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YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SAINT NICHOLAS

December 4, 2022

More than a century ago, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun. Her request was simple.

Dear Editor: I am eight years old. 

Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O’Hanlon

115 West Ninety-Fifth Street

New York, New York

The editor assigned veteran news reporter Francis Church to respond to the child’s question. A few days later, an unsigned editorial appeared in the paper and has since become the most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time.

Because we have a granddaughter named Virginia, Clare and I recently read the New York Sun editorial from 1897. The entire column is easily available on the internet. Here is a portion of Church’s response to Virginia.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make this existence tolerable. We should have no enjoyment except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

For Clare and me, the newspaper column is a Christmas keepsake.

The closer we get to Christmas, the more I see of Santa. I see his likeness depicted on sweaters, neckties, and billboards. A favorite Christmas ditty declares that Santa is everywhere.

He sees you when you’re sleeping.

He knows when you’re awake. 

He knows if you’ve been bad or good,

So be good, for goodness’ sake. 

Because he is so much a part of the holiday season, maybe we ought to know more about him.

The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born late in the third century in the village of Patara, located in what is now Turkey. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.

Following the ancient teaching to sell what you own and give to the poor, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the poor, the sick, and the suffering. He became a beloved priest. Children knew him for his kindness. He had a heart of compassion for all people, especially the needy. 

Beyond historical facts, there are many legends about St. Nicholas. One tells about an impoverished man. The man had three daughters who were not eligible for marriage because they had no dowry. The poor man could have sold his daughters into slavery, but he refused. They would be his responsibility all of their lives. The culture dictated – no dowry, no husband. 

Nicholas heard of the man’s plight. Riding on his white horse, he passed the man’s humble home and threw three bags of gold coins into an open window to provide a dowry for each of the three daughters. Stockings had been hung by the fireplace to dry. One of the bags of coins fell into one of the stockings. Thus developed the legend that St. Nicholas comes secretly to fill stockings. 

Nicholas eventually became the Bishop of Myra. He was dressed in the clothing of a bishop, wearing a red cap and a long, flowing red robe. Following his death, he became St. Nicholas, canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. The feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6. 

Throughout much of the world, December 6 is the day that children expect gifts from St. Nicholas. Typically, they put their shoes either outside the door or under the Christmas tree. The following morning, they find their shoes filled with candies, goodies, and small toys. 

In France, St. Nicholas is Père Noël. In England, he is simply Father Christmas. 

The legend of St. Nicholas came to the United States through Dutch immigrants. He was known as Sinter Claus, a derivative of St. Nicholas in the Dutch language. In time, Sinter Claus became Santa Claus. Santa Claus then is a continuation of a legendary fourth-century priest who cared about children and the poor. 

In 1931, the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia, used Santa Claus in some of their advertising at Christmastime. A commercial artist created an image based on Clement Moore’s poem, “The Night before Christmas.” The poem describes the jolly old elf as smoking a pipe. He had a tummy that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.

The priest who became St. Nicholas was a thin man who gave to the poor. The commercialized Santa Claus became a fat, jolly symbol of overconsumption.

Several years before her death, my mother gave me a figurine depicting Santa Claus kneeling at the manger. With his hat off and his hands folded, he is bowing in prayer. The imagery is appropriate because it removes Santa Claus from the center of Christmas.

At Christmas, the best response we can make is to give to other people, just as the original St. Nicholas did. In the true spirit of Christmas and the true spirit of St. Nicholas, we need to concentrate on the ones who are needy, the people who are poor 

I believe in Santa Claus, but I also think we need to recapture the original spirit of St. Nicholas. 

I had a rare privilege when I served as Senior Pastor of a local congregation. I played the part of Santa Claus at various gatherings for the church family. The children presented a Christmas program. Then Santa Claus, yours truly, entered the Sanctuary with a hearty, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” 

Santa sat in a chair and told the original Christmas story. When the children heard the story from Santa Claus, it had a remarkable effect on them. When Santa bowed his head to pray, the children took note. 

