Christmas in a Shoe
By Marvin Payne
We haven’t told our kids where presents come from. Everything they know, they’ve picked up in locker rooms and on street corners. They have, at times, thought it had something to do with Santa Claus and elves, though they’ve never heard that from us.
This is mostly because we, as their parents, know so little about Santa. We are given to understand that the whole idea of a round guy in red who comes down the chimney sprang into being sometime in the magazines of the mid-nineteenth century, and that most of what Santa does was completely unknown before Clement Moore wrote his much-loved (and, apparently, highly influential) poem called, “‘T’was the Night Before Christmas.” (This is a bona fide poem, given the fact that it has words like “‘t’was” in it. Regular writing doesn’t have “‘t’wases” in it.)
They have different poets in Holland, though, with different ideas. My wife served a mission there, and I asked her yesterday about the notion I’d heard of Santa leaving gifts in people’s wooden shoes. She confirmed that. Also she told me (if I get it right, here) that Sinter Klas and Black Pete come in a ship from Spain. And why not? Our American Santa (apologies to Meridian readers beyond the borders of my native land for seeming provincial-no, that would be Canada-well, patriotic or something ((you Meridian readers now include, the editors assure me, beings in entirely other dimensions)) ) comes in ships from China. Our American Santa. Comes in ships from China. (What would Clement Moore make of that ?)
Cultural Note: Black Pete, as referenced herein, is not a large cat with a stubbly chin, missing teeth, a cigar, and overalls with only one suspender drawn across an ample middle. This would be frightening to Dutch children (although my kids get a real bang out of him, a bang that corresponds in banginess with the degree of bang Black Pete consistently gets from Mickey Mouse). This Nederlandic Black Pete is, in fact, well, um, how can I put this? Well, alright, Santa’s slave. (Recall here that the primary antagonist in Pirates of the Caribbean, other than the Kraken, was Dutch. Or at least worked for them. Back in the days when Sinter Klas was first assembling his staff, slavery was not beyond these people.) End of Cultural Note.
But how ’bout it? I mean, what if the “presents” part of Christmas were to be limited to what might be crammed into a single wooden shoe? What would be the impact, on everything? This came up in elders quorum yesterday. What if the Wise Men had only brought the baby Jesus Christmas cards?
(There was a cubmaster in our previous ward who loved Baby Jesus. He would put Baby Jesus in the driver’s seat of his pinewood derby cars. It’s not a bad idea. It reminds me of the advice I heard the other day, “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats with Him.”)
Back to the Wise Men (and isn’t it too bad there weren’t Wise Women? Well, I guess there was Mary, and she would be the Wisest Woman of all, covering that base utterly. Of course, all the men involved in the Nativity Drama are merely supporting players to her unassailable leading role. ((I think that on everybody’s birthday, people should give presents to their mother, rather than the other way around)) ). We consider our gifts of plastic and electronic mayhem to be holy things because they echo the gold, frankincense, and myrrh ((spell those last two in less than four tries without a Bible handy and you, too, can be a Meridian columnist-I couldn’t do it without recourse to LDS.org)) that the kings brought to Bethlehem. But again, what if they hadn’t? Brought anything, I mean.
First off, the Holy Family wouldn’t have been able to escape into Egypt and live there indefinitely without a Green Card. Second off, the trade imbalance between the US and China would be colossally reduced.
And lives would be saved. Let us not dwell here on Wal-Mart and glass doors.
Bottom line: Did the tender little beings at the foot of the Grinch’s mountain singing their Seusified Latin have it right? Could we do that? Can we imagine a ward council meeting in which no one thinks to worry if some family will “not have” a Christmas? Is it conceivable that “having” a Christmas might require only the gift of a Bible and a calendar?
My family has been hit by so many Grace Locomotives on so many Christmases that I can’t seriously suggest that we abandon gift-giving. It can, of course, be very, very sweet. I just came back from walking through the snow flurries to the house up the street where I had been invited to pick up a loaf of bread right out of the oven and four tickets to the Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert in a couple of days. (In a way, I’m glad nobody took seriously my suggestion last month that Mack Wilberg be drafted as President of the United States in a massive write-in campaign, because I don’t think the concert would sound as good if conducted by Barack Obama.)
Many wooden trains, many dollar-bill decorated trees, a red wooden plane I’m looking at right now hanging from our ceiling-it showed up on the porch fully thirty years ago, and is priceless. No, I want my kids to have Christmas presents. I just want them to know who they came from. And if they come secretly in the night, I want my kids to wonder which mysterious neighbor loves them that much, not which union elf worked overtime.
