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Authors: Philip Gulley

Christmas in Harmony

BOOK: Christmas in Harmony
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Christmas in Harmony
Philip Gulley

To Joan, Spencer, and Sam—my best presents ever

M
y first memory of Christmas was in 1966. I was five years old and standing in line at Kivett’s Five and Dime with my mother and brother, Roger, waiting to see Santa Claus, who looked suspiciously like Bud Matthews, the man in our town who did odd jobs. He smelled like Bud Matthews, too—a blend of Granger pipe tobacco, Old Spice aftershave, and sawdust.

For a while, I believed Bud Matthews was Santa, and that he spent the off-season in our town patching roofs and fixing screen doors. Bud Matthews was jovial, like Santa, and had a bushy white beard. His wife looked like Mrs. Claus on the Coca-Cola calendar at the Rexall. Except they had a son named Ernie, who was in my grade, and everyone knew Santa didn’t have any kids, just elves and reindeer. Then when I was eight, Uly Grant took me behind the school and told me that Santa was really your parents, which explained why, despite my persistent requests, I never got the Old Timer jackknife with a genuine bottle opener I’d asked for.

I needed the genuine bottle opener to open my pop bottles from Wilbur Matthews’s garage next to the Dairy Queen. Wilbur was Bud’s brother. I first met Wilbur at church. He was an usher and got to pick the boy who’d ring the bell to start the proceedings. I’d watch for his eye to settle on me and wait for his nod, which was the signal for me to slide out of my pew and fastwalk toward the foyer, where the rope dangled down from the bell.

“Pull her down a long ways,” he’d say, “then let her go all the way back up. You’ll get a good double ring that way.”

The bell was made in 1885 in Baltimore. We got it cheap from the Episcopalians, who’d come to town in 1890 to establish an Episcopalian beachhead and convert the masses. But they folded after two years, and we Quakers bought it at their auction. Wilbur’s grandfather had installed it, then had passed the bell ministry on to Wilbur’s father, who’d bequeathed it to Wilbur, who was childless. These days, Dale Hinshaw rings the bell every Sunday morning at ten-thirty, just as the Lord intended when He caused the Episcopalians to be vanquished so we could have their bell.

It was Wilbur’s custom to climb the ladder up to the bell every Christmas Eve and view the town’s Christmas lights. If the night were clear, he could see the star on top of the silo at Peacock’s farm, two miles east of town. In my seventh year, Wilbur let me climb the ladder with him. He pointed out the star. I thought it was the star in the East, that the Baby Jesus had been born in the Peacocks’ barn. I wondered why the Peacocks hadn’t invited Mary and Joseph into their house to sleep on the foldout couch next to the freezer in the mudroom.

Afterward, we’d retire to the basement and drink milk and eat Christmas cookies in the shape of angels Pastor Lindley’s wife had baked downstairs while we were upstairs listening to him read the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The cookies were still warm and doughy, the milk so cold it hurt my teeth. If an angel head broke off while she was lifting a cookie from the cookie sheet, she’d put extra sprinkles on it and save it for me.

Pastor Lindley was a nice man, but seldom caused our faith to soar to new heights. If we wanted inspiration, we watched the Reverend Rod Duvall from Cleveland on Saturday nights after Lawrence Welk. We kept Pastor Lindley on because of his wife. We couldn’t imagine tromping downstairs on Christmas Eve and eating hard, cold, store-bought cookies that crunched like gravel when you bit into them.

Though he was nice, Pastor Lindley had a few alarming tendencies, chief among them his sermons encouraging us to remember the reason for Christmas—that it wasn’t about presents and cookies, but about God sending his Son to be with us. I feared my parents might take his message to heart. I had nightmares about running down the stairs on Christmas morning to a tree with nothing under it, and my father sitting in his chair, a Bible balanced on his lap, smiling and saying, “Your mother and I have decided that this year we’re just going to thank God for the gift of his Son, because that’s the only gift we really need.”

The Christmas Eve service was, and still is, held at eleven-thirty. If we timed it right, we’d be biting into the cookies just as the Frieda Hampton memorial clock bonged midnight. My first four years, I came attired in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, and slept through the entire proceedings. By my fifth year, my parents said I was big enough to stay up. I nodded off through the Gospel of Luke, but revived in time to eat cookies, which is my pattern to this day.

