Early Settlers of
Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements
Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life
By: Ethelene Dyer Jones
Christmas at poet Byron Herbert Reece’s house
Byron Herbert Reece composed several poems about Christmas. I have taken writer’s license in this story to imagine how he might have written the poems during a week of snow leading up to Christmas as World War II raged in 1942. He still had regrets that he was rejected for service at his physical examination because of a nervous tic in his face. Having lived in the same community as Poet Reece, growing up on a neighboring farm near his family, knowing how we all lived during the wintertime, and having heard him speak as a lay preacher at Salem Church, it was not hard for me to imagine this story:
It was a week before Christmas. Hub Reece, as his family, friends and neighbors knew him, went on his regular rounds feeding and caring for the farm animals, milking the cows and making sure all the animals were comfortable in the barn alongside Wolf Creek.
Returning to the house that cold winter morning, he noted how the clouds formed over nearby Blood Mountain. Snow is in store, he thought, and soon Choestoe Valley and these mountains will be a fantasy-land of white. Already, ice crystals were forming along the edge of Wolf Creek as the water flowed over time-worn stones. He heard the melody made by water on rocks, its rhythms beating out iambic lines that played on the chords of his imagination.
The odor of bacon, eggs and hot biscuits met him as he opened the kitchen door. His mother, Emma Lance Reece, took the pail of milk. Hub quickly washed up and the family sat down to a hearty early morning meal. Hub and his father Juan discussed the weather, both noting the signs of impending snow.
“I’ve shored up the animals,” Hub told Juan. “And there’s enough wood on the front porch for both the fireplace and the kitchen stove to get us through several weeks of bad weather.”
“And enough food in the cellar and preserved, even for Christmas,” said Emma. We can use the cured ham for our Christmas dinner, and I will make a stack cake from the dried apples.”
“Don’t forget the peanut brittle and the candy canes we enjoy making from sorghum syrup,” said Eva Mae, Hub’s sister, a teacher at Pine Top School. “I’ll make these Christmas treats,” she said.
With all the crops gathered in and the animals sheltered in their stalls, Hub Reece had a luxury on his hands seldom known to this farmer-poet. Time. Time to write poems that edged his imagination as poignantly as if the Muse were there in person dictating what he should write. “Excuse me,” Hub said. “feel strangely moved on this cold day to go up to my attic room and write. I will sit by the chimney where I will be warm from the fireplace below.”
“Hub,” his mother addressed him. “What about Christmas at church” You know if a big snow comes, our pastor may not be able to travel the roads from Blairsville to Salem Church for the Christmas service. Since you’ve been made a lay preacher, you may have to substitute. Do you have something in mind, if this happens?”
“Mother, you’re always thinking up ways for me to preach!” Hub teased Emma.
“Don’t worry, Mother. We’ll have Christmas at Salem Church one way or the other.”
Comfortably settled in his attic room, Hub began thinking about Christmas and its deep meaning. How could he get its truths into simple and meaningful lyrics? Taking his pad and pencil in hand, he began to write: “When I think of Christmas time/It’s not of candlestick nor chime, It’s not of bells nor mistletoe/ It’s of a Babe born long ago.” The lines almost wrote themselves, coming in steady cadence until ten stanzas were on the page. He read what he had written. How could he improve its message, rhythm, rhyme? The poem covered Christ’s life from birth to death in a simple but profound poem. The last stanza was a plea for the present age to keep Christmas with reverence and honor: “Therefore let My Birthday be/A time of joyful jubilee/With the Host hosannas sing;/I am born anew to be thy King/On Christmas day,/On Christmas day,/On Christmas day in the morning.” [When I Think of Christmas Time was later published in A Song of Joy and Other Poems, p. 112-113].
He was in an extremely creative mood. He thought of the newborn lambs in their own barn. His mother wanted them to raise a few sheep so she could process the wool and use it to knit socks, sweaters and scarves for the family. He wrote: “Since Christ was a lamb O/A lamb O,/A lamb O, Since Christ was a lamb O,/Blessed are the sheep.”
