Our NOEL Sign, The Christmas Street and A Seasonal Memory
by Jeems Akers, Senior Fellow, Americans for Intelligence Reform
“The First Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.”
This Christmas missive will serve double duty as Imogene and I wish each and every one of you reading this a very, very Merry Christmas and a much, much happier 2021!
Here on the East Coast, we are in the midst of a huge pre-Christmas snowstorm. Thick, fluffy snowflakes are falling. Covering everything with a pure white blanket. It’s a wonderous sight to behold!
Our NOEL sign in the front yard is half-buried in snow and ice.
I barely beat the storm back into town. I just returned from visiting mom and dad in Ohio. Both are in their 90s and both are doing well. On the drive back I traveled through the West Virginia-Pennsylvania-Maryland mountains. The air temperature was just cold enough that the tree branches were glazed in a beautiful coat of ice—it was like a winter wonderland.
Christmas is, without a doubt, my favorite time of year.
Even our neighborhood—despite the pandemic—seems to be springing back to life for the holiday season this year. When Imogene and I first moved here (almost twenty years ago now), we learned quickly that the locals called our street the “Christmas street.” Indeed, for our housewarming party, one family bought us ten packages of outdoor Christmas lights—“you’ll need these to keep up with the neighbors” they said. I joked they would be able to see the house from the space station (somebody borrowed the idea, apparently, for a GEICO commercial). But when I spread the lights on the azalea bushes in front of the house, they barely made a dent! I remember thinking at the time, “these people have some real money invested in these decorations!”
Our end of the street was definitely the low performance part. We started out modestly, buying a large NOEL sign from Costco (complete with multi-lighted penguins sliding down the “L”). Year after year we would add a penguin or two to our front yard Christmas menagerie. One year, we had a family stop to take pictures with the NOEL sign in the background.
I felt as though we had finally arrived!
As the years passed, however, our neighbors began moving away. The Christmas spirit of the neighborhood began to diminish. People forgot the origin of the idea. (Many years ago, before we moved into the neighborhood, a young boy living in a house up the street died tragically during the holiday season. The child loved looking at Christmas lights. As a sympathetic tribute to the family’s lost loved one, the neighbors on both sides of the house went all out with their Christmas decorations. Then the people across the street followed suit. Then, in subsequent years, the idea spread to other street dwelling families. A tradition was born.)
But as the years relentlessly rushed by, and many of the original families moved from our street; the memory of the tradition faded. For many, the wonder and fanfare of the “Christmas street” became more of a memory than a reality.
During our street’s heyday, everyone up and down the street displayed colorful and creative Christmas decorations: there was the house with an imaginative Hawaii Christmas scene replete with palm trees, surfers on surfboards and porpoises wearing Santa hats; across the street from them, a Spiderman in a Santa outfit left a second story window on a web strand toward a colorfully decorated tree; in one front yard, a choir dressed in seasonal garb sang Christmas songs blared from loudspeakers; a young couple across the street from us created a large Grinch cut-out hauling a Christmas tree out the window to the rooftop; there was a Charlie Brown Christmas scene (Imogene’s favorite); a huge model railroad occupied one garage open to the public; and, on the corner up the street, they had a place to donate goods for the needy and passed out hot chocolate to a steady stream of visitors and onlookers. In those years, we could barely back out of our driveway on weekends beginning two weeks prior to (and after) Christmas because of the constant stream of vehicles loaded with children gawking at the lights. The traffic included buses of senior citizens! We even organized a caroling troupe one year.
In those days, beginning in early December, East Juniper Avenue in Sterling, Virginia was magically transformed into the “Christmas street.”
Then it all started to fade away.
At our house, there were no longer daughters or grandchildren interested in helping me put out the decorations. I mean, it was not like I turned into Scrooge or anything like that. But it simply was no longer worth the effort.
For some reason, this year is different. Maybe it is because something needed to be done—no matter how small the effort—to offset the gloomy atmosphere created around here by the Covid-19 virus, the burning and looting tactics of leftist radicals in some cities and a post-election funk. On the upper part of the street (heading toward the Sterling Parkway) the decorations have sprung to life anew. While they may lack the former vibrancy, creativity and imagination—and certainly few of them remember the origin of the tradition—it is refreshing to see the Christmas lights return. A couple of the newer neighbors on our end of the street have stepped up to the plate. It is a welcome sight!
So, for the first time in years, the Snapper (my grandson) came over and we hauled the large, flimsy box containing the NOEL sign down from the attic. Imogene hung two holiday wreaths on the front doors.
Perhaps most of you will understand when I tell you that the NOEL sign is so much more than another Christmas decoration. The sign is—in my view—an apt metaphor, simultaneously symbolizing the hope that lies eternal as well as our human frailty. The NOEL sign certainly isn’t what it used to be: we had to jerry-rig the penguins with wire, duct tape and plant poles to hold them in place; the individual letters which used to be bright white now have oxidized over the years to a dull yellowish tint (much like the headlights on my old Toyota pick-up truck); and, the metal props holding up the letters have become rusted over time.
Yet, despite the rages of a winter storm and howling winds, our NOEL sign is hanging in there. Every night I plug it into a power source and the sign lights up, providing a message of hope to all the occupants of passing cars. Just as the original “Noel” sang by the angels heralded a new sense of hope in the arrival of our Savior. God appeared after 800 years of total silence. Many of the faithful, I’m sure, had become discouraged by what they saw around them.
