Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Reece Caught the Essence of Christmas with Certain Poems

December. We celebrate Christmas. The air is full of Christmas carols coming from every store, television set and radio, from church choirs and ordinary people caught up in the spirit of the season. Some of the carols are sacred, some secular. Every year some new ones make the rounds, but if your preferences are as mine, you still prefer hearing the old ones, like the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by American pastor and poet, the Rev. Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), with music by Lewis H. Redner. Or choose the much older “Silent Night” written by Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) with music first composed by guitarist Franz Gruber (1787-1863) because the church organ was broken. How thrilling is the true story of how World War I was stopped on a Christmas Eve as German and allied soldiers, all caught up in the spirit of the season, stopped their fighting long enough to sing together on the battlefield that inimitable carol, “Silent Night.”

But I want to write about some Christmas poems written by our Union County poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958). Some of them have been sung by autoharp artists but I am not sure the music for them has ever been published. If so, I am not aware of where the music or recordings of the Christmas poems-set-to-music might be secured. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of same, please let me know.

For this brief period, to honor “our” poet, let’s imagine we are listening as he sits near the chimney for warmth in his attic room in the small Reece farmhouse nestled along Wolf Creek in Choestoe. Wanting to pay tribute to the meaning of Christmas and the Christ Child whose birthday he and his family celebrated at nearby Salem Methodist Church, he wrote several Christmas poems. The first ones published in his books of poems appeared in his second volume, Bow Down in Jericho released by E. P. Dutton, Publishers, New York, in 1950. In this volume we read “Mary,” (p. 39), “The Shepherds in Search of the Lamb of God,” (p. 40-41), “The Adoration,” (p. 41-42), “Christ Jesus Had Three Gifts from Men,” (p. 43-44) and “The Pilgrim and the Fir Tree,” (p. 44-45) based on an old legend of the fir tree going to Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth.

“Mary,” of course, tells of the annunciation to young Mary of Nazareth that she was to be the mother of the Son of God. “She had no thought to be a bride/Of angel or of man.” Unsuspecting and surprised, Mary took the angel’s announcement to heart and willingly accepted her role as the Mother of Jesus Christ. And until his birth should occur in Bethlehem, “In Nazareth dwelt Mary mild, /She carded and she spun;/On Christmas Day she bore the child/Of God, His Holy Son.”

“The Shepherds in Search of the Lamb of God,” is a dialogue poem, with shepherds asking questions as they pursue their quest (after the angels’ announcement) to find the newborn Babe in Bethlehem. This poem could well be memorized and acted out by a group of men or boys dressed as shepherds, or, with the right music, would make another shepherd song. It ends with finding the baby and awe from the shepherds: “See, the cattle stand and nod/Close by the Lady’s feet.”/“Look, the little Lamb of God/Cradled where oxen eat! “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

“The Adoration” might seem by the title to be a poem about shepherds or wise men, both groups of whom were found adoring the Christ Child at or near the time of His birth. But Reece makes the main character of this poem a present-day little girl who thought about how she might adore the Christ child and bring him gifts. First, she wished to offer him a dress; next a girdle, followed by a little shoe and a shining coin. But finally she thinks it best to offer her heart, which can be a House where He can come to live. With this progression of gifts, Reece hits upon the essence of human giving to Christ, for He desires the heart of persons above all: “If my heart were a house also,/A house also with room to spare/I never would suffer my Lord to go/Homeless, but house Him there, O there,’/Homeless, but house Him there!”

“Christ Jesus Had Three Gifts from Men,” is the poetic story of the Magi from the East who came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Reece’s lyrical rendering of the gifts he names them gold, an odor sweet, and a rare perfume, and interfused with the three gifts is the gift of grace, which of course is the intended gift Christ came to give. This is foreseen in the poem in the last stanza: “Then, ‘Wise Men, grace abide with thee,’/All in the stable where He lay,/’Redemption shall my one gift be/At Bethlehem on Christmas Day,/On Christmas Day in the Morning.”

When A Song of Joy and Other Poems came out in 1952, two more of Reece’s Christmas poems were published. “When I Think of Christmas Time” is a ten-stanza lyric beginning with Christ’s birth at Bethlehem and recounting major events of His life, including his death and resurrection. In both the first and last stanzas the poet celebrates Christmas, and he can do it joyously because he knows the victory: “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.”

The second Christmas poem in this volume, “Since Christ Was a Lamb O,” is in the style of a short lyrical ballad with repetitions that pronounce blessings upon sheep, children, men, and Christ Himself: “Since Christ came to save O,/ To save O,/ To save O, /Since Christ came to save O,/Blessed are we all.”

In his book The Season of Flesh published in 1955, are four poems with a Christmas theme. “As Mary Was a Walking” which the poet terms “A Carol,” has fifteen stanzas in ballad-style quatrains expressing her rapport with fowls, cattle, even trees as she contemplates the mission of the Child she bore. The last chorus asks: “Could any maid soever,/Could maiden lent the grace,/Hearken such sweet palaver/And not a bole embrace?”

“The Gifting” is a four-stanza poem about the Magi’s gifts, and Mary’s gift of her Son. “In Palestine,” asks the question, “What did you see in Palestine?” and proceeds to enumerate the “stable low,” “the palace” of Herod, “kindness,” “cruelty,” and a margin as wide as the distance “’twist heaven and hell.” In “It Fell Upon a Winter’s Morn” is a first-person poem with a most unusual observation in which the poet dreams of Jesus’ blood being mixed with his own. He awoke to find “Bells rang upon the wintry air/And men began to say/And tongues of children to declare/That it was Christmas Day.”

From Reece’s attic room where he wrote these poems, perhaps in the winters of the 1940’s and early 1950’s, he gave them to the world to ponder in the books of poems bearing his name. Maybe you will find his books, now republished by Cherokee Press (if you don’t own them already), and decide to purchase them for Christmas gifts for someone who loves poetry and would appreciate and benefit from his master wordsmith’s artistry and insight. As for myself, I can never get enough of reading his poems. I recommend them highly for your own enjoyment and amazement. You will be awed, as I, by the depth and quality of his lyrics. So ring bells and declare, as the poet urged, “That it is Christmas Day!”

c2010 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 16, 2010 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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