The Old Man's Hat

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
A Christmas remembered.

Submitted: December 22, 2012

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Submitted: December 22, 2012

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Christmas is coming, the Christmas goose is fat
Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat
Christmas is coming, the Christmas goose is fat
Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat
If you haven’t got a penny a ha’ penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you

So go the words of the old English Christmas Carol. We sing this carol and others like it every Christmas as we gather with family and friends around the family piano. The warmth from the fire as well as the turkey and mince pie we overindulged in calls us to an early slumber as we sink into the overstuffed sofa; loosening our belts a notch before we surrender completely to our late afternoon food coma. But do we even know what the songs we sing are trying to teach us? And if we did would it change our post dinner dreams even a little? Listen to the words again: “If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you.” Do you see it now? That’s right; it’s a Christmas song sung by a beggar on the street. No Currier & Ives picture here, no winter wonderlands or jingling all the way; just the poor and poorer. Although you may not realize it, they are mentioned in almost every Christmas song and are major players in almost every Christmas story. From Tolstoy’s poor shoemaker in “Where Love Is, God Is” to “The Little Match Girl”, From O Henry’s poor young couple in “The Gift of the Magi” to Charles Dickens’s Cratchett family in “A Christmas Carol”, they are everywhere and in every age. And how they are treated by the other characters around them ushers in enlightened blessings or spiritual darkness. However, the Christmas poor are not just literary characters. They are your friends and neighbors, the woman you just passed on the sidewalk or the man sitting next to you in church. They are people you probably haven’t even suspected; people that are one withheld kindness away from spending their Christmas huddled in their car or sharing their Christmas dinner with strangers in a city shelter. And they are all of them holy reflections of the original homeless family.

I was once such a character but without their honor and humility. “God bless us, everyone” was Tiny Tim Cratchet’s Christmas wish. As a child of poverty, I cast nowhere near as holy a reflection. I felt only emptiness as each Christmas came and went. Presents were a luxury for other families and the traditional “cookie for Santa”? In our house it wouldn’t have lasted an hour, never mind until “the children were nestled all snug in their beds”. Christmas dinner was a bowl of oatmeal and in a good year there was brown sugar and raisons. Under the tree was empty except for a few “presents” that consisted of neatly wrapped used pads, pens and pencils my mother “borrowed” from her part-time job. But then there was always the used and sometimes broken toy from the Salvation Army to look forward to. For me, every Christmas was the same; measured by unrealized dreams and unfulfilled wishes. There was no joy, only sorrow and only for myself. That is until that one Christmas…that special Christmas. That was the Christmas a dedicated and enthusiastic young Sunday school teacher told us the Christmas story in a way I had never heard before and this time I listened. I heard the story of a man who couldn’t even provide a roof for his family on Christmas, never mind presents. His young and very pregnant bride ended up delivering her baby in an animal stall and spent her

Christmas lying in manure-laden straw because she was too exhausted to move as her baby slept in the animal’s food trough. They had no home, no friends, no food and no presents. Only a last minute kindness gave them a shelter that most of us would have received with a “thanks but no thanks.” Then in the midst of all this lack, all this filth and all this poverty, they thanked God and praised Him.

I had heard the “Christmas Story” many times before. As I daydreamed my way through years of Sunday school I remember hearing about the census, no room at the inn, the star and the “Fear not” angel. But I never heard it like this before. As that young Sunday school teacher painted this new and surprising picture of the first Christmas, a picture I had never seen before, the squalor and the rawness of the scene hit me like a freight train. He explained to us that Mary and Joseph were homeless like the beggars I passed when I visited the city, sitting in doorways, clutching their meager possessions with a sad hollowness in their eyes. I had never thought of Joseph and Mary as homeless before. They seemed pretty clean and happy in all the pictures.  Our teacher reminded us that pregnant women today give birth in a nice sterile hospital, in a comfortable bed, surrounded by trained doctors and nurses with medication to ease the pain. Mary had herself and a filthy animal stall. Jewish laws of cleanliness even kept Joseph outside the stall. She was completely alone. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?

