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December 15, 2019

Our family enjoys good stories. The holiday season is a time for tales. Whether read in a book, sung as a song, 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 reading or viewing 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. It 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 fifty-three 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 replaced the pulpit with an easy chair. There I could sit and share an original Christmas story. The Morningside congregation was delighted with the change in format. That worship service also attracted many visitors.

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.

By the time of my retirement from Morningside, I had written another eight Christmas stories. Since then I have written three more.

This year I have the privilege of narrating “The Snowman,” a musical rendition of the story by Raymond Briggs, to be presented by the Spartanburg Philharmonic Orchestra on Sunday, December 15, 2019, at the Chapman Cultural Center.

I recently found a list of the thirty most popular Christmas stories of all time. Some are books; others are poems. Here is the list.

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  2. Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
  3. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
  4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
  5. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
  6. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann
  7. Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub
  8. The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: The 101st Airborne and the Battle of the Bulge by George Koskimaki
  9. The Elves and the Shoemaker by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm
  10. The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen
  11. Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
  12. A Letter from Santa Claus by Mark Twain
  13. The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
  14. What Christmas is as We Grow Older by Charles Dickens
  15. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank Baum
  16. “Christmas Trees” by Robert Frost
  17. Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
  18. The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
  19. Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May
  20. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
  21. The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
  22. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  23. The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  24. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  25. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
  26. The Chimes by Charles Dickens
  27. “Amazing Peace” by Maya Angelou
  28. The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
  29. Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
  30. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

This is just a beginning list. There are many other good Christmas books. Clare and I have others that we enjoy. Please feel free to add your own.

Could I encourage you to share a good story with someone you love this Christmas? Nothing comes to mind?

Do you recall the recitation by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” an animated television special based on the comic strip “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Schulz? Linus shares the best Christmas story ever told. You can read it in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. There you will find the adventure that is the source of all good Christmas stories.

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