After the program, Santa lingered as the children crawled up on his knee to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Then Santa Claus asked, “Do you know what I want for Christmas?” The children always looked surprised. This was the first time they had ever heard Santa make a request of them.

“I want you and your family to remember that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus. For his birthday present, I want you to do something kind for someone else.” 

Some people would like to do away with Santa Claus.

If we can recapture the original intent of the caring man known as St. Nicholas, we will rediscover a part of the real joy of Christmas.

I no longer play the part of Santa outside of our own family. But to our granddaughter, Virginia, and to all of our thirteen grandchildren, I say, “Yes, indeed, there is a Santa Claus!” Then I share with them the story of Saint Nicholas, a lasting example of love and kindness, especially to children.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

This column will be included in the forthcoming book

By the Way: A Book of Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides for children in need. Thank you.

MADONNA IN BLUE JEANS

November 27, 2022

Long ago and far away, a young woman was startled by the news that she was pregnant. She had not had the first inkling, nor had she any reason to believe she was with child. She had saved herself for marriage. The attendant dressed all in white, was neither a midwife nor a nurse nor a physician. The young woman was Mary of Nazareth. The messenger who broke the news was the archangel, Gabriel.

Advent is Mary’s time. It is a season of expectancy for the young mother who lives in anticipation. But all of us, men and women alike, share in this pregnancy. This is a time of preparation for the arrival of a child, the nativity of Jesus. As surely as a young couple makes ready to receive a new child, we, too, must be prepared for this new arrival. This is the essence of the season of Advent for those of the Christian faith.

When Clare and I got married, we knew that we wanted to have children. 

We prayed that God would give us a child when the time was right. We became frustrated that God did not meet our schedule. We went for medical help and were told that it was improbable that we would ever have a child biologically. We pondered the possibility of adoption. We were overjoyed when Clare became pregnant but very disappointed when three months later, she had a miscarriage. Again, we were told that the possibility of having children was remote for us. We began to explore the possibility of adoption more seriously. After several months, Clare again became pregnant. The second pregnancy lasted longer, and our hearts were broken following a second miscarriage. I was angry. Clare was grieving. 

We initiated the long process of adoption with paperwork, home visits, and medical tests. Within weeks before we were to receive our adopted child, we discovered that Clare was again pregnant. The choice was difficult. Should we terminate the adoption and risk another disappointment? Should we continue adoption proceedings with the possibility that we would have two infants just six months apart in age? Our decision to terminate adoption proceedings was another grief for us. 

Clare carried our child full term. We were expecting our firstborn to arrive on December 18, 1970. As these things often go, the anticipated date came and went, but still no baby.

As Christmas approached, Clare and I waited in Louisville, realizing that we would not be with either of our families for the holidays. We could neither travel to New Orleans, where her parents resided, nor to Spartanburg, where my family lived. We exchanged gifts with our families by mail.

 Christmas Eve arrived; our child had not. We enjoyed dinner together in our home. Before midnight, we opened one gift each. Then we called both families to wish them Merry Christmas.

Just after we went to bed, Clare had her first contraction. Suddenly, we were wide awake! At 5:00 A.M., we were on the way to Norton Infirmary in downtown Louisville. Soft, light snow was falling, and the streets were empty as we drove through the dark Christmas morning.

At the hospital, I left Clare in labor and delivery and went to admissions to check her in as a patient. When I returned, her contractions had stopped, and she was sound asleep. I waited. Then, she went into hard labor at about noon on Christmas Day. We had taken Lamaze classes and thought we knew what to expect. In old cowboy movies, when a mother is giving birth, they send the husband out to boil water. Lamaze is something like that. It provides the father with a coaching job while the mother works very hard.

At 3:26 P.M. on Christmas Day, our first child, Michael Kirk Neely, was born. We were overjoyed. Finally, we had a baby born on Christmas Day! Both sets of grandparents were elated when we telephoned to announce our son’s arrival.

The birth of a child is always a miracle! Every significant era in the Biblical account begins with the miraculous birth of a child—Isaac, Moses, Samson, Samuel, and Jesus.

The word Advent comes from Latin, meaning to come. Some Christian carols become prayers of anticipation: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-expected Jesus.”

