The Train

As regular readers of these columns know, I love trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on an Abilene radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

And from our family to yours, Merry Christmas!

“The Train”
As Performed by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow, a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

Suddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire.” As I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, staring at the presents, like sharks staring at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about “the best way for him to crack the walnuts” that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away, holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other… looking straight ahead and I heard her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

Training for Christmas Fun

When someone finds out that I’m a model railroad aficionado, most of the time, it brings a sort of tolerant half-smile. That changes at Christmas. Tell someone you’re into model trains at this time of year, and their eyes will invariably light up, and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s so cool!” And you’ll hear a great story about a parent or some other loved one, a long-gone Lionel or other train set, and some wonderful memories. Even people who have no interest in trains the rest of the year, become nostalgic and even wistful thinking about trains around a Christmas tree.

So I am happy to tell you about a nearby model train club, the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders, and their annual Open House, coming up this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 & 12. The layout is at 598 Westwood Drive, at the intersection of North Sixth Street and Westwood, behind the McDonald’s on North First and across from Grandy’s, in Abilene. The Open House will be Saturday, 10 am – 5 pm, and on Sunday from 1 – 5 pm. Admission is free, but donations will be accepted, and all ages are welcome.

The club layout is in HO scale (the letters are pronounced separately – “aitch-oh”), which is based on a proportion of 1:87 – in other words, one foot on the layout represents 87 feet in real life. (Yes, that’s an odd number, and there’s a story behind how it developed that I won’t bore you with right now.) The club is seeking to represent the old Texas & Pacific Railway (now Union Pacific) from Ft. Worth through Abilene and on to Big Spring – although club members are allowed to “freelance” sections to reflect their personal interests.

Club members are happy to share their layout and passion for the hobby, and they invite everyone to come out this weekend and see the trains. Besides the main club layout, they will also have smaller displays of model trains in other scales, as well as a large collection of wooden Brio trains that the little ones can play with themselves. (Why should the big kids have all the fun?)

One reason that model railroading remains a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different interests in one. It can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests. You can express your artistic self with scenery for all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be. You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on the planet Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

A scene on the Abilene Society of Model Railroader’s club layout, with a Burlington diesel in front of a realistic model of the Abilene & Southern depot.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time. Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth-running operation of the engines and cars. Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains. It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC. In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time. This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.

DCC has changed all that. Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine and give each engine a unique code number. With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine. This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. As with any hobby – fishing, quilting, golfing – how much you spend is up to you.

If you’re interested in model trains, I know my friends in the Abilene club would be happy to welcome you to their layout and share a little bit of the fun of model railroading. All aboard!

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet. I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding. And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas. Not the commercialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course. Those things, I did and do despise. But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends. Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke. Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite). Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks for the Word became flesh.

And the music. The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing. So, in celebration of the season, here are some thoughts about three of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.

O Holy Night

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France. Over the years, its popularity has risen and fallen, but it remains one of my personal favorites.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song from the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” a musical starring Judy Garland, Leon Ames, and Mary Astor, and directed by Judy Garland’s future husband, Vincente Minelli. The story deals with a prosperous attorney who is planning to move his family from St. Louis to New York – in spite of the family’s opposition. In the movie on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland sings this song to her little sister, portrayed by the very precocious Margaret O’Brien.

Originally, the song was supposed to be very bitter and sarcastic – even including the lyric, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” But Garland refused to sing such a grim line, and her opposition inspired the songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane to come up with the more optimistic, “let your heart be light.”

Hallelujah Chorus (from the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah)

“Messiah” is an English-language oratorio composed by Georg Frederic Handel in 1741. The words were compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Version of the Bible. The work was in three major parts: Part 1 deals with prophecies about the birth of Jesus taken from the book of Isaiah and other Old Testament passages, as well as a brief section from the Gospels. Part 2 deals with the Passion of the Christ and ends with the “Hallelujah” Chorus; Part 3 covers the resurrection and His glorification in heaven. Parts 1 and 2 make up the “Christmas” portion of the oratorio, and are often performed, either in part or in whole, during the holiday season.