So, we’ve considered the recent development of our fat, jolly Santa. The much older fact about St. Nicholas that most appeals to me is that he is the Patron Saint of children, sailors, thieves, and pawnbrokers. I like this because I have personally been all of the first three things, except sailor, and because I’m writing a book, then a musical play, about Christmas Eve in a pawnshop, where something (and someone) precious is redeemed, in true President Boyd K. Packer literary fashion. In pawnshopland, the word for getting back something you’ve pawned is “redeem.” Cool, huh?
Being a gift junkie, along with the rest of us. I have two gifts for you. One is the prologue (I call it a “prelude”) of “The Pawnbroker’s Christmas.” Think of it as a “teaser.” The other is a story for children. A couple of Christmases ago I shared here something that was called “An Idea For a Christmas Story.” Well, following the “Prelude” I have pasted on that story, about a little boy who shares the stable with his grandmother, the baby Jesus, a number of other people, and a whole mess of angels. It will be published with wonderful pictures. If it isn’t, maybe the pictures in your head will be better, anyway. I’ll make the gift words kind of red, so you can distinguish them from plain old Backstage Graffiti.
PRELUDE (from The Pawnbroker’s Christmas)
Hank Bronzini didn’t need his eyes to find the old guitar. His feet knew the steps across the worn carpet to the closet in the hall. His elbows knew the weight of ancient overcoats as he nudged them aside with a creak of hangers on wood. In the corner on the left, the frayed case warmed to his touch. The brown canvas-like surface had lifted and peeled back from the wood underneath on about half the neck and a big swath on the body of the case–not so much from wear as from weather. He hauled it out into the hall and laid it gently on the bench that was for his grandkids to sit on while they took off their snow boots.
There were boots under the bench right now, because of the new snow outside–new because it was Christmas Day in the year 2008. They were mostly grandkid-sized boots, a couple of great-grandkid-sized boots. (Moms and dads wouldn’t take the snow seriously until about mid-January. The teenagers would wear T-shirts through the winter.) Hank could hear them all, moms and dads and kids and teens, chattering back in the big living room, where the tree was. They were waiting for a moment they loved and looked forward to every year, the moment when Grandpa would play his guitar and they would sing carols. His playing these days had gotten impossibly clunky, and more painful than anyone suspected, but still they cherished the tradition.
Grandpa flipped the latches. He hadn’t opened this case in a year. There was one latch in particular that gave him trouble since the arthritis stiffened his hands and corrupted his playing. He winced and lifted the lid. The smell of dust and mahogany rose almost imperceptibly. Then he let his fingers fall on treasure. He didn’t need his eyes to know the deep glow of the spruce or the gleam of the strings. What his now blind eyes once knew, his fingers remembered. He could feel glow. He could feel gleam.
He lifted it out of its velvet tomb and was surprised, as always, at how light it was, although it was among the biggest guitars made by the C. F. Martin company in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was a D-18. The “18” designated mahogany back and sides with an Adirondack spruce face–ebony fretboard and bridge. The “D” was for a class of British war ship called the “Dreadnought.” This was the kind of guitar that had no fear of banjos. When Hank first bought his guitar, Martin had been making this mighty dreadnought for only a couple of years, though they’d been working up to it for a full century.
Back in 1934 Hank Bronzini was sixteen years old. He’d been working hard since he turned thirteen to help feed his brothers and sisters. The Depression hung heavy about the neck of the nation, and Hank, being the oldest child, had been just big enough to go to work gleaning wheat at night in the Autumn, shoveling winter snow for the few rich folks in town because he got there first and shoveled best, and gathering lumber fallen from rail cars along the tracks in the summer. One day a long freight stopped to take on coal and a railroad boss spotted him from the caboose. The boss jumped out and chased the young scavenger down. After shaking him by the collar for a bit, he offered Hank a job–this time unloading lumber to where it was actually supposed to go. It meant moving to a bigger town, all alone, but Hank could send most of his wages home.
The railroad boarded him, so he put a little money away every week for something he’d wanted since he was tall enough to turn the dial on his mother’s big radio and find the stations where guitars were played.
It was nearing Christmas, 1936. Things were getting better back home. It would be a sweet time together, but he didn’t expect any more in his stocking than a homemade sweet or two. So he took his whole two years’ worth of earnings into Lysander’s Music Emporium and walked out with the D-18 that he held in his hands right now. Back then, in Lysander’s, he told himself that he liked the lighter weight of the mahogany over the heavier rosewood. He told himself that he liked the simpler sound and look of this guitar over the rich jangle of the rosewood model. But the fact was that he couldn’t afford the rosewood dreadnought. At a hundred dollars, it was thirty-five more than he had. So he immediately set about falling in love with its “plain Jane” sibling.
