Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

Sweet Memories of Christmas

Usually by this time, most folks are exhausted from preparations for Christmas. Houses are decorated to the nines. Our kids, grand and great-grandchildren promise to stretch us to have the best Christmas annually, until it is all folded away until another year.

Yet, this COVID-19, pandemic Christmas 2020 threatens all my Christmases to come—enough said about that! But I digress…

I have tried to free my mind from the nostalgia of it all with no success. I must admit that Christmas present is forever flavored by Christmases past. Charles Dickens knew that. I find myself rejecting much of what is offered as new every year. I don’t want to be bothered by new. I need to massage my collection of Christmases past, first.

Sure, some memories are bittersweet…but I keep telling others and myself that our first Christmas without whom-so-ever is not about what we’ve lost, but how that person has enriched us.

I remember principal Miss Adair walking the halls of Franklin Elementary School, Midlothian Pike, Richmond, as she bid each us a Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year; so special, so very special…  Later both Alex and Suzanne Fleet did their practice teaching there.

Our Irvington sanctuary will glow as the flock decorates our Christmas Tree. It is an annual custom here. Too many of us throttle back our home decorating as life changes around us. The used-to-be boys and girls may look stressed; but come to the tree anyway with tears and smiles.

I remember pastor Clyde Lipscomb (1915-1992) reading the Gospel of Luke to our boys Sunday school class. And I still see the Christmas finery on his wife Rosella and ladies preparing for the pageants at Webber Memorial Baptist Church, Oak Grove. Pastor Lipscomb was the good October guy who married my dad and step-mom Rosie on the hearth in aunt Beulah’s living room. 

I remember how many good Christmases my stepmom Rosie fussed over for me. Most of all, I rejoice in the privilege of having her with us in her last years. This year, that honeymoon couple is united at their Eternal abode.

I remember the Sanctuary at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Oregon Hill, where mom and siblings went to church and school and where my parents were married. My last worship there was at my Aunt Temple Wilkinson Apperson’s memorial.

Ah, yes I can still hear Brother Roy practicing his Christmas special as I played the organ at McGuire Park Methodist Church, Broad Rock Road, just around the corner from where I now receive my VA medical care. 

I remember my real mom. She had a sparkle about her one Christmas as she and my step-dad Norman awaited the birth of my little sister Jo, born on St. Patrick’s Day and by the next Christmas was all eyes, fingers and toes. That same little bundle of joy later became mom’s caregiver. Christmas is not about how sad that is; rather how blessed. Early this fall, Sister Jo moved to her new lake cottage here at the Golden Eagle.

I well remember the Christmases at Skinquarter Church, Chesterfield, and how blessed my family was to have sat under the ministry of the late Rev. Dr. Joel Rackley. He and his wife, Betty, were not just our ministerial family—they were our brother and sister. They added their three kids to our pile of joy. Our departure from that community was intense. My dad and Rosie were there Advent 1975, to wish us (along with the congregation) Godspeed in our journey toward seminary. It was not about the long road to Louisville, it was about how fortunate we were to have responded to God’s call.

Kentucky Christmases in Louisville, and Elizabethtown (Hardin County), Tennessee, went into the family album for half a decade.

Our first Tennessee Church allowed us to be near the grand-Walker’s farm was ever so nice. Truly, those years were Courier & Ives moments. We were so fortunate to have the Dodd Family born into our hearts there.

Later we spiced the season with New England traditions. Ceremonies like the Hanging of the Greens wormed their way into my evangelical heart. Advent Wreaths were added to my Christmas lore. Big choirs, with professional singers, teased my memory’s long-playing Gene Autry records. My ear expanded to the collection. The Otis Skinner pipe organ there was for decades played by the world-renowned concert organist, E. Power Biggs (1906 England – 1977 Boston). I so enjoyed it when we had organist Ray Cornils (who served as organist at The United Parish, Brookline, during my pastorate there) concertize here. We brought the youngsters from the Boys & Girls Club, Kilmarnock, over to meet and greet Ray. He introduced the chaps to the “King of Instruments” and allowed each kid time on the bench.

A detour allowed our return to the far margins of Tennessee to await our trip east. East has long been a Holy Christmas destination. “And they (Wise Men/Three Kings), having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.” (Matthew 20:9-10).

Christmas of 1986 was my first at Goodwin Hall parsonage, and first as pastor of Irvington Church. Every year, that anniversary gains popularity with me. In that house, I celebrated my first year without my in-laws, without my step-dad, without my dad, without a wife. 

This is my 21st Christmas with my bride, sweet Hazel, and our blended, extending family. It is my 45th year as a minister, and 34th year as pastor of the Irvington Baptist Church. Son Lee is in the ministry nearby, which is ever such a blessing. Hopefully there’ll be lots of kids around our tree—safe distancing; yet another year without the presence of my daughter, Mary Ellen, and her children so long removed by life’s Tennessee detour.

Even in this disjointed 2020, I am planning to have a very Merry Christmas—and pray it to be so for you and yours. Do somehow add Church to your celebrating.