the workers regularly mispronounced as “Foramen Acus,” albeit, as the owner, he was much more than the plant’s foreman. He actually charged Mr. Umaskini no rent—only asking for upkeep on the property in return for his living there—and made sure that Mr. Pínqióng always received some kind of Christmas bonus, not only because Mr. Pínqióng was a hard worker but because he had a family. In fact, Foramen Acus made sure that all his workers got some kind of bonus at Christmas, something not all the proprietors of all the businesses in Christmas Yard did.

These, along with the impoverished Armut family of German immigrants, did the good Reverend Griffith visit that Monday, when he was followed by the all too curious lad David Goldstein, who was dying to know what was in the packages that Reverend Griffith had brought to those folks’ houses. But now it was Tuesday afternoon, and David was therefore expecting the familiar knock on the apartment door. There stood the right reverend, tall, with a dark overcoat from the top of which spilled out a ruffled woolen scarf that carried in its soft crevices ample evidence of the snow that was falling out side, as did the flat top of the reverend’s ascot cap. This week, the peripatetic pastor brought with him several packages under his left arm. Another, which he bore in his right hand, was about the size of a square foot, and it seemed likely to be intended for Mrs. Goldstein.  “Though the reverend visits us nearly every Tuesday,” young David was thinking to himself, “he hasn’t brought packages before. Now is my chance to find out what is in all those packages.”

Mrs. Goldstein entered the room from her tiny kitchen, immediately offering the prelate a bowl of soup with hard cheese and some tea.

“Tea would be lovely,” he said. Once she had made certain that tea is all he wanted, she set about the preparation swiftly, getting up to leave just as David was thanking the reverend for not having been cross with him for following him the day before.

“Can I open the package? Is it for us?” David queried.

“David, really,” Mrs. Goldstein said charily, ashamed that David inquired about the package so boldly.

“May, not can, lad. And yes, if your mother lets you, you may open it. But,” the reverend said with some slight hesitation in his voice, “don’t be thinking it’s something that you’ll have a great deal of interest in. It’s really more for your mom.”

David and the pastor nattered about this and that until the return of Mrs. Goldstein, who had to work full-time as a waitress in the local restaurant, the Golden Pump, because her husband a lustrum ago had quit the marriage, when David was a toddler. Her waitressing skills allowed her to display great dexterity by carrying with unusual ease the teapot and two cups on a tray. She spoke first, just as David was tearing the brown paper off of the package, “You needn’t have brought us anything, Reverend.”

“I know,” he said, “But I thought you might be able to use a small package, especially as it’s that time of the year when there are a few extra visitors, a few extra expenses.”

matzoInside the bundle were three boxes of matzo and, wedged between two of them, a crisp ten dollar bill.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “That is so very generous. Is it from, …” she paused, “your church?”

“It is from God,” he said. “God has given to us generously. We simply pass on what He has given.” And after a few more minutes of conversation, the reverend slurped down his last bit of tea before saying, “Well, I had better be off now. I’ve got a few more errands to run.”

“Can I come along?” David asked before the Reverend could stand up and draw his overcoat, scarf and hat from the nearby fainting couch.

“May I?” Mrs. Goldstein said, offering the pastor his garments.

“Listen to your mother,” the reverend jokingly quipped to David, before appending, “Yes, of course, thank you, Mrs. G,” for he often shortened people’s names or gave them friendly nicknames. “Better I go alone this time, David,” the reverend added.

Before he could get out the door, Mrs. Goldstein thought it not inappropriate to qualify the occasion. “You know, Reverend, I won’t just start coming to your church because of your generosity.”

“Indeed,” he responded. “That would ruin it anyway. Generosity has to be from the heart. If ever you should decide to come to my church, don’t do it this time of year when I’m bringing you matzo.” He grinned, she in kind, and off he went on another Christmas errand.

“That is a good man,” Mrs. Goldstein said to David.

“I think so, too,” David responded to his mother.

“If all Christians were like him …” Mrs. Goldstein began, never finishing her sentence.

Meanwhile, though it was late afternoon in the small hamlet of the Yard and the old-fashioned looking lights high up on the enormous tree that loomed above the town began to glimmer, as the sun’s chariot had made its final turn toward the end of its daily course, curiosity came upon David, and he recused himself from the living room and the lingering words of his mother, stating quite mendaciously that he was going outside to play.

“To play what?” His mother wanted, as good mothers often do, greater specificity.

“I won’t be long. Can I?”

Permission was granted, with no correction of “can” to “may.” Anyhow, it was nearly time for Mrs. Goldstein’s shift at the Golden Pump. “You stay nearby the apartment. I’ve got to go to work.”