Then there was that smelly animal stall. As he described that squalid little birthing room in Bethlehem I remembered a visit I took to my uncle’s farm one time. When I walked into the barn I could barely breathe from the stench coming from the animals and their excrement. Yet, this was the kind of place that became Mary’s delivery room and Jesus’ nursery. Then in the midst of all this, they got visitors. Not just any visitors but the roughest, most ill-kempt and lowest members of society…the shepherds. But they didn’t come to mock, gawk or rob the young couple. They came to worship their baby. “And what about the wise men?” he asked. “Tradition says there were three noble and rich kings. However, the bible does not say they were kings and the number that traveled is unknown. The important thing to remember is that whoever they were and however many there were, they were willing to travel for days and possibly even months to get to a dirty little ghetto of a town so that they could lay three priceless gifts at the feet of a child born to a penniless carpenter and his wife.” Then he finished with a thought I had never considered. “Even though the wise men and their entourage were a sight that few in Bethlehem had ever seen before and the entire court of King Herod’s palace was aware of the intention of these ‘wise men’; not a single soul followed them to the stable.”
That was the story I heard that Christmas. Then as the young teacher was finishing, he seemed to look right at me when he said, “There’s still room in the stable for another kneeling shepherd or a wise man that would be willing to make the journey.” And I believed him. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t exactly go running into the arms of God. That came much later. But it did change me from an angry, selfish kid who felt sorry for himself to an excited child who looked forward to Christmas with an unexplainable joy that had little to do with what was under the tree. You see, Jesus became my friend that year. The Lord and Savior part were years away. But I really liked Jesus. I couldn’t read enough about Him or about people whose lives were changed because of Him and


Christmas was the “Holy Grail” of those stories. I read every one over and over; saw every movie and special and read every book. I even read stories from magazines like “Good Housekeeping” and “Redbook”. If it was about Christmas, I read it. To my family I became “Mr. Christmas!” I couldn’t wait for it to come. I begged my mother to let me decorate the house and when she finally relented I immediately started bugging her about the tree. I still remember one Christmas when in exasperation she said, “You want a tree, go get one!” With my older sister (who could drive) sufficiently bribed (her chores for a week) we set off in search of the perfect tree. When I finally selected one (refusing all help from my sisters), with great pride I brought my prize home. I was in that moment the proudest boy in the world. I couldn’t wait to put it up. After an hour of getting it to stand straight and spinning it left and then right it stood there in all its glory ready to take its place in history as the most pitiful Christmas trees that anyone ever spent money on. It had missing branches that created a hole you could drive a truck through. And the needles that were abandoning the tree like rats on a sinking ship began falling off before we even got it home. But I loved it. As the years went by more presents appeared under the tree (although most of them were from places like Finger Hut). My mother was determined every time Christmas came calling that there would never again be a Christmas tree in her house without presents. Her philosophy became: they may not be good, they may not last for long and they might be cheap; but by golly there were going to be a lot of them. But none of that mattered to me; not the presents or the “perfect” tree. All that mattered was that Christmas was coming. The lights everywhere, the smiles on people’s faces, the Christmas specials on TV and decorating our tree with all our families memories; that’s what mattered and most important: Jesus was coming again!

One year my mother took a ceramics class and made a manger scene. It was so wonderful. The figures were about 8” tall and painted beautifully. The wise men even had jewels on their robes and rings. There was Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, of course. There were three kings (two kneeling) and their three camels. There were three shepherds (one with a removable staff) and a kneeling shepherd boy with a basket of fruit. And there was a donkey, three sheep and a cow. I was completely mesmerized by them. My mother would set it up every year on the first Sunday of Advent and I would spend every day until Christmas fiddling with it. I would sit there rearranging them every day…a sheep over there, a camel over here; turn the shepherd slightly to the left and the wise man a little to the right. Night after night I would sit there directing my little band of motionless actors until my mother practically had to drag me to bed. (When I became a responsible married man with a child she gave it to me. It was then and still is the best Christmas present I ever received.)