In a spiritual sense, all Christians are pregnant with anticipation. Every year, we celebrate anew the birth of a child, not just any child, but the one born in Bethlehem. Holding an infant in your arms reminds you of how precious and fragile life is. To cradle your newborn in your arms on Christmas Day is a reminder that God made himself very vulnerable in the birth of Jesus. 

Each Christmas, we draw close to the manger and look into this child’s face. Look closely. Did you notice the resemblance? According to the Christian tradition, this baby is the spitting image of his Father. 

I have always been fascinated by the description of Mary as a woman with a pondering heart. As a teenage mother, she had much to ponder, most of all, the miracle she held in her arms and the responsibility of being his mother. In truth, the birth of every child is a miracle. Every child requires a lot of tending, even when that child is Jesus.

I miss my mother more at Christmastime than any other time of year. She loved this season, decorating her home, hosting friends and family, and, as much as anything else, rocking her grandchildren.

One of my incredible comforts at Christmas is seeing mothers and grandmothers holding little babies. So many Christmas cards depict Mary and Jesus, Madonna and child, in soft pastel tones. Many Christmas carols present the same picture. “What Child is this, who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?” Little babies do sleep and are sometimes calm and peaceful. But they can also be quite demanding. Though He was the Son of God, Jesus was also fully human. In the familiar carol, “Away In a Manger,” I doubt that the line “no crying He makes” was true for very long.

The word Madonna is Latin for my lady. A part of Christmas for me is to take note of the real-life Madonnas in my world:  our nieces cradling a great-nephew or great-niece, a young mother sitting on the front row of our Sanctuary holding her newborn as she listens to the Christmas Cantata; grandmothers taking delight in their

third-generation offspring, giving new mothers a temporary break from the constant demands of parenting.

Among the most precious images of the Madonna in my life are the pictures of our daughters-in-law and our daughter holding their children. These images of young mothers, often barefooted and wearing blue jeans, cradling a newborn child, are visions that are as compelling as any Christmas cards.

For nearly fifty-three years, I have witnessed the love, care, and constant attention of one of the finest mothers I have ever known. When our children were very young, I would sometimes come home from a day of ministry to find a Carolina Madonna in blue jeans, faithfully carrying out the ministry God gave her. I have seen her attend to our children at the expense of her own needs. Now we have thirteen grandchildren. Clare thinks about them constantly and wants to be with them whenever possible. The longer I am with Clare, the more I appreciate her and see in her the same maternal love so beautifully depicted in the face of Mary.

There is a special place in heaven for women like these. I imagine it to be a place that looks something like the front porch of a Cracker Barrel restaurant. There are plenty of rocking chairs. My mother and mother-in-law are there. Both of my grandmothers are there. Every woman is rocking and singing to a babe in her arms. Those babies, who, in my mind, have gone to heaven in what seems to us an untimely way, are bringing their own unique joy to eternity. And those women and those children experience Christmas, as one of our favorite carols puts it, “in heavenly peace.”

Christmas can be difficult for those who have lost a mother or a grandmother, especially if the loss is recent. I hope and pray that all of you will catch a glimpse of a real-life Madonna and that you, too, will know the blessing of heavenly peace. 

Blessed Advent!

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

This column will be included in the forthcoming book

By the Way: A Book of Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides shelter for mothers and their children. Thank you.

THANKSGIVING WITH MISS MAUDE AND CREECH

November 27, 2022

We may all be familiar with the longstanding tradition that the first Thanksgiving on American soil occurred in 1621 at Plymouth Plantation. It is a story of survival, faith, and friendship remembered and celebrated by young and old alike. But, at least four earlier accounts of Europeans holding an observance of thanksgiving on the American continent have been documented.

  • September 8, 1565, Spanish explorers and Timucua Indians celebrated a day of thanksgiving in St. Augustine, Florida.
  • On September 23, 1578, Martin Frobisher held a formal thanksgiving ceremony in Newfoundland to express gratitude for surviving the long journey in an unsuccessful attempt to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. 
  • April 30, 1598, Spanish conquistadores and Native Americans south of El Paso, Texas, held a thanksgiving observance.        
  • December 4, 1619, English settlers in the Virginia colony of Jamestown set aside a day of thanksgiving when ships arrived from England with much needed food and supplies.

