Thursday, September 15, 2011

Billy’s Christmas Party: A New Englander

by Jesse Halsey

Thanksgiving night our minister dreamed a dream. Vividly it came to him. A Thanksgiving turkey, one of the perquisites of this particular parish, may have been the cause—I cannot say (not being a Freudian psychoanalyst). Not with the cause, but of the results of the dream am I to tell you.

The minister dreamed that his eight-year-old Billy, who had died two years before, was hungry—hungry in the midst of plenty; and that on Thanksgiving day! The minister’s childhood was spent in New England where Thanksgiving was celebrated like our Christmas. Billy’s few Christmases had been spent in a time and in a part of the country where Christmas is Christmas. So, the next day our minister determined that Billy should have his Christmas celebration by proxy. He has that curious sort of Celtic (or is it Christian?) faith that convinces him that those who have “gone on” know what goes on here.

So the next afternoon our minister started by making a call on Anne James, a member of the Junior League, popular with all her contemporaries, an effective executive, but for some years confined to a wheel chair. She agreed to be general manager; using the telephone and direction all our activities. The four oldest members of the congregation were made honorary patrons. “Uncle Billy” Union, eighty-seven, loved and respected throughout our city, was to act as honorary chairman (for forty years the said “Uncle Billy” has entertained a score of city waife at his own Christmas Eve table). Madam G—who spent her active life as a missionary in educational work in Egypt—loved of all; Miss A—the oldest living communicant; and the jovial Mr. M—most generous of souls; these were to act as honorary sponsors.

Within ten days the following penny postcard went out (the minister has a press and does our parish printing: The cut on the card he clipped somewhere from a church paper and had it turned into a zinc etching.):

But if a sleeping baby now lay
Within a manger filled with hay
And God’s star pointed the way,
Would I believe? Would I obey?

This is Your First Card With
Two weeks ahead of time it practices economy,
though not stinginess; the postman will be pleased,
it is mailed early.

It comes to tell you, of a Christmas Supper for the
Hundred Hungriest Children
we can find on Christmas Eve.

Every group in the Church will have some
part. You are invited to seat a guest. It will
cost fifty cents and no one person can entertain
more than ten. Send your reservations, and
come and see the children at 3:00 p.m. on December
24. If it should grow to 200 I shall not be surprised.

The difference in postage between this card
(there are 700) and a sealed envelope will be
our contribution to the party. So you understand,
and will approve.

And remember, please, that this card brings
to you and yours the sincere Christmas Greeting
of your minister and his family.

Seventh Presbyterian Church
December Eighth, A.D. 1932

The response was immediate. Dollar bills began to come in every mail. Many brought theirs on Sunday and others brought their fifty-cent pieces. Old Mintie Bates, who is cared for by the parish, brought a quarter, as did several children. Two youngsters brought their dimes.

Organization went merrily on. The acting chairman, from her chair, directed the organization. Mrs. Jones agreed to cook and serve the meal. Twenty volunteers from the Sewing Society rushed to her support. Six men offered to send turkeys. “Uncle Billy” made a bid for all the fruit. Mrs. Haney and Miss McCine volunteered to solicit the candy. Miss Kirk, a retired teacher, her hands crippled with rheumatism, asked to make the candy bags. Mr. Breton, our leading architect, directed a group of young people, who cared for the decoration. Mike Sigler, a Jewish peddler at our corner, insisted on furnishing the Christmas tree. Mrs. Shore, her sisters, her children, and her grandchildren, dressed the tree.

Christmas Eve was purposely chosen that it might be an inconvenient time for our privileged people to show their hand and heart toward the less fortunate. The Young People’s Society, who had Christmas activities of their own and were interested in home celebrations as well, insisted on washing the dishes (and incidentally, by nine o’clock that night, had the dining room and kitchen spic-and-span). The only paid help was for additional janitor service, due to the many tables and chairs and fact that Christmas Eve was on a Saturday night. Everyone gladly accepted their assigned job as if it were a Christmas privilege.

The minister felt confident that one hundred could easily be provided for. It grew to four hundred before they had finished. Two hundred names, and then two hundred more, of the neediest children in the city came to us from the welfare director at City Hall. Each child was sent a personal invitation, under a three-cent stamp. Cars were offered, although it was a busy Christmas Eve, and, under the direction of our Boy Scouts, every child was sent for, brought to the church, and later returned. This we thought a rather severe test of the congregation’s loyalty.

At three o’clock our guests arrived. Kate Douglas Wiggin is needed to describe these Ruggles! Coats were checked by Girl Reserves and all finally seated in the big parish hall. Portable movies (or rather talkies) gave a half-hour’s varied program; then came the skillful manipulation of the marionettes by Mrs. G, an adept amateur. This gave the children unbounded delight.

Promptly at four, in step to a pealing Christmas march echoing from the whole parish house through the church organ loft, the children went downstairs for dinner. Tables were spread for three hundred in the dining room. (Our minister insisted on the best china. “No paper plates,” said he. “Fear of germs? No, not at Christmas! Scald the plates, but don’t use paper.” His word is law, so the best was used.)

The Mayor carved the first turkey; a hundred plates were ready hot in the kitchen—turkey and all that goes with it. Another hundred followed in a jiffy, a third, and then part of the fourth. (The Scouts had gone out with a bus to look for the last twenty on the city streets; and the found them. Hastily washed, they came; not dressed in their best like the others, but happy.)

The tiny tables from the church kindergarten were arranged around the brilliantly-lighted tree that stood in the big gymnasium adjoining the dining room. The sliding doors between the two rooms were up and all was festive and gay. Chairman Anne, from her wheelchair, looked on, still our executive officer. “Uncle Billy” and his three assistant patrons all came to act as hosts. The young people waited on tables and for an hour music and laughter filled the rooms.

When all were fed Santa Claus appeared. From somewhere he brought a big shopping bag for each child, with the child’s name on it (the three hundred odd who had written invitations). In the bag was an apple and an orange, a pound of candy (in one of Miss Kirk’s bags), a popcorn ball, and an age-appropriate toy (furnished by the mother and father of a little maid who went away at Christmastide). The big boys had knives; the girls, most of them, dolls; and even the late-comers found filled bags—though necessarily unnamed ones.

Three children ‘phoned in that they had missed the auto, so their dinner even to ice cream, was sent them!

Everyone worked with a will; nearly four hundred of the neediest had a gay Christmas Eve and the minister’s Billy—did he know about his party? “Why not?” says our minister. “Why not?”

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