We are always coached to consider today and tomorrow and not dwell on the past. I endorse that to a degree; however, I am aware of the ways in which our past informs our present and our future. Now that Christmas for 2013 is over with ornaments and lights packed away until the 2014 season, I want to reflect upon the past.
After World War II, times were not good in Harlan County as the demand for coal to make the steel to supply the instruments of war declined. Additionally, it was a period of the first major push toward mechanization, and coal companies such as U.S. Steel at Lynch and International Harvester at Benham began to develop ways to mine coal with fewer men and resultant lay-offs.
In the early 1950s of the week before Christmas, the men in the Central Baptist Church in Cumberland went up on Black Mountain to cut a large evergreen tree. They wrestled it into place at the church and nailed it to boards so it could be straight and secure at the front of the sanctuary. Boxes of time-worn ornaments from the basement were brought up and after someone, usually a male, first tried to determine which lights needed to be replaced, a time consuming task because unlike today if one was burned out, none worked, the tree was decorated by the ladies of the church. In the days of church services that followed , the men who selected the tree described the hunt for the perfect tree, and they stood ten-feet tall with shoulders straight and big smiles as children and adults alike oohed and aahed.
In spite of the hardships of the time , the churches in Cumberland had choirs and congregations celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and trusted volunteers bringing children together to rehearse for Christmas plays. Bathrobes, blankets and all manner of cloth prepared Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men for their entry to the stage at the Central Baptist Church, a stage generally reserved for the pastor and a deacon. White sheets and silver tinsel were used for the angels who stood behind the major characters clothed in white sheets carefully draped and pinned so they could later be returned to the beds from which they had been taken.
I remember one such Christmas pageant when I played the Spirit of Truth: “I am the Spirit of Truth. Always, always keep me close beside you. Be truthful in words, in all you say and all you do. No gift is greater than this.”
At Central Baptist at the conclusion of the play, we all sang “Away in a Manger” as my mother, Opal Bowling, pounded out the notes on a piano that needed tuning, something I never realized at the time. Mother never liked playing as she always wanted to learn to play the fiddle, an instrument her father said produced “the Devil’s music and was unfit for a lady.” But Mother was commandeered from time to time to play for church services, and I shrank in the pews when she struck wrong notes, which, as I remember, was rather frequently.
In Sunday School classes we always did what was referred to as “drawing names.” I recall that the spending limit was 25 cents, and we wrapped the crayons, coloring books and small toys that we bought at Field’s Five and Dime in colorful paper and tied the packages with simple ribbons. We placed them under the decorated tree in the sanctuary for distribution after the children’s performance and the giving of “treats.”
The treats at the church were rather modest, but we lined up by age, eagerly looking forward to what would be in the paper sack. Adults also received treats, and my maternal grandmother, Viva Adams, was always delighted to get fresh fruits in December and she savored every bite.
Those were memories of the Central Baptist Church, but I want to tell you about two other Christmas memories of that time which are still dear to my heart. The first is a little book called Happiness for Sale by Grace Noll Crowell that my Aunt Matt, the wife of Cumberland physician Dr. D. M. Fields, bought me. I still have that volume which tells an enchanting story of a little girl with very limited resources who bought happiness for persons who were the dearest on earth to her.
The second memory was a public one. There was, however, no play, no music, no sermon at the United Mine Workers of America Union Hall at Clutts. It was a very special time for me, forever etched in my mind because Ernest Creech, a miner at Lynch, captured a scene of us waiting in line for a Christmas treat. Years later Creech’s oldest son, Tommie, a friend of my only brother, Bill, shared that image with me.
The photo is meaningful to me because it reveals a poverty we never acknowledged nor did our parents. In our home there was no whining about what many today would consider missing, toys, new clothes, sparkling decorations, elaborate feasts. For me, there was just a joy in being a kid and standing in line with a spirit of anticipation. I knew with certainty that the treat at the union hall would be a rather-large sack with Juicy Fruit gum, Hershey candy bars, easy-to-peel tangerines with that pungent smell, walnuts I could crack by squeezing two together, big red shiny apples, and luscious oranges. And that paper sack would be placed in my eager hands by a coal miner who felt the same joy that I felt as he gave me a token of his belief in me and all the children who had stood in line before me as well as all of those who followed. I hope that I and the others in that line have fulfilled that promise. And we have time yet to do more if we feel we have not done enough.
So I share that photo with you today and wish you peace as you embrace your family and those you love in the last days of 2013 even as you remember the love of those who have left this earth. Left to right: Betty Gilliam, Betty Carol Mayfield, Bobbie Gilliam, Dickey Gilliam, Marilyn Bowling, Tommie Creech, Bill Bowling, Cathy Creech, Vivian Bowling, Leonard Jenkins, Gaines Jenkins,unknown.