When Christmas Eve arrived it was time for “The Ritual”. Although my mother tried to do the whole "cookie for Santa" thing and some years even leave carrots for the reindeer; for me that wasn't what drew my imagination. For me Christmas had become much more. What filled me with joy now wasn't a sleigh full of toys but a star full of wonder, not elves but shepherds, not the North Pole but Bethlehem and not "Up on the rooftop with Old St. Nick" but "Away in the Manger" with the holiest of families. I put a candle in the window for Joseph and Mary (letting them know we had room for them), some dried grass or hay (when I could find it) on the steps for their donkey and a rolled up fresh


blanket by the door for the Baby Jesus. When I became a teenager, I added something a bit more personal to my Christmas Eve ritual. At midnight on the dot I would sneak out of the house to talk to Jesus. First, I would wish Him a happy birthday (the first few years I even sang to Him). Next I would tell Him how sorry I was for all the things I did wrong and I would ask Him to forgive me. I would promise to try harder and then we would just talk. I’d talk about the sadness of not having a father, about how kids made fun of me in school because my second-hand clothes never seemed to fit, about my fears, about my hopes and dreams…everything. I could say things to Him I never told anyone. He really was my best friend. Looking back it’s hard to believe it took me so long to surrender my heart to Him. But He knew I loved Him. I think I loved Him because He knew what it was like to be poor and even though He didn’t have very much; He gave everything He had to others in need. I wanted to be just like Him. I also loved Him because I knew He loved children. I loved that story about Jesus and the children. Everyone was scolding the parents and telling them to keep their kids away from Jesus because He had more important things to do than deal with a bunch a kids. But Jesus said, “Hey, what are you doing? Don’t ever keep these children from me. I love playing with them. Besides, these “bothersome children” as you call them, they’re going to heaven. And if you want to go to heaven maybe you should spend a little time playing with them, too; because heaven is going to be full of children like these.” He didn’t just love children, He thought they were important and special and I loved Him for it.

All this was set in motion because of a simple story told to me in Sunday school. Yes, that was a pretty special Christmas. What I learned that Christmas stayed with me through a lot of tough years. The Christmas I was all alone in an unheated apartment because I couldn’t afford to buy oil, He was there. The years I worked Christmas day because I needed the money so bad, we still had our Christmas Eve chats to get me through. And the year my life came crashing down around me and I got the satanically inspired idea that the world would be better off without me, He helped me to see the cradle of rough sawn wood and straw and to smell the stench of animal dung and so remember everything He did for me: He left the comfort and glory of heaven to come to this diseased earth. He endured cold, pain, poverty, ridicule, torture and death. And He did all of this because He loved me. He reminded me that I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have to climb my mountains by myself. Then there was the year I gave my heart to Him. My Christmas Eve friend became Lord of my life and Savior of my soul. My love for Him all those years was nothing I suddenly came to realize compared to His love for me.

We still have our Christmas Eve chats. But those chats are now less of me complaining and more of me thanking and worshiping Him for His love. It was that love that caused the King of the Universe to leave His throne and come to earth as a helpless baby born in poverty, raised in humility and despised and humiliated in death; for the single purpose of leading us all back to the Father. It was that love that caused a young Sunday school teacher to go out of his way to tell an incredible story to a young boy who was poor in both body and spirit and change his life forever. And it is because of that love and that young teacher I never overlook an opportunity to share that love with someone who is also poor of body or spirit. It’s for them He came. It’s for them He died. And it’s for them He lives again! The poor and the destitute are God’s “part-time angels” here to remind


us: “to whom much is given…much is required.” And all of us who have the eyes to see the Son and the heart to worship Him have been given much. So, as you reach into your pocket this Christmas and put what you find there into the dirty palm of one of these Christmas Angels, look deep into their eyes. You may see Jesus looking back at you.