While details are sparse, these occasions of European thanksgiving preceded the celebration at Plymouth Colony in 1621. None of them, though, qualifies as the first Thanksgiving.

I would contend that the first Thanksgiving took place long before recorded history. Before the establishment of formal religious observances, ancient people believed that spirits caused their crops to grow. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Chinese, and Egyptians held harvest festivals, including expressions of gratitude. Throughout history, humankind has celebrated bountiful harvests with ceremonies of appreciation.

A specific provision for a thanksgiving offering among the ancient Hebrews is described in detail in the Bible in Leviticus 7. Later in Hebrew history, families also celebrated a harvest festival called Sukkoth. Taking place each autumn, Sukkoth has been observed for over 3000 years. The festival is known by two alternate names: the Feast of the Tabernacles and the Feast of Ingathering. Sukkoth is named for the booths that Moses and the Israelites lived in as they wandered the desert for forty years before they reached the Promised Land. Sukkoth begins five days after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish year.

In North America, Thanksgiving was celebrated long before the arrival of European colonists. Most Americans understand that the stories surrounding Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony are romanticized. Few Native Americans believe this day meant that peace and harmony had become a reality between the Indians and the Pilgrims. Most native people regard the event as the beginning of an onslaught that would reduce the number of Indians from more than one million to about 200,000 by the beginning of the 20th Century.

The day known as Thanksgiving has been accepted as a legal holiday by some Native Americans because the idea of a day to give thanks is such a vital part of their own traditions and culture. 

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor on November 27, 2002, Elizabeth Armstrong quotes Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plymouth Plantation. “There are wopila, giving thanks celebrations, all of the time among the Indian people of the Great Plains. A son or daughter returning home from war is an occasion for a wopila celebration. A wopila to celebrate a high school or college graduation is common. When someone recovers from an accident or a serious illness, a wopila ceremony is held.” 

So the idea of a day of thanksgiving has been a part of Native American cultures for centuries. The fact that it is a national holiday for all Americans blends well with Native American traditions.

Coombs continues, “We as native people traditionally have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing. Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer of acknowledgment.”

The wisdom sayings among Native Americans encourage a daily attitude of thanksgiving. A simple prayer by an author lost to memory expresses it well. “We give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way.”

In a sense, each day can be a day of thanksgiving. Greeting the sunrise at dawn, marveling at the sunset at the close of day, and innumerable other blessings can each prompt an attitude of appreciation.

The following is an Iroquois thanksgiving prayer:

We return thanks to our mother, the earth,

Which sustains us.

We return thanks to the rivers and streams,

Which supply us with water.

We return thanks to all herbs,

Which furnish medicines for the cure of our diseases.

We return thanks to the moon and stars,

Which have given to us their light when the sun was gone.

We return thanks to the sun,

That has looked upon the earth with a beneficent eye.

Lastly, we return thanks to the Great Spirit,

in whom is embodied all goodness,

And who directs all things for the good of her children.

Biblical wisdom counsels a similar mindset.

“This is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24 NKJV).

            “Because of the Lord’s tender mercies, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, Author’s Paraphrase).

When we adopt this attitude, every day becomes a day of thanksgiving.

As I reflect on the upcoming celebration of Thanksgiving in our own family, we have so many reasons to be grateful. Far more important than material gifts are the spiritual blessings of God. Since September 2013, I have been in the hospital multiple times to the Emergency Room or for same-day surgery. I have been admitted as an inpatient for a total of twenty-nine days since March 2020. It has been a rough patch for me, for Clare, and for our family. God’s love has surrounded us through the prayers and kindnesses of so many people, including many of you. We are grateful to God and so appreciative of the thoughtfulness of many friends. Thank you!