I was first exposed to “Messiah” as a freshman in college when our choir sang the Christmas portion with a local high school orchestra. The “Hallelujah” Chorus is an amazing work, with four vocal parts singing back and forth to each other – “And He shall reign forever and ever. King of Kings! Forever and ever! and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!” – all while the orchestral strings, brass, and drums are furiously praising God with their instruments.

It’s tradition that audiences will rise to their feet during “Hallelujah.” The legend is that at the oratorio’s London debut, King James II was overcome with emotion during its performance, and sensing the Presence of God in the music, he rose to his feet, for even royalty must stand in the presence of Divinity.

It’s Christmas time. Who’s ready to sing?

Another Christmas is Here

Several years ago, the Christian band “Truth” did a parody of “Silent Night” that included the line, “Christmas is the time I hate the best!” For many people, that sentiment is too true to be funny.

Our already-busy lives become even busier during the holiday season. And it’s going to continue like that for the whole month of December, right up until the 25th. Of course, by the time Christmas Day actually, finally, mercifully, gets here, we’re so exhausted that we won’t be able to appreciate it. So Christmas becomes something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

Stop this train. I want to get off.

Nobody WANTS to hate Christmas. The truth is, most people enjoy many of the things associated with the season, but we utterly despise – and absolutely reject – the crass merchandising of the holiday, the cynicism of too-slick marketing, the packaging of warm fuzzies as if they were so many beans for sale on a store shelf somewhere.

Slow down. Nobody said it had to be this way. Every year in December, we promise ourselves, “Next year, it will be different!” And every year, we keep doing he same things and expecting different results. (You know, the definition of insanity.)

I’m not going to tell you that you have to stay home from the office Christmas party, or not exchange gifts with Cousin Freddie, or skip putting up the outdoor decorations. But I AM suggesting that we all stop and think about what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. And maybe that DOES mean, simplifying our schedules and cutting back on some things, in order to focus on better things.

Almost everyone likes SOMETHING about Christmas. The music. The food. Spending time with family or friends. So, how about we focus on doing the things we enjoy, and skip (or at least, minimize) the rest of it?

If it’s Christmas music you like, give yourself permission to spend more time listening to it. Do you like Christmas movies? Skip one of the endless parties, make some hot chocolate and popcorn, and stay in for a family evening with “White Christmas” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or even, “A Christmas Story,” if that’s your thing. (Just don’t put your eye out!)

Do you like to cook or bake? Whip up a batch of your favorite holiday snack treat – chocolate chip cookies, peppermint bark, Chex mix, whatever – and enjoy. Share some with friends. And don’t forget to take some to your neighbors.

Do you have little ones, kids or grandkids, that you can spend some time with? Find a way to make some Christmas memories for them. Think back to your own childhood: what was most special to you? Many folks remember something fun and special that their family did. So now, it’s your turn to help your young ones have some special memories of their own. But it’s not about the stuff – it’s about the time.

I’m suggesting we skip maxxing out our credit cards and over-scheduling ourselves into a holiday frenzy, and instead, slow down, think about what this season is all about, and spend some quality time with the people who matter in our lives. Share a second cup of coffee with a companion. Reach out to a friend. Don’t just forward another mindless Facebook meme about “the reason for the season.” Instead, let the Spirit of the Christ-child living in and through you be seen in how we care for others.

We can start by spending a little time in the Christmas Story as found in Luke 2. Notice that after the shepherds come for their visit, verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Treasuring up memories. Pondering them. Works for me.

God in the ‘Hood

Ask most people what Bible passages they think about in connection with Christmas, and they will often point to the well-known story of Mary & Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, from Luke 2. Some people will throw in Matthew 2, and the story of the Wise Men, and the Christmas Star, the wicked King Herod and the murder of the innocents. Those are certainly great stories, and they for sure give us the details of Jesus’ birth.

But none of those is my favorite Christmas Bible verse.

The scripture verse I like best at this time of year is John 1:14. Most translations will say something like, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory – glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” But I especially like the way that the Bible paraphrase “The Message” puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good way of expressing exactly what Jesus did when he came to earth. Here’s what I mean.