David took off in the direction that he had seen the reverend turn after he had descended the exterior staircase, essentially just a wrought iron fire escape, that adorned the side of the two story edifice, with its final step running parallel to the street in front; beneath their apartment was the Village Store, a tiny grocery and meat shop whose butcher, Mr. Lanius, was also the local special-occasion photographer, for weddings and such, as time permitted.

Darting past the Village Store, young David pursued the reverend, shadowing him, and doing so again chiefly out of prurient interest in his comings and goings. And this time the reverend would surprise David even more than he did on his last promenade, for this time he went to the very edge of Christmas Yard, descending a snow covered hill and crossing a small corner of the plane known as “the floor” and heading under the shade of a raised plateau, known as “the table,” quite near the divan where, you will recall, Mr. Pínqióng worked for a gentle manager in a glass factory. Under the table there was the most unexpected of houses, and David thought he could see as they both approached (though David still lurking in the shadows only) the reverend crying as he bent on one knee, apparently to pray, before approaching.

That house was humbler than the Goldstein’s apartment or the modest house of Armut family; it was large, but completely dilapidated, and oddly there were two young women sitting on the porch, one with a fat belly. They seemed to recognize the reverend, but an older woman came out to chat with the reverend; she received the largest of the three packages that the reverend left.

David thought he heard the older woman express her thanks, though at the great distance he was from the building, he could not be sure. Reverend Griffith spoke in an inaudible tone with the two younger women on the porch, offering them each a small package bound with string and brown paper, each smaller than the one he had brought to the Goldstein home earlier in the day. Then he left, with David at his heels, but at a safe distance, so as not to be noticed. As they neared the snow-covered embankment that they had descended earlier, the reverend suddenly turned about, inviting David, as he had the day before, to join him.

“How did you know I was here?” David said, as if making his clandestine activity of following the pastor into a game of espionage. “I didn’t see you turn and look?”

“Your tracks in the snow of this embankment gave you away. Now, why are you following me this time?”

“So that I can see where you are going.”

“May, not can, my lad,” the rector replied hastily, though conceding to his own richly grammatical mind that “can” could work in this instance.

“What did you give those women? Who are they?”

“David, it would take too long to explain.” The reverend did not want to explain to David, who was but nine years old, that he had gone to a home for unwed mothers. He simply said, “I can say this, I gave them the best gift I could give them. Words of hope, words of healing.”

“Don’t you mean you told them words of hope?”

“I did, but I gave them those words, too; I gave them an old book, too, with some special pages for them to read so they might know something of the Spirit of Christmas. For the Spirit of Christmas is one that welcomes, redeems and invites.”

The reverend had given them, of course, each a Bible, with John’s ninth chapter prominently marked for them, and one or two other passages, too, especially Matthew 1 and Luke 2, for the holiday.

“Did you invite them to your church?”

“Yes, I did indeed,” said the reverend with a smile.

“Will they come?”

“We’ll see.”

David and the reverend walked briskly back to the tiny apartment that was tucked unassumingly just above the Village Store, conspicuously avoiding the storefront of the Golden Pump. Fortunately for David, he returned in time to eat some of the gift of the matzo and a bit of kosher hard cheese for dinner before his mother came home from work that evening. To keep the mitzvah, he waited half an hour after he ate before lighting the two requisite candles of the menorah, but then, per his mother’s instructions, went straight to bed before she should come home. Once in bed, he pondered the events of his promenade, his first trip ever outside the Yard, the strange explanation of the pastor about the women, the contrast of “giving” words and speaking them, and the pastor’s use of the expression, “Spirit of Christmas.”menorah

But those thoughts passed after a few minutes, for the next day would be the twenty-seventh of Kislev, the third day of Hanukkah, the third day of lighting the menorah. His mother would no doubt have a Hanukkah treat for him, perhaps a book, like the women on the porch of the large house had gotten, for the third day of Hanukkah was often a book giving day. So he said a prayer and went to sleep.

Yet trouble would soon be brewing in Christmas Yard. To learn of this trouble, my hope, dear reader is that you will stay curious, curious enough to read next week’s installment of this seasonal blog, “The Christmas Yard.” In the meantime, Happy Hanukkah and advent season leading up to, what I sincerely hope will be for you and yours, a very merry Christmas.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Christmas Yard (Part 1, The Gift)

Along time ago, my mother, Elaine Jakes, gave me a gift. It was Christmas time, the first Christmas in New Hope, Pennsylvania, whither she had migrated from Shermans Dale, a tiny hamlet near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital. Though she had gainful employment in Shermans Dale teaching fifth grade in Blain Elementary Schoolblain mascot, with all due respect to the “Mustangs” mascot, she had left that dale because, frankly, she didn’t like it.

And neither did I. I didn’t like being isolated from other children—we had moved from Oxford Circle in Philadelphia where there were plenty of other kids to play with on my block—and she didn’t like how the unrefined attitude of the rural townsfolk could manifest itself. It seemed a place, to my mother, devoid of the grace that she had grown up with and, at the very least, admired in Kingston, where her parents had a church home and a true home. To me, it was simply a place devoid of other children.