Now at 78 years of age, I have many fond Thanksgiving memories. The Thanksgiving meal was usually the main attraction. Turkey was the centerpiece at a Neely table presided over by my grandmother or my mother. At our own table, there were some occasional exceptions. One year, we were given a pair of Canada geese dressed and oven-ready. They were delicious. At a Thanksgiving meal with my in-laws, we enjoyed Cornish game hens.

In South Carolina, it is traditional to have some variety of seafood, in addition to the birds, for our holiday meal. Oyster dressing was a favorite, as were cold-boiled shrimp. A family favorite is scallops grilled on rosemary sticks.

My earliest memory of a family Thanksgiving was not with the Neelys. It was in Elko, South Carolina, at my mother’s birthplace.

First, please, a brief introduction to my mother’s heritage. Mama was born in the house built by her great-grandfather, George Hutson. Her grandfather, Zachary Taylor Hutson, had two sons, Willie and Joe. Willie married Mollie Woodward. Mama was the youngest of five children and the only daughter born to Willie and Mollie. Mollie had an older daughter from a previous marriage.

Joe moved to Spartanburg, where he changed his name to Hudson and married Belle Haynsworth. They had six children, five boys, and one daughter.

When Mama was six weeks old, her mother died. At Mollie’s funeral, Willie handed his infant daughter across the grave. He asked, “Belle, would you please take this little girl back to Spartanburg and raise her as your own child? So, Mama was adopted by her aunt and uncle.

As the youngest child in both families, Mama was adored by all her siblings and maintained close relationships with them. She called Willie, Little Daddy, and Joe, Big Daddy.

In a short but appropriate time, Willie remarried a wonderful woman we called Miss Maude. After a few years, Willie died, and Miss Maude married Mr. Creech. Though they were no blood kin to me, they were like extra grandparents.

Going to visit Miss Maude and Creech was always a happy time. They lived in the home where Mama was born. They had a deep-water well with no running water. They had no indoor plumbing, just a privy and chamber pots under the beds. There were free-range chickens, Guinea hens, an old mule, a cow, pigs, and too many dogs and cats to count. They had an old turkey named Tom. He had an impressive fan and a long beard. He strutted the yard as if he owned the place. One Rhode Island red rooster took his turn strutting, but until he crowed, he was no match for Tom.

The house was unpainted heart pine with heart pine log underpinnings that raised the house and porch high enough for all those dogs and cats to find shelter.

Miss Maude was an excellent cook and did it all on a wood-burning stove. She made breakfast every morning for the household. Her usual fare was eggs cooked to order, country ham, cathead biscuits with redeye gravy or butter and preserves, the best grits ever, and usually sausage or side meat fried to crispy perfection.e usuall fare was her herher

The Thanksgiving I remember, Miss Maude started cooking right after breakfast.

By one o’clock, the meal was ready. After Creech said the blessing, we all took our places. Tom Turkey was still strutting in the yard. The rooster was perched on a fence post, looking puzzled. Three hens were missing. Miss Maude had fixed fried chicken for Thanksgiving. She also had ham cured by Creech, Lowcountry rice with sawmill gravy, butterbeans, sweet potatoes, and cornbread. Mama had made plenty of deviled eggs. For dessert, we had Aunt Mildred Hutson’s chocolate cake with homemade ice cream churned by Dad.

Following the meal, we gathered on the big front porch. Several broke out guitars, and one played the washtub broom handle base to perfection. Uncle Archie played his banjo, one cousin played the scrub board, and Creech played the spoons. We all sang and sang. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “Peace in the Valley,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” There was no mention of football, parades, or Black Friday. We enjoyed good food, and we enjoyed being a family.

On the drive back to Spartanburg, I remember listening to Mama and Dad talking in low whispers. Mama thanked Dad for giving up Thanksgiving with his family so we could be with her Hutson family. utson HuH

“Your family is my family, too, “said Dad as he hugged Mama close to him.

As I went to sleep, I heard Dad whistling low, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

Clare joins me in wishing for all of you a Thanksgiving filled with blessings

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

This column will be included in the forthcoming book

By the Way: A Book of Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides Thanksgiving meals for those in our community who might otherwise go without food. Thank you.