Sloan Column: The true meaning of Christmas
No one person has had a more profound effect on my life than my nana, the late Louise Farr.
Nana had an extraordinary affinity for birds. Her special fondness for them was particularly evident at Christmas time. She did not decorate her tree in the traditional manner, with colorful ornaments and lights, garland and tinsel. There was no star shining brightly from the top of her tree.
Nana’s Christmas tree was filled with birds, flocks of them. They weren’t real, of course, but they were seemingly on every branch. There were robins and blue jays, doves and pigeons, cardinals and wrens. Some of them even made sounds, chirping or cooing or twittering. Perched proudly at the top was a magnificent-looking bright red cardinal. Nana’s tree really was a sight to behold.
Nana also had another special tradition, one I wish to share with you now. Rather than retelling ‘Twas the Night Before Christ,” my Nana would tell a story called “The Parable of the Birds.” It is a wonderful story that captured for me (and still does) the true meaning of Christmas. For the longest time I believed it was my nana’s story. It was not until many year’s later that I discovered it was written by an author/ journalist/theologian by the name of Louis Cassels.
Cassels was born in Aiken. He worked for many years with United Press International news service. For 19 years he authored a popular column titled “Religion in America.” One of those columns was “The Parable of the Birds.” First published at Christmas in 1959, Cassels’ parable gained immediate popularity. The story appeared in newspapers and on radio broadcasts across the country. One of the most notable voices to share the story was Paul Harvey. He would retell Cassels’ meaningful tale for decades on his annual Christmas radio broadcast.
With immense gratitude to Mr. Cassels and my nana, I share with you now the story of a man, a flock of birds and the true meaning of Christmas.
“Now the man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man. He was generous to his family and upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that stuff about God becoming a man, which the churches proclaim at Christmas time. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend otherwise.
“‘I’m truly sorry to distress you,’ he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.’ He said he’d feel like a hypocrite and that he would much rather just stay at home. And so he stayed, and they went to the midnight service.
“Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier. Then he went back to his fireside chair to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound. Then another and another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must have been throwing snowballs against his living room window.
“But when he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.
“Quickly he put on a coat and galoshes and then he tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs and sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit, wide-open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the breadcrumbs and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.
“He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them and waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me — that I am not trying to hurt them but to help them. But how?
Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed, because they feared him.
“‘If only I could be a bird,’ he thought to himself, ‘and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see and hear and understand.’
“At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
“‘Now I understand,’ he whispered. ‘Now I see why you had to do it.’”
Emmanuel – God with us.