John J. Timmerman was one of the most beloved stylists of the old Reformed Journal. This piece appeared in the issue for December, 1979.
Emily Dickinson and I have one thing in common. We both had fathers who, in her words, “frowned on Santa Claus and such prowling gentlemen.” My father also had two objections to the Christmas tree: it was a pagan custom, and the tree itself belonged in the snow, where God put it. In our home nobody hung gaudy stockings about. Christmas Eve was a silent night. My father was meditating on his Christmas sermon, and I was somberly meditating on my participation in the Sunday School Christmas program. Maybe for once I would have a real headache rather than a malingering one, which was soon unmasked by the rapidity with which I ate the big orange and the box of candy my parents sympathetically brought home. Christmas morning with its presents was a happy time, but at the edges of the frolic lurked images of the program in which I invariably, inevitably and ineluctably had to participate. I had either to recite singly or in unison, or to sing, for obvious reasons, always in unison. Intimidated by shyness I dreaded the Christmas program and participated in it with tingling nerves.
Non-participation was unthinkable because I lived in the manse, and the teachers were unflagging in assuring me that compromising the family honor was inconceivable. At four in Orange City, Iowa, I began my inglorious career as a speaker by reciting a little Dutch poem. When halfway through it, I noticed all the faces and beat it for my mother’s pew. In those days, the minister’s family always had a special pew, the fourth row from the front arranged between the side-pews where the elders swayed upright during the long prayer. There was no retreat during the next seven years and I edified audiences in the Dutch, German, and English languages. Singing in chorus was not so difficult because it was slightly anonymous and one could rely strongly upon proper facial movements. At twelve Sunday school was over.
Over the years most of us have enjoyed Christmas programs. Our children have carried a fair share of staves, shepherd’s crooks and stars. None seemed to suffer and to one of them it was like wine—the longer the piece and the louder the song the better. Yet I always see some little fellow squirming on the platform, awkward and bumbling, eyes riveted on ceiling or floor, feet shifting uneasily, or immobilized by unease. I respect these little people immensely. I think their courage, sense of duty or just plain grace under parental pressure among the most affecting features on the program.
This may all appear sentimental to the bouncy extrovert who can’t wait to march in as a King of the Orient or as Mary dressed in blue. Yet there is nothing sentimental in appreciating the freeze of shyness. The carapace that experience shields us with should not allow us to forget the vulnerability of the timid child. He does have to screw his courage to a sticking point. In this Christmas season I want to salute every little boy and girl who hates to get on that platform but does it.
Copyright 1979, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.