Moving into a neighborhood reflects a choice. It’s possible to accidentally pass through a given area or section of town, but you don’t MOVE IN unless you mean to do so. Moving into a neighborhood means you chose it – and you probably chose it for a reason. There may be many different reasons why someone would pick a given neighborhood, but obviously, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do some planning, some preparation, and spend some time and effort in the process.

The Bible says that God sent Jesus “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). In other words, it wasn’t some kind of last-minute, half-hearted effort. It was a deliberate choice that the Father and the Son made to enter into our humanity, to provide the example of how we ought to live and the atonement for when we could not. Jesus chose to become like us, so that we could become like him.

Every neighborhood has its own blessings – and challenges. We all recognize that there’s no such thing as a perfect neighborhood; we also know that every neighborhood has its own unique advantages. If all we do is complain about problems, we will miss the good gifts around us.

When Jesus became human, he willingly accepted the limitations of his humanity. He couldn’t be everywhere at once anymore. He accepted the frailties of a physical body. He voluntarily limited himself so that he could fully experience the human condition. But he also received the blessing of feeling wonder at the beauty and marvel that is creation, and could understand from personal experience the love of the Father for his children.

Neighborhoods invite relationships. When we live close to others, we build relationships. Not every neighbor becomes a best friend, but we understand the value of good neighbors and looking out for each other.

As a “neighbor,” Jesus has entered into our lives, and he invites us to enter into a relationship with him. Really, that’s what Christianity is – not going to church, not keeping a bunch of rules, but being in a relationship with Jesus, sharing life together. It’s not complicated.

Jesus said that one of the two most important commandments was to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated that truth by becoming a neighbor to us, and inviting us to become his neighbor and friend, both now and into eternity.

Jesus in the manger. God in the neighborhood. Merry Christmas.

The Christmas Guest

One of the greatest blessings of my life was to be the host of A.M. Sunday, a Gospel music radio show on KVRP in Haskell, Texas. I used to take requests, and every year at Christmas, I’d get requests for Grandpa Jones reading “The Christmas Guest.” The only problem was, I didn’t HAVE a copy of him doing that piece, and this was long before you could simply download the song from iTunes or pull it up on YouTube. But I DID have a version done by Reba McEntire, and I would play that. And I understood why people liked it so much, because I absolutely fell in love with it.

There have been many different versions of this story. This one was written by American poet Helen Steiner Rice, arranged by Grandpa Jones and Billy Walker. An older telling was by a French pastor and author, Ruben Saillens, and another by Leo Tolstoy.  They’re all based on the words of Jesus when He said, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

So whether you heard it back in the day on “A.M. Sunday,” or if this is your first encounter with this poem, I hope it blesses you as much as it always has me. And Merry Christmas!

THE CHRISTMAS GUEST

It happened one day near December’s end,
Two neighbors called on an old friend,
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with thousand bows of green.

And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine,
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine,
And he said, “Old friends, at dawn today
When the cock was crowing the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be.’

“So I’ve been busy with feet astir,
Strewing my shop with branches of fir.
The table is spread and the kettle is shined,
And over the rafters the holly is twined

“Now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear,
And listen closely so I will hear His step
As He nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and look on His face.”

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone,
For this was the happiest day he had known.
For long since, his family had passed away,
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest,
This Christmas would be the dearest and best.
So he listened with only joy in his heart,
And with every sound he would rise with a start.
And look for the Lord to be at his door,
Like the vision he’d had a few hours before.

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound,
But all he could see on the snow-covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn,
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn.

But Conrad was touched and he went to the door,
And he said, “Your feet must be frozen and sore.
I have some shoes in my shop for you,
And a coat that will keep you warmer, too.”

So with grateful heart the man went away,
But Conrad noticed the time of day,
And wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he’d have to wait.

When he heard a knock, he ran to the door,
But it was only a stranger once more:
A bent old lady with a shawl of black,
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back.
She asked for only a place to rest,
But that was reserved for Conrad’s Great Guest.

But her voice seemed to plead, “Don’t send me away!
Let me rest for a while on Christmas Day.”
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup,
And told her to sit at the table and sup.

