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Bill Maxwell

A Christmas tale to add to our traditions

The Christmas season has always been a time for reading stories and poems that capture the spirit of sharing and celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Long before movies and TV, the likes of Charles Dickens' novella, A Christmas Carol, was obligatory reading each year for thousands of children and their families. I read it as a child, and I read select chapters to my children when they were young.

At the core of Dickens' story is the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. He goes from a greedy, miserly old goat to a gent who carries the spirit of Christmas with him all the year round. As Dickens intended, A Christmas Carol is an inspiration for all who read it.

Transformation, in fact, is the key to many of our celebrated Christmas tales. How the Grinch Stole Christmas and "The Gift of the Magi" are two excellent examples of characters making profound discoveries about themselves and the world.

Here, I want to introduce a story, with a theme of holiday transformation, many readers have not heard of. It is Alex Haley's A Different Kind of Christmas. It is not yet a Christmas classic, but I believe that in time, it will become one. Published in 1988, four years before Haley's death, the novel tells the story of 19-year-old Fletcher Randall, the son of wealthy, white North Carolina plantation owners and slaveholders. Fletcher's father also is a powerful senator with a reputation for stoutly defending the values and traditions of the Old Confederacy.

We first meet Fletcher in 1855, during his first year at Princeton University, that bastion of Northern liberalism. This is the first time he has spent substantial time out of the South. He was a proud Southerner. He knew no other way of life, and, like his father, he was defensive of Dixie, despising all abolitionists.

The narrator describes how Northern students treated Fletcher and his fellow Southerners: "They all delighted in mocking and harassing Southern students, most especially Fletcher Randall, the solitary scholar. … They loved to mimic Southern accents, to daub their faces with burnt cork in 'yassuh, massa' caricatures of black slaves, or suddenly to bend nearly double and waddle forward, pretending they were cotton pickers."

Fletcher requested a private room in another dorm to get away from the harassment, but he soon got an unexpected visit from a trio of Quaker "Friends," brothers Andrew, Paul and Noah Ellis. They were from Philadelphia and were abolitionists and supporters of the Underground Railroad, a vast network of safe houses, hiding places and secret routes that helped slaves escape to the North and to Canada.

One weekend, the Ellis brothers invite Fletcher to their home in Philadelphia. After that trip and others to the "City of Brotherly Love," Fletcher's life changes forever. He is introduced to Underground Railroad operations, the human rights philosophy of the abolitionists and, for the first time, to blacks who are free merchants, worthy human beings with souls just like white people. He even shakes hands with a black man for the first time in his life.

He was watching himself mature and become an independent thinker. "He had never before given any really serious thought to darkies," the narrator tells us. "They had been there, a part of the plantation property, not really too unlike the livestock."

In time, however, after befriending a wise slave named Harpin' John, a man who plays the harmonica so melodiously it could make the devil cry, Fletcher becomes a full-fledged abolitionist, a traitor to his birthright, an enemy of the South.

His transformation comes when he and Harpin' John and others orchestrate a daring Christmas Eve mass escape of slaves from a plantation.

Nothing will ever be the same for Fletcher and the slaves he helped to enjoy their first Christmas as free men, women and children.

I cannot improve on what one critic said of this adventure: "How these two men of such incredibly opposing backgrounds join together to achieve the goal of freedom makes A Different Kind of Christmas soar with unforgettable inspiration. This is a timeless tale of spiritual regeneration, moral courage, and powerful humanness, meaningful and memorable to readers of all faiths and all ages."

A Christmas tale to add to our traditions 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 6:11pm]

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