If you haven’t got a penny a ha’ penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you

So go the words of the old English Christmas Carol. We sing this carol and others like it every Christmas as we gather with family and friends around the family piano. The warmth from the fire as well as the turkey and mince pie we overindulged in calls us to an early slumber as we sink into the overstuffed sofa; loosening our belts a notch before we surrender completely to our late afternoon food coma. But do we even know what the songs we sing are trying to teach us? And if we did would it change our post dinner dreams even a little? Listen to the words again: “If you haven’t got a ha’ penny then God bless you.” Do you see it now? That’s right; it’s a Christmas song sung by a beggar on the street. No Currier & Ives picture here, no winter wonderlands or jingling all the way; just the poor and poorer. Although you may not realize it, they are mentioned in almost every Christmas song and are major players in almost every Christmas story. From Tolstoy’s poor shoemaker in “Where Love Is, God Is” to “The Little Match Girl”, From O Henry’s poor young couple in “The Gift of the Magi” to Charles Dickens’s Cratchett family in “A Christmas Carol”, they are everywhere and in every age. And how they are treated by the other characters around them ushers in enlightened blessings or spiritual darkness. However, the Christmas poor are not just literary characters. They are your friends and neighbors, the woman you just passed on the sidewalk or the man sitting next to you in church. They are people you probably haven’t even suspected; people that are one withheld kindness away from spending their Christmas huddled in their car or sharing their Christmas dinner with strangers in a city shelter. And they are all of them holy reflections of the original homeless family.

I was once such a character but without their honor and humility. “God bless us, everyone” was Tiny Tim Cratchet’s Christmas wish. As a child of poverty, I cast nowhere near as holy a reflection. I felt only emptiness as each Christmas came and went. Presents were a luxury for other families and the traditional “cookie for Santa”? In our house it wouldn’t have lasted an hour, never mind until “the children were nestled all snug in their beds”. Christmas dinner was a bowl of oatmeal and in a good year there was brown sugar and raisons. Under the tree was empty except for a few “presents” that consisted of neatly wrapped used pads, pens and pencils my mother “borrowed” from her part-time job. But then there was always the used and sometimes broken toy from the Salvation Army to look forward to. For me, every Christmas was the same; measured by unrealized dreams and unfulfilled wishes. There was no joy, only sorrow and only for myself. That is until that one Christmas…that special Christmas. That was the Christmas a dedicated and enthusiastic young Sunday school teacher told us the Christmas story in a way I had never heard before and this time I listened. I heard the story of a man who couldn’t even provide a roof for his family on Christmas, never mind presents. His young and very pregnant bride ended up delivering her baby in an animal stall and spent her

 

Christmas lying in manure-laden straw because she was too exhausted to move as her baby slept in the animal’s food trough. They had no home, no friends, no food and no presents. Only a last minute kindness gave them a shelter that most of us would have received with a “thanks but no thanks.” Then in the midst of all this lack, all this filth and all this poverty, they thanked God and praised Him.

I had heard the “Christmas Story” many times before. As I daydreamed my way through years of Sunday school I remember hearing about the census, no room at the inn, the star and the “Fear not” angel. But I never heard it like this before. As that young Sunday school teacher painted this new and surprising picture of the first Christmas, a picture I had never seen before, the squalor and the rawness of the scene hit me like a freight train. He explained to us that Mary and Joseph were homeless like the beggars I passed when I visited the city, sitting in doorways, clutching their meager possessions with a sad hollowness in their eyes. I had never thought of Joseph and Mary as homeless before. They seemed pretty clean and happy in all the pictures.  Our teacher reminded us that pregnant women today give birth in a nice sterile hospital, in a comfortable bed, surrounded by trained doctors and nurses with medication to ease the pain. Mary had herself and a filthy animal stall. Jewish laws of cleanliness even kept Joseph outside the stall. She was completely alone. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?

