Bob Huber: Local Columnist
When I was a kid, warnings that I’d better-be-good around Christmas wore me out. At the time I was in the clutches of mid-youth crisis, often waking in the middle of the night thinking, “Being good just doesn’t feel right! I gotta do something … ROTTEN!
That’s when I turned to my guttersnipe friends, most of whom were diagnosed with DLD (Dangerous Levels of Distaste) and told them, “Santa Claus or no Santa Claus, we gotta find something evil to do.”
But the next day when I stopped by a friend’s house for a fun-filled happening like snowballing occupied outhouses, all I heard were vague excuses like, “I really should clean the chicken house,” or, “I promised to memorize the Old Testament today.”
Psychology hadn’t been invented yet or I might have realized my friends were simply conditioned by Santa Claus’ nagging extortion racket: “Better watch out. I’m making a list. You get my drift?”
But the stage for “doing something evil” was ever present in my hometown around Christmas, because every year churches competed for the coveted “Most Decorated Religion Award.”
The competition began one year when the Catholics put up a simple outdoor nativity scene made of cardboard. It was lighted by a red bulb, which served as the Star of Bethlehem.
Not to be outdone, Protestants followed suit. Baptists installed a religious theme made of old store mannequins and stuffed game animals. Methodists went all out and erected a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza with a cast of thousands made of papier-mâché.
Self-appointed judges were a little critical of the Baptist display, because nativity scenes, even today, don’t have mallard ducks and rainbow trout grazing around the manger, let alone a one-armed Mary with a thin black mustache. But the Methodists earned high praise for their production, which involved enough animals to fill the ark. They even had Kraft paper angels, which made the heavens flutter.
Finally over the years every church in town put up a nativity scene, and it became tradition for families to roam around on cold December nights, ooing and awing at the religious panoply.
Now enter our small but defiant band of hearty ne’er-do-wells dressed in biblical costumes made of gunny sacks and sheets. Our plan was to erect a makeshift manger on the City Park lawn next to Washington Avenue, light a few coal oil lanterns, and stand perfectly still, ignoring our scratchy beards made of upholstery stuffing.
What amazed even us was that it really worked. Folks on their rounds stopped and gaped. “They sure look real, don’t they?” some said.
That was the cue for our song leader, Virgil Bumpus, to yell, “Tah tah!” At that point we broke ranks and formed a chorus line, kicking our legs to a lively rendition of “Roll Me Over in the Clover,” which we’d learned on Cub Scout camping trips.
Children clutched their mother’s legs, and women covered their ears. Blocks away, couples looked at the sky and said, “What’s all that yelping?”
We would have continued sparking the holiday parade except for the town marshall who happened to pass by in his squad car at that moment and smashed into a fire plug. He said later, “I was taken off guard when Joseph waved at me.”
My mother later said, “You thought that was real cute, didn’t you?”
I glanced at the apple switch in her hand and replied, “Not really, but I got a feeling it’s going to be memorable.”