There was plenty to love. It just sounded so good. Hank was never a pro, never got a dime for his playing, never even tried. He just sat and strummed a “G” chord over and over, slowly, savoring the choral sustain of those open strings until he felt adventurous enough to tackle “C.” The simplest things felt and sounded wonderful, and brought him at least an hour of peace every day. He cared for that guitar like a mother with her baby, and protected it from all the fiery darts of the world.
In time, boy met girl. Not until Hank had courted his true love into the near certainty of marriage did he finally brave playing his guitar for her (he knew lots more than “G” and “C” by then). But as much as he loved this fair maiden, when she asked to hold the guitar he got very nervous. Still, they married and she happily served as mother to every living creature in the household but the D-18. It already had a mother.
In the early ’40s Hank was in his early twenties, and he left off mothering for awhile. He never for a moment considered taking the guitar with him to war. He missed it sorely, prayed every day that his hands wouldn’t get shot off, and rejoiced when 1945 brought both the surrender of the axis powers and the reunion of Hank and his D-18.
He played it to calm his wife in the weeks before birth, and played it to calm the babies that came. He was playing actual tunes by then, hymns and folk melodies and some little figures he invented himself. Heavy with child, his wife would rock in her chair and listen and say, sometimes, “Baby likes that one.” After the babies emerged, Hank got their reviews on his playing first-hand. He got a chance to review their playing, too, whenever they got tired of dancing and leaned against his knee, strumming viciously while he changed chords. He held his breath every time, and it was agony for him when their fingers were fresh from the peanut butter jar. He always inwardly apologized to his guitar after the ordeal, and proved his sincerity by rubbing it down with a flannel cloth for a good long time.
When his oldest daughter started high school, he suffered his first command performance. The music teacher, who played the oboe, didn’t take Hank’s brand of guitar-playing seriously and wouldn’t have known the difference between a D-18 and the Invasion of Normandy. No danger of having to perform for the students of the music teacher. But the dance teacher pestered Hank’s daughter, who in turn pestered Hank, to come and share a folk song or two during their folk dance unit. It terrified him, and he never did it again.
His family was an audience that didn’t terrify him, though–at least his direct descendants didn’t. He played his kids to sleep every night, and was always happy to play for any descendant who would sit still. Or not. During the great ’60s Folk Music Tsunami, some descendants actually came to think that Grandpa was cool. A couple of them even played along.
Eventually, there was little Sophie, who picked up the fiddle when she was only five, and made her Grandfather shine with happiness whenever she came around and they could play together. Mostly they played Irish tunes mellowed by many decades in the Appalachian Mountains. They played a little bit of bluegrass, too, a style that didn’t even exist until long after Hank bought his D-18. One Christmas they worked up a bluegrass version of “The Holly and the Ivy” that fairly smoked. Everybody in the house stopped gift-wrapping, stopped divinity-making, stopped fiddling with the tree whenever Hank and Sophie cranked up “The Holly and the Ivy.” Hank loved hearing his granddaughter’s smile as she sawed away on that fiddle. Sophie loved Grandpa’s thumpety-thump on that grand old golden guitar.
[Does Sophie grow up and pawn the guitar? Why on earth? (Or why not ((on earth))?) Then what? Are you teased? On to the children’s story.]
NO ROOM IN THE INN
by Marvin Payne, Christmas Eve 2004, adapted for children Autumn 2008
“Grandmother, why are you smiling?” Ezra’s feet hurt, and they still had so many miles to walk. Ezra didn’t think anyone on this dusty road should be smiling. Nobody else was.
“I smile because the sun is shining and the breeze is cool and we are strong enough to walk, my son.” Grandmother always called Ezra “my son.”
“Is that reason enough to smile?” Ezra asked.
“Perhaps not. Sometimes there are reasons for smiling that.
Hold on. A cold fear just gripped my heart. I’m suddenly thinking of the e-mails I get of short inspirational stories that I’m commanded to forward to five friends before Tinker Bell’s light goes out. I usually get the same story two or three times, several days apart, from people who are only in the remotest way connected with one another. In the first one, Grandmother is smiling and Ezra wonders why. In the second one, Ezra is smiling and Grandmother wonders why. In the third one, the Littlest Angel has appeared to Ezra and the Three Nephites are teaching Grandmother’s camels to smile. So, um, wait to see it on shelves in a Wal-Mart near you. They’ll have it for sure because, like everything else, it will be printed in China.
And it will be just the right size to fit into a wooden shoe. Sans foot.
“…come unto Christ, and lay hold upon every good gift…” (from the last page of the Book of Mormon)