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December 20, 2010

Homer Hickam: A Coalwood Christmas

Posted by Anonymous

HomerHickam.jpgToday, Homer Hickam --- self-taught paleontologist, New York Times Bestseller and the author of the newly released novel, THE DINOSAUR HUNTER --- shares the heartfelt story of a Coalwood Christmas Eve miracle.


Every year in the little mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, where I was raised, there was an annual Christmas pageant. It was held on Christmas Eve in the front yard of the coal company's social hub, a grand old building everyone call the Club House. As darkness descended on our little village, the church choir would gather on the Club House steps and sing the ancient carols, while the preacher read from the Holy Scripture. We would all gather around a little shed meant to portray a manger, while some lucky Coalwoodians played the parts of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the three kings who came to worship the baby Jesus. It was glorious.

When I was 16 years old, hard times had come to Coalwood and, as the Christmas season approached, nobody was happy. Coal wasn't selling, miners were being let go, and there had been so much snow that we were all marooned inside our misery, not even able to cross the mountains that surrounded us. My mom was supposed to produce the Christmas pageant that year, but her heart just wasn't in it. "Sonny, maybe we'll just have to skip the pageant," she told me. "The company doesn't have any money for it and, anyway, people are down in the mouth about everything."

It was true. We were all discouraged. Even the animals that lived in our mountains were miserable. With all the snowfall, there were daily reports of starved deer along the roads.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Mom decided to put on the pageant anyway. She said it was tradition, after all, and who was she to change tradition? She put me in charge of writing the script, and my brother and some of our friends were sent off to get the preacher lined up, tell the actors the pageant was on, build the manger, set up the chairs, and so forth. The actors reluctantly agreed to participate and quickly rehearsed, even though it was snowing again. "Misery atop misery," the miner playing Joseph lamented. "We'll need a miracle to make folks feel good about any of this. Why, we don't even have any chairs for the audience to sit on."

It was true. The company had sold all the folding chairs the pageant used every year and hadn't bothered to replace them. Then we remembered there was a man in town who'd sold the horses he owned. He had hay bales in his barn that might work as seats! We asked if we could have them, and the man agreed. At least one problem was solved. But the snow kept falling. It was freezing cold. The company store closed early. Nobody could afford Christmas gifts anyway. One of the miners playing a shepherd shook his head at the sight of the old bales of hay we were setting out and the lean-to we'd hastily erected as a manger, and said, "It's going to take a miracle for anybody to catch the Christmas spirit this year." Everyone around him nodded in agreement. To my shame, so did I. It was all pretty shoddy.

After thinking it over, just to do something different, I decided to write the play as if it was happening in Coalwood. After the townspeople had gathered and the actors were in their places, I had the preacher begin by saying these words:

And so it came to pass that a laid-off miner named Joe came back to Coalwood to pick up his last paycheck, bringing his wife Mary on an old mule.

The actors began to act out the Christmas play. A pony was used for a mule, and "Joseph" led "Mary" across the snow to the lean-to.

And the preacher said: 

Mary was pregnant and probably should have stayed at home, seeing as how it was so cold, and it didn't look like it was ever going to stop snowing. To top it off, there was no room for them at the Club House, the company shutting it down because of the low price of coal.

The actors kept going, playing out my Coalwood version of the first Christmas, finding lodging in an old company warehouse the lean-to represented. I was happy that the audience shivering on the hay bales at least didn't take affront, and the preacher didn't seem to mind, either. Maybe he just wanted to get it over with. After he was finished, we stood to sing my slightly changed version of the old carol we loved so much. 

          Silent Night
          Holy Night
          Coalwood's calm
          Coalwood's bright

It had started to snow again, and it seemed as if a white, translucent veil had been drawn across the Club House lawn. I heard a murmur of voices, and then I saw that people on the front row of hay bales were standing up. They were all looking at a dark form that I couldn't quite make out beside the manger. Then, as the snow lifted, I saw what it was. "A deer!" someone said.

Another deer, so thin you could count all of its ribs, crept up to the first row of hay bales. The people sitting on them stood up to make room. "Look, Mommy," one little girl cried. "It's Santa Claus's reindeer!"

The deer, a doe, stuck her big, black nose into the hay and snatched a clutch of it, chewing and swallowing in nervous gulps. Then another doe came out of the darkness and then, from around the Club House, came three more does and a fawn. The people of Coalwood took up another carol, slightly modified by yours truly, and this time they sang with a joyous spirit.

          Joy to the town! The Lord has come!
          Let's now receive our King!

Everyone was raptly watching as the deer made their way through the bales. "Merry Christmas," I heard Joseph say to Mary. "I think we're seeing a real miracle." There were grins everywhere, and pretty soon, folks were hugging one another and saying what a beautiful time it was to be alive.

          While mountains, mines and hollows,
          And slack dumps and coal trains,
          Repeat the sounding joy,
          Repeat the sounding joy.
          Repeat, Repeat the sounding joy.

And so that wondrous Christmas Eve, as the snow finally stopped and a starry sky unfurled like a blessing overhead, the people of Coalwood witnessed a miracle, as the deer came to us and were fed. We were also reminded that all it really takes to have a truly joyful Christmas is for people to love one another and help those who can't help themselves.

Join the Holiday Author Blogs again this afternoon, as humanitarian aid worker and first-time author Roberta Gately reflects on the magic of Christmas memories.