Learning to ‘keep Christmas well’

Published 7:07 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2015

“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”


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So wrote Charles Dickens of Ebenezer Scrooge, who spent a Christmas Eve with the haunting memories of a life that had been wasted in pettiness and mean spiritedness until that enchanted night, and who, unlike too many of us, learned to do better.


But there have been those among us who did and do know how to “keep Christmas well” and have helped us lesser beings learn to do so, and the memory our time with them warms us as a cheerful fire as yet another Christmas draws nigh.


Teachers were big among them.


One was Helen King. Mrs. King. Mrs. King, who undertook to compile an exhaustive history of Isle of Wight County, was first and foremost a teacher and librarian. And though I never had her officially as a teacher, she taught me plenty about Isle of Wight history. At Christmas, it seemed quite natural that her celebration was a rather scholarly endeavor. For as long as she was able, she decorated a Christmas tree in her Tormentor’s Lake home with ornaments depicting storybook characters. Our daughters, Beth and Sarah, loved to visit her, and Helen always charmed them by relating what character was represented by each ornament, and quizzing them in their knowledge of those characters.


There were other educators, of course. Our elementary school teachers led us to make the most treasured gifts our mothers received each Christmas — or so they would enthusiastically tell us. The papier mache bowls and other worthless accouterments that we lovingly painted and packaged during the final weeks before the school year’s longest break found their way onto mantels and dresser tops as Christmas decorations or as holders of safety pins and other minutiae. It is a safe bet that many of these crude works of art have been found among the treasures of deceased mothers from that era.


There were also, of course, those faithful volunteer Sunday School teachers (some of them also school teachers) who wrapped us in bathrobes and turbans made of towels and taught us to march solemnly into the living nativities that were the foundation of church-sponsored Christmas celebrations.


And there were others who influenced our views of Christmas — and of a world beyond what we may have otherwise known.


Evelyn Yeoman was one. She was both the organist and choir director at Benn’s Methodist Church before it became the “United” Methodist Church, and was also the most frequent organist at Historic St. Luke’s Church. She drummed an appreciation of music into some very thick teenage heads back in those years, and led many of us to a lifelong love of music that far outmatched our talent for it. But the highlight for her — and for us — was always the Christmas candlelight service. She demanded reverence (and an attention to the director) and the impact of the whole made Christmas more special than it otherwise would have been.


There were, of course, parents and aunts and uncles, all of whom seemed to make Christmas a grand celebration even in the often-lean times that marked the lives small farm owners and operators. There were cups of hot chocolate, oysters picked up from rocks in the James River at no cost other than cold feet and hands, and a few fireworks to celebrate yet another Christmas in the country.


Such Christmases were pretty basic — and an awful lot of fun.


And so, we approach another Christmas, and as Tiny Tim intoned, “God Bless Us, Every one!”