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Christmas Stories

December 15, 2013

Our family enjoys good stories. The holiday season is a time for tales. Whether read in a book, viewed as a television special, or seen as a movie, Christmas narratives abound. From Frosty the Snowman to It’s a Wonderful Life, a first-rate story lifts the spirits. Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street and A Christmas Carol are worth viewing or reading again and again. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a part of every Christmas for us. Henry Van Dyke’s short novel The Other Wise Man, first published in 1895, is among my personal favorites.

In 1823, Clement C. Moore wrote his famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The description of flying reindeer pulling St. Nick’s sleigh captures the imagination of children of all ages.

Drawing names from Clement Moore’s poem, Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, crooned in 1946, “You know Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, Donder and Blitzen.” Autry then asked the question, “But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?” Rudolph is, of course, the answer. This reindeer with the red nose is the most famous.

The story of Rudolph is both remarkable and disputed. One version is attributed to the book Stories behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins.  According to the Collins’ version, the story of Rudolph was written by a grieving and depressed father, trying to bring comfort to his little daughter while her mother lay dying of cancer. The account has been especially meaningful for people experiencing a difficult time during the holidays.

Paul Harvey, however, shared a different account in one of his “The Rest of the Story” radio segments.  According to Harvey, Bob May worked as a copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company. When May’s boss asked him to write a children’s story for a Christmas promotion, he took elements from his own life and from “The Ugly Duckling” by Hans Christian Andersen.

May pitched his story, impressing Montgomery Ward executives.  The company published 2,400,000 copies of the book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer during the 1939 and 1940 Christmas season promotions.  By 1946, Montgomery Ward had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph. With the company enjoying financial success that year, the executives awarded Bob May the copyright to his popular Christmas story. The book became a bestseller.

That same year Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a song adaptation of this tale of the popular red-nosed reindeer.  Both Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore turned down the opportunity to record the song. Gene Autry’s version, released in 1949, became a phenomenal success. Generations later, the song remains a favorite among adults and children.

The season of Advent presents many challenges to a pastor. One is to tell the old, old story of Jesus’ birth to people who have heard it over and over again, as well as to those for whom it is only vaguely familiar. The preaching task is to retain and restore the mystery and wonder of the original story. We have the responsibility of liberating Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi from their confinement as stained-glass icons; we must free them to be real people again.

The second challenge is to remember that Christmas is a time of sharp emotional contrasts. Many people have little difficulty finding joy in the season, but December brings sadness to others. For those who are hurting, the coming of Christmas may be filled with dread, despair, bitterness, and anger. Some are freshly wounded; others carry deep scars from years gone by. For them, Christmas is anything but “the season to be jolly.”  They suffer while others celebrate.

In forty-seven years of pastoral ministry, I have learned that the best way to present the message of hope and love that is at the heart of Christmas is through stories that parallel and perhaps merge with the original story.

My first year as pastor at Morningside Baptist Church, I told a Christmas story as the sermon on the last Sunday of Advent.  I recounted my role as Joseph in a children’s Christmas play long ago at Croft Baptist Church. The story of that pageant is included in my book Santa Almost Got Caught.

Several friends encouraged me to present a new story every Christmas. In subsequent years, on the Sunday before December 25, we have replaced the pulpit with an easy chair.  There I can sit and share an original Christmas story. The Morningside congregation has been delighted with the change in format.

Nine of those stories have been collected in the book Comfort and Joy, published in 2005 by Hub City Writers Project. The premise of these original stories is that the holidays do not necessarily bring cheer for everyone, but the season does offer comfort and joy.

On Sunday December 22, I will present the eighteenth annual Christmas story entitled Red Rooster.

When a chicken truck overturns on Business I-85, a young homeless boy, seeking freedom from an abusive situation, seizes the opportunity to escape and strikes out on his own. His quest takes him on a journey through the beautiful Milliken Arboretum. Nicknamed Rooster, the lad is eventually taken to the Spartanburg children’s shelter where he becomes friends with Timmy. The friendship between the boys remains strong even when they are separated by foster care placement.

Eventually, Rooster, who exhibits behavioral problems and a defiant spirit, is introduced to the congregation of Morningside Baptist Church. There he hears the story of Jesus’ birth for the very first time and begins to discover the true meaning of Christmas.

Please join us on Sunday, December 22 for worship at 8:30 A.M. or at 11:00 A.M. to hear Red Rooster. The story is appropriate for all ages, but child care will be available for our youngest children.

Could I encourage you to share a good story with someone you love this Christmas? Nothing comes to mind?  Begin with the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. There you will find the adventure that is the source of all good Christmas stories.

 
Kirk H. Neely
© December 2013
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