The four stanzas pictured Christ as a baby lamb, a child, a man, the Savior. When he read his penciled lines, he felt a sense of accomplishment. Could he sing this poem if the occasion arose? Maybe so. [Since Christ Was a Lamb O was published in Songs of Joy and Other Poems, p. 114-115.]
Just as quickly, Hub penned five more Christmas poems: As Mary Was Awalking, The Gifting, In Palestine, It Fell Upon a Winter’s Morn, and The Little Blind Boy of Bethlehem. The words flowed in story-poems of the Advent, giving aspects of the nearly unfathomable truths of Emmanuel, God-with-us. [These poems were published in The Season of Flesh, p. 59-65.]
“Byron Herbert Reece!” he heard from below. When his mother used his full name, she meant that he listen and heed. “Your dinner is ready. Come down and eat it before it gets cold.” Dinner for the Reece family, as for most country families, was the noon meal. He took his journal with him and over the hot meal shared what he had written that morning.
While Hub had been writing away the morning in his attic room, snow had come slowly. The mowed hayfield was a white expanse of beauty alongside Wolf Creek and the trees had been turned into a winter wonderland of Christmas loveliness. Eva Mae had dismissed school early at Pine Top School, urging her students (all who walked to school) to hurry home before the snow got too deep. She had made it home safely in her old car before the roads got too filled with snow.
On Christmas Eve Hub hitched the mules to the family wagon. It would be a better vehicle than Eva Mae’s car to take them the two miles to Salem Church. Emma had prepared bags containing gingerbread men she had made, using sorghum syrup for sweetening instead of rationed sugar. She had also put into each bag an apple preserved from their fall harvest and stored in their apple barrel for Christmas enjoyment. These would be little gifts for the community children who came to the Christmas Eve service. Eva Mae loaded the small Christmas tree she had used at Pine Top School, already decorated with strings of popcorn and ornaments made by the children.
As the mules drew the wagon on toward Salem Church, the lines of one of his poems pounded at the edge of Reece’s mind and he quoted it almost in rhythm to the wagon wheels on the snow: “When the land is white with snow.../And always the wind comes on to blow.../Turn to peace, remembering/That the twice divided year/Is quartered toward the spring. [Published in The Season of Flesh, p. 56.]
Surely enough, as Emma had predicted, the roads were too bad for the pastor to travel from Blairsville to Salem. Soon Juan had a good fire going in the potbellied stove that heated the white-frame church building. Eva Lou placed the tree on a table near the altar, and Emma’s goodie bags were arranged underneath the tree. People began arriving, stamping the snow from their shoes on the steps leading up to the church house door. Hub Reece read the Christmas account from Matthew and Luke. And as his own offering to the Christ Child, he read the poems he had composed the week before as he took out time from his farm chores made possible by the inclement weather. He made up a tune to Since Christ Was a Lamb O and sang it. That was followed by congregational singing of Away in the Manger, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Angels from the Realms of Glory, the words and tunes familiar to all.
After the gifts were distributed and a prayer for the blessings of Christmas led by the lay preacher, Byron Herbert Reece, the congregation was dismissed. Some lingered to talk about the war, the weather, how they had been blessed with good crops that year.
Juan and Hub banked the fire and closed up the stove. Eva Mae took her Christmas tree, and they quickly looked about to make sure the church house was neat before closing the door.
On the way back
to the Reece home on
Hub Reece had his own thoughts. Why was he blessed with the gift of words?
Coming from some deep well of inspiration and understanding, he was composing in his mind another poem, one that declared his life’s ambition. He would write the words down as soon as he was warm in his attic room at home: “Unto a speechless kingdom I/Have pledged my tongue,/I have given my word/To make the centuries-silent sky/As vocal as a bird.../And I being pledged to fashion speech/For all the speechless joy to find/The wonderful words that each to each/They utter in my mind.” [The Speechless Kingdom, published in Bow Down in Jericho, p. 114]
[Note from author: Thank you, Sentinel readers, for following my column throughout 2005. I have brought each article to you with joy and thanksgiving. God bless you and yours at Christmas. —Ethelene Dyer Jones]
Dyer Jones is a retired educator, freelance writer, poet, and
historian. She may be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; phone
478-453-8751; or mail 1708 Cedarwood Road, Milledgeville, GA