Oxford Circle
Oxford Circle

Yet soon she moved to and dwelt in New Hope, and there she and Sheila celebrated Christmas, even though by then we were Jewish. I think that the reason for this obviously non-Jewish celebration was not simply because my mother had been raised in a Christian (Welsh Presbyterian home) and had never quite given up on the notion of Christmas but also because an aged and quite lovely pensioner, Mr. Charles Miller (erstwhile briefly professional baseball player and composer of the musical score for Raggedy Ann and Andy), lived right next door to—or rather, just across the parking lot of—our downtown New Hope apartment at 14 West Bridge Street; and he was alone for Christmas.

New Hope at Christmas
New Hope at Christmas

Elaine and Sheila’s inner goodness could not brook such a situation: he simply had to have Christmas breakfast, and thus we should celebrate Christmas, at least for Mr. Miller. Of course, I did not argue, because that should mean that I would likely receive not simply Hanukkah gifts but also at least something for Christmas, as the situation dictated.

And so it was the festive occasion, with Mr. Miller enjoying a lavish Christmas breakfast of pancakes and bacon (sic) and me sneaking a piece or two of bacon myself and, better yet, receiving the undo reward of an extra holiday gift or two. But the greater gift was not the gift of the gifts but the gift of Elaine’s storytelling, for she took the opportunity to set up a Christmas tree—Mr. Miller simply could not come to a house adorned merely with Hebraic Hanukkah decorations. dreidelIt was not that I had to put my dreidel away or not don my yamaka. The shamash and the first candle (to the far right) of the menorah would burn brightly. menorahThough technically, since in 1967 the first day of Hannukah was not until the 26th, it should have been lit the next night, Elaine moved it up to Christmas day for Mr. Miller’s sake.

Thus, far from hiding it, we would put on display the polytonal multi-culturalism of our curious household, while at the same time celebrating Christmas for Mr. Miller, though perhaps more than simply for him, for Elaine ever adored Christmas: in reality, the celebration of Christmas would be for us all. And one important aspect of that celebration occurred the night before, when we hurriedly set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas yard, something of great fun and greater consequence for a young lad, for it involved storytelling. And that is a gift that lasts.

The story of the Christmas yard, which begins in this blog and will have three more installments this month began with hastily placing a number of small houses inherited from her grandmother, Elizabeth Ann Evans, made of thick paper and covered with glitter paint on a small platform beneath the Christmas tree. Now I think many a family may have a similar tradition. Elaine did not simply create a small yard, a replica of a town where “Santa” comes, but she created a town that needed social justice, a town that needed grace. She did not articulate it in those terms; that I will do. Rather, she created the town and its environment and thus deserves credit here for seeing that these would be the very issues that dogged our society then and continue to dog it now. So, what began with Elaine, who even on her long journey toward personal grace was acutely aware of her own and the world’s need for it, continues here. And now, the story of the Christmas yard.

Under a large tree lay a small town, small enough, but also big enough. It was small enough for anyone to know nearly everyone else. The fresh pine scent of the large tree that loomed over the town—a tree decorated once a year by the townsfolk to celebrate Christmas, though not all of them went to church or even believed in God—pervaded the town, particularly after its denizens had climbed the tree to adorn it with bands of colored paper meant simply to make the tree look more festive. Small boxes meant to represent presents, all neatly wrapped, dangled from its branches, which were themselves bedecked with garlands and tinsel—the old fashioned kind made of actual tin alloyed with lead—that gleamed in the bright moon’s light.

There was no particular year for the setting of this Christmas or this town, though one could tell by examining closely the style of the small replicas of automobiles that the year that the artificial yard beneath the Christmas tree was meant to represent must have been something like 1940, or perhaps 1945 or, in any case, thereabouts. It was a time a long time ago now, not quite a century, but certainly a long time. It was a town that never existed, but really did exist, or at least exemplified what existed, and showed the potential for what humankind might strive toward or, perhaps better stated, be receptive to.

Christmas yardBut I leave that aside for now to get back to the Christmas yard and what made it unique, beyond the obvious fact that it was the subject of Elaine’s story, Elaine’s unending gift of storytelling. And so, to get back to it, I shall merely repeat the gist of her story. It began with not simply the lay of the yard into two sections—the poor section and the rich—or even the dichotomization of the Jews and the Christians (which from the Jewish perspective were gentiles) or other races. It began rather with a pastor, appropriately named Reverend Griffith, out for a walk.