Then there was that smelly animal stall. As he described that squalid little birthing room in Bethlehem I remembered a visit I took to my uncle’s farm one time. When I walked into the barn I could barely breathe from the stench coming from the animals and their excrement. Yet, this was the kind of place that became Mary’s delivery room and Jesus’ nursery. Then in the midst of all this, they got visitors. Not just any visitors but the roughest, most ill-kempt and lowest members of society…the shepherds. But they didn’t come to mock, gawk or rob the young couple. They came to worship their baby. “And what about the wise men?” he asked. “Tradition says there were three noble and rich kings. However, the bible does not say they were kings and the number that traveled is unknown. The important thing to remember is that whoever they were and however many there were, they were willing to travel for days and possibly even months to get to a dirty little ghetto of a town so that they could lay three priceless gifts at the feet of a child born to a penniless carpenter and his wife.” Then he finished with a thought I had never considered. “Even though the wise men and their entourage were a sight that few in Bethlehem had ever seen before and the entire court of King Herod’s palace was aware of the intention of these ‘wise men’; not a single soul followed them to the stable.”

That was the story I heard that Christmas. Then as the young teacher was finishing, he seemed to look right at me when he said, “There’s still room in the stable for another kneeling shepherd or a wise man that would be willing to make the journey.” And I believed him. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t exactly go running into the arms of God. That came much later. But it did change me from an angry, selfish kid who felt sorry for himself to an excited child who looked forward to Christmas with an unexplainable joy that had little to do with what was under the tree. You see, Jesus became my friend that year. The Lord and Savior part were years away. But I really liked Jesus. I couldn’t read enough about Him or about people whose lives were changed because of Him and

 

 

Christmas was the “Holy Grail” of those stories. I read every one over and over; saw every movie and special and read every book. I even read stories from magazines like “Good Housekeeping” and “Redbook”. If it was about Christmas, I read it. To my family I became “Mr. Christmas!” I couldn’t wait for it to come. I begged my mother to let me decorate the house and when she finally relented I immediately started bugging her about the tree. I still remember one Christmas when in exasperation she said, “You want a tree, go get one!” With my older sister (who could drive) sufficiently bribed (her chores for a week) we set off in search of the perfect tree. When I finally selected one (refusing all help from my sisters), with great pride I brought my prize home. I was in that moment the proudest boy in the world. I couldn’t wait to put it up. After an hour of getting it to stand straight and spinning it left and then right it stood there in all its glory ready to take its place in history as the most pitiful Christmas trees that anyone ever spent money on. It had missing branches that created a hole you could drive a truck through. And the needles that were abandoning the tree like rats on a sinking ship began falling off before we even got it home. But I loved it. As the years went by more presents appeared under the tree (although most of them were from places like Finger Hut). My mother was determined every time Christmas came calling that there would never again be a Christmas tree in her house without presents. Her philosophy became: they may not be good, they may not last for long and they might be cheap; but by golly there were going to be a lot of them. But none of that mattered to me; not the presents or the “perfect” tree. All that mattered was that Christmas was coming. The lights everywhere, the smiles on people’s faces, the Christmas specials on TV and decorating our tree with all our families memories; that’s what mattered and most important: Jesus was coming again!

One year my mother took a ceramics class and made a manger scene. It was so wonderful. The figures were about 8” tall and painted beautifully. The wise men even had jewels on their robes and rings. There was Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, of course. There were three kings (two kneeling) and their three camels. There were three shepherds (one with a removable staff) and a kneeling shepherd boy with a basket of fruit. And there was a donkey, three sheep and a cow. I was completely mesmerized by them. My mother would set it up every year on the first Sunday of Advent and I would spend every day until Christmas fiddling with it. I would sit there rearranging them every day…a sheep over there, a camel over here; turn the shepherd slightly to the left and the wise man a little to the right. Night after night I would sit there directing my little band of motionless actors until my mother practically had to drag me to bed. (When I became a responsible married man with a child she gave it to me. It was then and still is the best Christmas present I ever received.)