I have other memories of Christmas in Harmony. The men from the street department hanging plywood angels on the lightposts around the square. The Odd Fellows Lodge stringing Christmas lights back and forth across Main Street. The volunteer fire department hosing down the basketball court at the park so when it froze we could slide on the ice. Sorting through the pine trees at Grant’s Hardware to find one with four good sides. Joe Bryant, who was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t believe in Christmas, telling me I was going to hell for celebrating it, but sneaking over to my house on Christmas afternoon to play with my toys.

Next to Christmas, the day before the holiday break from school was the best day. We’d play games in the morning and sing Christmas carols in the gym with Mrs. Rogers, the music teacher. At lunch, Mrs. Sisk, the school cook, would serve us green ice cream in the shape of Christmas trees. After lunch, we’d march two abreast out the school door and up Washington Street to the Royal Theater and watch
Old Yeller
or
The Jungle Book.
We’d walk out of the dark into the sunlight, blinking our eyes. When Pastor Lindley read from Isaiah how people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, I thought he was talking about the movies.

A lot has changed in my hometown over the past forty years, except Christmas. Plywood angels still flutter among the lightposts. Christmas trees still lean in rows outside Grant’s Hardware. If the weather is clear, Dale Hinshaw can spy the star atop the Peacocks’ silo. But Pastor Lindley moved away in 1970. Then Pastor Taylor came and stayed thirty years until he died. Now I’m the pastor and on Christmas Eve I stand and read from the second chapter of Luke and encourage people to remember the reason for Christmas, that it isn’t about presents and cookies, but about God sending his Son to be with us. Children all over the meeting room look up, alarmed. Then I read from Isaiah how people who’ve walked in darkness have seen a great light. The children nod knowingly.

There have been a few deviations over the years. In 1976, Dale Hinshaw, flexing his political muscle as chief bell ringer, had the church hold a traveling Nativity scene. The idea was to put the Holy Family on the back of Ellis Hodge’s hay wagon, along with the shepherds, wise men, and a scattering of livestock. Then Ellis was to pull them down Main Street, past Kivett’s Five and Dime, as a witness to pagan consumers who had forgotten the true reason for Christmas.

Dale had asked the stunning Nora Nagle, the state Sausage Queen of 1975 and daughter of church usher Clevis Nagle, to wear a bathrobe and play the part of Mary. But he’d failed to specify what kind of bathrobe and, while standing in front of Kivett’s, was horrified to see the mother of our Lord ride past in a gauzy, slinky dressing gown.

I was fifteen years old and playing Joseph, the husband of Mary and stand-in father of our Lord. I was wearing my father’s plaid bathrobe, as Dale had instructed. Ellis Hodge downshifted as we approached Kivett’s, per Dale’s instructions to linger in the area, giving nonbelievers sufficient time to be convicted of their sin. But the renunciation of sin was not the first thing that came to mind when they saw Nora Nagle in her dressing gown. The men along the sidewalk began to whistle, while I, her faithful husband, gazed adoringly at my betrothed, thanking the Lord for using me to bring Truth to the unwashed masses. The next year, we returned to the Gospel of Luke and cookies in the basement.

I left town after high school, and lived away for twenty years attending college and seminary, getting married, having two sons, and pastoring a church in the next state over. But every Christmas would find me home, sleeping in the bedroom I’d shared with my brother, doing what we’d always done. Eating potato soup at seven o’clock, visiting with neighbors, then walking the three blocks to the meetinghouse for the Christmas Eve service, my mother prodding us to arrive early and get a good seat, which mystified me, since everyone always sat in the same pew anyway.

It was a comfort to have this one steadiness, this unchanging center, in my life. I knew no matter what else changed, I could always count on hearing the second chapter of Luke read at Harmony Friends Meeting on Christmas Eve. I would sit with my eyes closed, letting the words wash over me. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn…. Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

During the pauses, I could hear the pastor’s wife down in the kitchen, sliding the cookie sheets into the oven, assisted by the Friendly Women’s Circle after Pastor Taylor’s wife rebelled. The smell of cookies would float up the stairwell into the meeting room, as the shepherds were abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. By the time they came with haste to Bethlehem, the cookies were browning nicely. A few moments would be allowed for the shepherds to glorify and praise God for all the things that they had heard and seen, and then we would tread downstairs, just as the cookies were pulled from the oven.