Now though the Reverend Griffith of her story bore the same name as the Reverend Griffith in whose church she had grown up, Elaine made it quite clear to me that this Reverend Griffith was not the historical pastor, who in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920 delivered the keynote address at the Presbyterian General Assembly encouraging all Presbyterians “to live out Jesus before the world.” No, the character in the story, she said, was “based on” that Reverend Griffith, but was not him. Of course I had deduced that already, as the Reverend Griffith before me was a leaden figurine about 2 inches tall. Yet that is what she said, as she opened her story.

Christmas was in the air, just a few days away, when Reverend Griffith was, as he was every Monday evening, out for a walk, when a lad of about nine years, whom Elaine called David—“It’s the name I wanted to name you,” Elaine quipped, “but your father wouldn’t let me”—recognized him from a distance and ran up to him.

“Can I help you carry those packages, Reverend?” he asked politely.

“May, not can, David… and no, no need; I’m just about my errands.”

“Can I come with you, then?”

“May, not can, David… and no, you should stay near your home, my friend, as I’m going about the entire Yard.” The town was called Christmas Yard, and the residents often shortened it to the “Yard,” sometimes with an adjective inserted between the article and the truncated name proper.

“But Christmas Yard is a small town, and I’ve been everywhere in it. I know it all so well.”

As David was an only child without a father, the reverend thought it better not to take him along. “I’m off now, and you stay here. Is your mother home? You should stay home.” And having given the lad this final directive, off went the right rector with his packages bundled with string and brown paper tucked under his left and right arms. Indeed, the nine-year-old David was perceptive to notice that the promenading pastor could have used some assistance.

Yet, Elaine was careful to note, David was a curious lad. He just had to know where the reverend was going, so he surreptitiously followed the pastor. How I loved it when my mother used adverbs to which none of my other friends had regular access. Thus did she surreptitiously cause my vocabulary to wax.

David noticed that the reverend took his many packages not to the public crèche—for they were legal in those days—where there was a collection bin for presents for the poor. Rather, reverend Griffith carried them a long way, to the extent that anything in the Yard was a long way off. He crossed over the railroad tracks, passing over a small completely-wooden bridge beneath which was a glistening ice covered pond (represented by a small mirror) hemmed by a snow made crisp with frost, and approached what was perhaps the smallest house in the Yard, though it was not uncomely. There dwelt the Pínqióng (pronounced “Pin-chiong”) family, Elaine said. Mr. Pínqióng worked in a factory outside the yard, under the nearby divan, and Mrs. Pínqióng made cookies and biscuits for the Yard’s only restaurant, the Golden Pump. Though they were very poor and barely made enough to buy the ingredients to make the cookies to sell, you might nevertheless smell Mrs. Pínqióng’s baking throughout our own home sometimes, Elaine said, during the Christmas season. That was the first house where the reverend stopped.

Mr. Umaskini’s house

After a few minutes the good pastor came out with a few less packages and proceeded to cross over by two streets to Mr. Umaskini’s house. Now Mr. Umaskini lived alone. Though his name sounded Italian to me, I could see from the figurine who represented Mr. Umaskini that he was a person of color, so I asked if that was in fact the case. Apparently, I could tell from Elaine’s response, David had asked the reverend the same question when he had emerged from Mr. Umaskini’s modest home, shaking hands with him on the porch, and indeed, Mr. Umaskini was, as David thought, of African descent, and, like the Pínqióngs, poor. Reverend Griffith then proceeded to the house of another poor person, this time a Welsh woman named Mrs. Llymder, and then to the very small house, nearly a hut, of the Armut family, German immigrants.

The Armut family house
The Armut family house

“Why did you go to the houses of those people?” David asked after the Reverend espied him following and signaled for him to come along for the remainder of his mission.

Detecting something perhaps a bit more than mere surprise in David’s voice, Reverend Griffith responded, “Because they’re people.”

“Do they go to your church?”

Rev. Griffith's church
Rev. Griffith’s church

“No they don’t. Not yet.”

“Why did you visit them then?” David wondered aloud.

“To bring them packages.”

“What was in the packages?”

“It’s not so much what is in a package as it is what it means,” the reverend responded cryptically.

“What did it mean?” the curious lad kept probing.

“You mean, what does it mean?”

“Why do pastors always have to sound like philosophers?” the precocious lad queried.

Their conversation went on a few more minutes in this vein, with David never learning what was in the packages or quite ascertaining precisely why the peripatetic pastor had gone to the houses of folks who were not his own parishioners in the first place. He deduced that it had something to do with Christmas, with the true meaning of Christmas.

And this is where the story of the Christmas Yard begins, with a unique expression of love by a Welsh Presbyterian pastor for those different than himself, those who did not belong to his flock. But it will not end here. It will continue, as did (and does) Elaine’s story. I hope to find you curious about what comes next, next week. For now, goodbye, in the truest sense of that word, and though it is still a few weeks away, Merry Christmas to you, in the most expansive sense of that expression.