This past week—suddenly, out of the blue and without a prompting of any sort—God’s Spirit whispered a question into my consciousness: “Jeemes, have you given up on Me?” I have allowed myself to become dismayed by the growing influences of evil forces in our country, the shutdowns and the pandemic, and the lifestyle changes brought on by recent economic, political and spiritual developments.
Honestly, haven’t you felt the same?
For me, the NOEL sign—though tattered and torn—is a powerful seasonal reminder of God’s constancy, love and life. As a historian, I am aware of many powerful leaders, elites and political parties over the centuries that have tried (all in vain) to snuff out that hope. God’s Word has survived the test of time: He will weather this storm as well!
In a strange sort of way, our NOEL sign speaks to all that …
At the same time, just as our beloved NOEL sign is starting to show its age, so are we. I simply don’t have the energy and physical stamina I used to have. I forget things that I used to remember so easily. My bones ache in cold weather, more so with each passing year. But here is the tradeoff: I now appreciate, more than ever, that each new day is another wonderous work of God. As a result, I am increasingly thankful for the small things in life: Imogene’s cup of hot chocolate in the evenings; on-line pinochle games with friends; time spent with my daughters, grandchildren and family; an afternoon walk; my flowers; a good book; a touching church service; the privilege of praying for friends; an incredibly long life stuffed full with fantastic friends and challenging experiences; and, of course, the NOEL sign still standing, undaunted, in front of the house.
I’d like to finish with my favorite Christmas memory, even though the experience long predated the NOEL sign and the Christmas street. Those of you who are long-time readers will recognize the story. I tell it as often as I can. The story goes back several decades now, to a time when I served as the Director of the June Buchanan School—a small, private school located on the Alice Lloyd College campus—in remote Pippa Passes, Kentucky. Our students were from the rural Appalachian Mountains, a mixture of kids from local families, campus families and a scattering of kids from professional families in nearby communities.
Running the school, and working with those incredible kids and families, were the best years of my life.
What made the vision work (it was Dr. Jerry Davis’s idea originally) was a special group of highly motivated, low-paid teachers who believed in our mission of providing a high quality, college preparatory education for our students. In those years, our usual Christmas tradition was a school-sponsored dinner party at a restaurant in nearby Hazard or Pikeville, where our faculty and staff exchanged mostly gag gifts and enjoyed each other’s company. (A pair of pink-laced handcuffs made the rounds year-after-year as the most memorable gag gift for the couples).
Gary Gibson reminded me a few days ago of a prank we pulled on John Jukes (one of the JBS teachers) during one of our holiday dinners at the La Citadel, a restaurant perched high atop a mountain on the outskirts of Hazard, Kentucky. The road getting to the restaurant went straight up the mountain, with several sharp cutbacks. The climb was a worthy challenge for the best vehicle transmissions. At any rate, with all of us assembled, we slipped the waitress a ten-spot and had her announce—with a decided sense of urgency—that a red Jeep was rolling down the mountain road, careening out of control. John leaped to his feet with a shout (nearly pulling off the tablecloth in the process) and sprinted to the exit. Only to find his new red Jeep was exactly where he parked it.
John didn’t think it was nearly as funny as we did …
Ah, the joy of a well-timed prank!
But one year, we departed from this restaurant party tradition.
I’m not sure whose idea it was.
We decided to select a needy family in our school population and instead of spending money on the usual white elephant or secret Santa gifts that none of us ever used, we pooled our money and encouraged the entire school population to donate food stuffs, toys and money. As I recall, the students eagerly participated in the effort.
Our choice was the Slone family. They had two kids in school. To help defray tuition costs, the mother went above the call of duty in cleaning the school after hours and helping provide other tasks as needed. She was a blessing to us all.
Her husband was out of work. He had gone through a number of surgeries (he lifted up his shirt one day to show me his stomach, chest and back which were crisscrossed by a number of railroad-looking post-surgery scar tracks).
He was one of those individuals who was a magnet for bad luck. No fault of his own. Nothing ever seemed to work out.
Most of you know people like that.
Like many men who lived in the mountains in those days, if you weren’t fit enough to work in the underground coal mines, there was no work available. (Today, years of well-meaning but ultimately destructive social welfare programs have spawned generations of young men in the mountains who deplore the idea of a hard day’s work and use all their creativity to get “on the draw.” An ongoing opioid epidemic only exacerbates the problem).
At the time, the Slones didn’t have two nickles to rub together.
They were as poor as a pair of church mice.
They were the neediest of the needy.
One cold-gray, snowy evening, the entire complement of JBS faculty and staff met at the school. We loaded up in a convoy of cars to make the slippery trek up a narrow “holler” to the trailer where the Slones lived. The unmistakable smell of burning coal lingered in the air.
We all huddled together, crammed inside the trailer’s small but cozy living room.
We sang Christmas carols.
We distributed foodstuffs, toys and money to the family.
There were tears of joy from both recipients and givers of the gifts.
I will never forget the warm glow I felt inside that evening.
The frigid weather outside could not dampen that feeling.
That was my best Christmas … ever.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
I think of that special outing almost every time I look on our NOEL sign out front.
What was your most memorable Christmas? I’d love to hear about it.
As the French still say, Joyeux Noel—Merry Christmas!