One Christmas, on the verge of a midlife crisis, Pastor Taylor read from a Bible he’d ordered from California. “About that time, the guy in charge, King Augustus, ordered everyone to pay taxes or else…. And Mary had a baby and dressed him pajamas, and laid him in a garage, because the guest bedroom was being used…. And the angels said to them, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy.’”

But people weren’t happy, not happy at all to hear their beloved King James Bible trifled with, and there was talk of letting Pastor Taylor go. Three months later, he took up jogging, was struck by a truck, and died, thereby ensuring his reputation as a saint, his flirtation with modernity forgiven.

I was between churches and agreed to become their pastor, a decision I regret at least once a month during the elders meetings with Dale Hinshaw. The other twenty-nine days of the month, I enjoy being pastor. I especially like December, when we skip the elders meeting altogether.

When I was a child, Dale Hinshaw didn’t seem any different from the other men I knew, who also wore plaid shirts, ate at the Coffee Cup, and complained about the politicians in Washington ruining the country. My father would occasionally mutter under his breath about Dale. At night, I would lie in bed, press my ear to the heating duct next to my bed, and listen to my parents talk about his eccentricities. Still, since all adults struck me as peculiar, I wasn’t inclined to think Dale was singularly odd.

Then I became his pastor.

My first week in the job, Opal Majors stopped by to advise me, in a charitable sort of way and not meaning to gossip, that Dale Hinshaw was a few notes short of a song. “He has some rather unusual ideas,” she said. “I’m sure he means well. But he watches television preachers and gets these kooky ideas.”

“Like the traveling Nativity scene?” I asked.

“Yes, and bringing in Mohammed the Baptist and his camel for a revival. Camel poop everywhere. You should have seen it. What a mess that was.”

I chuckled at the memory. “I didn’t know Dale was behind that.”

“Oh, yes. And don’t forget Brother Bruno. Dale saw him on TV and just had to have him come here. Christian, my foot. The last night he preached, he made off with the offering.”

“Say, I remember him. Wasn’t he the guy from New York who’d been with the Mafia and found the Lord in prison?”

“That’s what he said. We found out later he was a common thief. He and that Reverend Rod Duvall had a racket going.”

“The Reverend Rod Duvall from Cleveland?” I asked. “The one on TV who wore a red, white, and blue suit, whose wife had pink hair and cried a lot?”

“One and the same.”

“I never knew he was a crook.”

“Rotten to the core,” Opal said. “Turns out he was also selling illegal bonds. The IRS nailed him.” She smacked my desk with her hand. “Squished him like a bug. Anyway, bringing him here was all Dale’s idea, and I just thought you should know, now that you’re our pastor.”

The next few days saw a steady stream of parishioners to my office, each of them bearing a matter of great concern.

Bea Majors confided that she’d seen Asa Peacock buy mouthwash with alcohol in it.

Dale Hinshaw wasn’t sure, but he’d heard Mabel Morrison was a vegetarian and had voted Democratic in the last election.

Eunice Muldock knew for a fact Uly Grant’s wife was a shoplifter.

They weren’t gossiping, they assured me, just sharing concerns I might wish to pray about, now that I was their pastor. I thanked them for their interest and told them I’d be sure to speak to the persons involved in order to convey their loving concern. “I’ll be sure to mention your name so they know you care,” I promised.

No thank you, they said, they didn’t do it for the recognition, they just wanted to be of service. Naturally, I was pleased to find myself the pastor of such a caring fellowship, and looked forward to many years of ministry with these modest, prayerful saints.

In this unsettled world, it is good to have this steadiness—the Christmas Eve service, the peal of the bell, the star atop the Peacocks’ silo, the saints burdened with concern. There is a holiness to memory, a sense of God’s presence in these mangers of the mind. Which might explain why it is that the occasions that change the least are often the very occasions that change us the most.

BOOK: Christmas in Harmony
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