But after she left, he was filled with dismay,
For he saw that the hours were slipping away.
And the Lord hadn’t come as he said he would,
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
“Please help me, and tell me where am I?”
So again he opened his friendly door,
And stood disappointed as twice before.
It was only a child who had wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.

Again, Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad,
But he knew he should make the little girl glad.
So he called her in and he wiped her tears,
And quieted all her childish fears.

Then he led her back to her home once more.
But as he entered his own darkened door,
He knew the Lord was not coming today,
For the hours of Christmas had passed away.

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray,
And he said, “Dear Lord, why did You delay?
What kept You from coming to call on me?
For I wanted so much Your face to see.”

When soft in the silence a voice he heard,
“Lift up your head, for I kept my word.
Three times my shadow crossed your floor,
And three times I came to your lowly door.

“I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet;
And I was the woman you gave something to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street.
Three times I knocked, and three times I came in,
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.
Of all the gifts, love is the best,
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest.”

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress…

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

Christmas at the Movies

I was excited when I learned that the theme for this year’s Haskell Chamber of Commerce Christmas parade was going to be “Christmas Movies.” Because I love movies. And I love Christmas! So naturally, I love Christmas movies. (By the way, the parade this year is scheduled for Saturday, December 12, leaving from the Civic Center at 6:30 pm, and following the usual route.)

Now, I don’t want to start any arguments about whether a particular film should or should not be included in the Christmas movie list – I’ll leave that up to you, gentle reader. If you want to include Die Hard or Home Alone on your list, that’s perfectly fine and entirely up to you. And with that disclaimer, in alphabetical order, here are some personal Christmas movie favorites.

A Christmas Carol (Made for TV, 1984) “Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of this story I am going to relate.” So begins my favorite version of this familiar story by Charles Dickens. It is a British-American production, released to theaters in Great Britain, and on television here. George C. Scott plays the miserly, lonely Ebenezer Scrooge, with David Warner as his faithful employee, Bob Cratchit; and Roger Rees, as the good-hearted nephew, Fred Holywell. Scott does a masterful job of making Scrooge into a believable bad guy, so that the audience is genuinely happy for him after he is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley, and the three Christmas spirits, and experiences a change of heart.

Holiday Affair (1949) This is probably the least well known of any of these films, but I just love this little movie. It stars Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time), who plays a war widow with a young son. She is already engaged to one man, but when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. Robert Mitchum is sensational in a break from his usual film noir tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) If “Holiday Affair” is one of the least-known Christmas movies, this may be one of the best known. Jimmy Stewart stars in this classic tale of an ordinary man who discovers the difference his life has made in the lives of so many others. It was the first movie he made after coming back from World War II, and he and director Frank Capra wanted it to be a good one. Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, and Gloria Grahame are just a few of the others who help make this a movie for the ages. “No man is a failure who has friends.” Attaboy, Clarence.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and an 8-year-old Natalie Wood star in this whimsical fantasy about an old gentleman who is hired to be a department store Santa; the only problem is, he thinks he is the real Kris Kringle. The scene where Santa meets a young orphan from Holland who can’t speak English, and he begins to converse with her in perfect Dutch, is wonderful, as is the movie’s climactic courtroom scene.

White Christmas (1954) This may be our family’s favorite Christmas movie. And yes, I know that it’s basically a remake of “Holiday Inn,” but I like this version better. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play war buddies who have become show business producers, when they meet a sister act featuring Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. My personal favorite moment is when Bing sings to Rosemary, “When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.” Screen veterans Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes co-star.

Finally, I realize that there are a LOT of really good – and some very popular – Christmas movies that are not on this list. I’m not saying my list contains the finest holiday movies ever made; they just happen to be my personal picks. I had to make some hard choices to cut it down to only five, so if I have omitted your favorite, I’m sorry. Polar Express. A Christmas Story. Elf. The Shop Around the Corner. Christmas in Connecticut. There are LOTS more to pick from.

If you want to read more about any of these, I’d suggest Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by the Turner Classic Movies channel. And no, they’re not paying me to say this, but it’s a great look at some terrific holiday films, and I highly recommend it for any movie fan on your Christmas gift list.

Save me some popcorn.

The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.