When Christmas Eve arrived it was time for “The Ritual”. Although my mother tried to do the whole "cookie for Santa" thing and some years even leave carrots for the reindeer; for me that wasn't what drew my imagination. For me Christmas had become much more. What filled me with joy now wasn't a sleigh full of toys but a star full of wonder, not elves but shepherds, not the North Pole but Bethlehem and not "Up on the rooftop with Old St. Nick" but "Away in the Manger" with the holiest of families. I put a candle in the window for Joseph and Mary (letting them know we had room for them), some dried grass or hay (when I could find it) on the steps for their donkey and a rolled up fresh

 

 

blanket by the door for the Baby Jesus. When I became a teenager, I added something a bit more personal to my Christmas Eve ritual. At midnight on the dot I would sneak out of the house to talk to Jesus. First, I would wish Him a happy birthday (the first few years I even sang to Him). Next I would tell Him how sorry I was for all the things I did wrong and I would ask Him to forgive me. I would promise to try harder and then we would just talk. I’d talk about the sadness of not having a father, about how kids made fun of me in school because my second-hand clothes never seemed to fit, about my fears, about my hopes and dreams…everything. I could say things to Him I never told anyone. He really was my best friend. Looking back it’s hard to believe it took me so long to surrender my heart to Him. But He knew I loved Him. I think I loved Him because He knew what it was like to be poor and even though He didn’t have very much; He gave everything He had to others in need. I wanted to be just like Him. I also loved Him because I knew He loved children. I loved that story about Jesus and the children. Everyone was scolding the parents and telling them to keep their kids away from Jesus because He had more important things to do than deal with a bunch a kids. But Jesus said, “Hey, what are you doing? Don’t ever keep these children from me. I love playing with them. Besides, these “bothersome children” as you call them, they’re going to heaven. And if you want to go to heaven maybe you should spend a little time playing with them, too; because heaven is going to be full of children like these.” He didn’t just love children, He thought they were important and special and I loved Him for it.

All this was set in motion because of a simple story told to me in Sunday school. Yes, that was a pretty special Christmas. What I learned that Christmas stayed with me through a lot of tough years. The Christmas I was all alone in an unheated apartment because I couldn’t afford to buy oil, He was there. The years I worked Christmas day because I needed the money so bad, we still had our Christmas Eve chats to get me through. And the year my life came crashing down around me and I got the satanically inspired idea that the world would be better off without me, He helped me to see the cradle of rough sawn wood and straw and to smell the stench of animal dung and so remember everything He did for me: He left the comfort and glory of heaven to come to this diseased earth. He endured cold, pain, poverty, ridicule, torture and death. And He did all of this because He loved me. He reminded me that I wasn’t alone and I didn’t have to climb my mountains by myself. Then there was the year I gave my heart to Him. My Christmas Eve friend became Lord of my life and Savior of my soul. My love for Him all those years was nothing I suddenly came to realize compared to His love for me.

We still have our Christmas Eve chats. But those chats are now less of me complaining and more of me thanking and worshiping Him for His love. It was that love that caused the King of the Universe to leave His throne and come to earth as a helpless baby born in poverty, raised in humility and despised and humiliated in death; for the single purpose of leading us all back to the Father. It was that love that caused a young Sunday school teacher to go out of his way to tell an incredible story to a young boy who was poor in both body and spirit and change his life forever. And it is because of that love and that young teacher I never overlook an opportunity to share that love with someone who is also poor of body or spirit. It’s for them He came. It’s for them He died. And it’s for them He lives again! The poor and the destitute are God’s “part-time angels” here to remind

 

 

us: “to whom much is given…much is required.” And all of us who have the eyes to see the Son and the heart to worship Him have been given much. So, as you reach into your pocket this Christmas and put what you find there into the dirty palm of one of these Christmas Angels, look deep into their eyes. You may see Jesus looking back at you.


© Copyright 2019 Glenn Washburn. All rights reserved.

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