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Robert Penn Warren’s Christmas Story

December 21, 2011

Students meet in the Chapel to make cards for residents of Andrew's Place and Epiphany House

During a visit to St. Andrew’s a number of years ago, humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer asked our community to respond to a simple 21st century question:  “How many of you, he asked, believe that every child in the world should have access to high quality health care?”  I thought about Farmer’s question recently as I read Robert Penn Warren’s short story, “A Christmas Gift,” and shared a public reading of the text with students in Engelhard Hall last Saturday evening.

Like Farmer, Warren poses a simple, yet radical question about our modern concept of responsibility, generosity and empathy, for in his short story he eloquently makes the case that Christmas is ultimately about a society’s commitment to all children, to babies born in obscure poverty and neglect the world over.

Warren draws elements of the story of Christmas to illumine the tale of a ten year old boy named Sill Lancaster as he starts out on a pilgrimage to find a doctor to deliver a child for his sister.  The baby comes into the world in what the story’s society deems scandalous circumstances.  It is clear that Sill’s father has had an affair with a young woman who arrived in the household as a “relative” of his wife; from the gossip and conversation of the story, it is also clear that Milt Lancaster has brought several children into the world in the same way.

Yet, the story is not about the reckless and irresponsible behavior of a broken and disgruntled man.  Rather the story celebrates the simple generosity of a ten year old boy who goes out into a fallen world to find help, support and medical expertise for a woman he believes is his sister.  It is the sacred possibility of a new life that Warren celebrates in this story.

Four heroes emerge in the story to enlighten the reader and bring the boy to the successful completion of his voyage.  First, “a man who sat in the wagon” guides Sill to a forlorn town where he might begin to gather information about a doctor.  The opening scenes are dark, barren and seemingly hopeless:  “a wet gray light hung over everything . . . the roofs looked soggy and black.”  Yet the man in the wagon does his work for the boy.  He gets him into town and in his rough but gentle words gives Sill the direction he needs:  “You kin git off here, son, he said.  Most like they kin tell you here.”

Sill is in desperate need of a father figure—his own father clearly has no connection to his children or his family, and if anything, the father has succeeded in giving Sill only a language and philosophy of victimization and complaint.  Therefore, it is essential for the story that Sill meet men who somehow defeat and overshadow his father’s empty and futile existence.  This man on the wagon sets the scene for the passages that follow.

As Sill arrives in the town store, he confronts the scorn and mockery of an adult community who know of his father and his family well.  One man identifies him as “one of Milt’s little bastards.”  Another notes that “them Lancasters allus did calf young.”  Yet in the midst of degrading and diminishing rhetoric, two men defend the boy.  The “big man” encourages Sill to enter and warm himself near the stove.  A “bald swarthy man” glares at the insulting chorus of men and defends the boy and his family.  As the boy heads out into the darkness to find Doc Small, the big man makes the transformational gift of the story.

“Wait a minute,” the big man called after him.  He got up ponderously to his feet, hitched his belt up on his belly, and went forward to the single glass showcase.  The men watched him, craning their necks, all except the bald swarthy one, who crouched and stared at the red bulge of the stove.

The big man reached into the glass showcase and took out a half a dozen sticks of red-striped candy.  He thrust them at the boy, who, looking suspiciously at the objects, shook his head.

“Take em,” the man ordered.  The boy kept his hands in the pockets of the mackinaw.  “I ain’t got nuthin ter pay for it with,” he said.

“Here, take em, buddy, “ the man said.

The boy reached out his hand uneasily, all the while studying the man’s face, which was without expression.  The fingers, scaled grey by cold like a bird’s claw, closed on the candy, jerked back, clutching the sticks.

This is a powerful passage startling in his realism and detail.  The gift of the candy is accomplished amidst a culture of darkness and despair.  It is clear that neither the giver nor the receiving boy have much experience with such generosity.  But because of the stark surroundings, because of the boy’s barren and lonely existence, the gift becomes powerful, magical and transformational.  The boy who has become hardened to survive receives a token of generosity and fellowship.

But there is one last journey ahead:  the boy travels to Doc Small’s home to bring him to the site of this obscure and derided birth.  Here he finds an alien world:  a home occupied by a husband and a wife, a blazing hearth and a doctor willing to travel anywhere to bring a baby into the world.  By the end of the story, the boy’s heart softens at this brush with humanity and generosity.  The doctor comes to understand the reality of the situation:  Sill’s father has impregnated this young woman who came to live in his home with his family.  He has acted without any sense of morality, dignity or honor.  He has disgraced his wife and children.

But a child is to be born into the world—does he, does she deserve a life, a welcome, a place in the human family?  Doc Small thinks so, and his kindness inspires the boy to return the favor:

The boy, almost surreptitiously, took a stick of candy from his pocket, broke off half, and stuck it between his lips.  He looked at the man’s sharp, expressionless profile.  Then he held out the piece to him.  Without a word, the man took it and stuck it between his lips.  Sucking it.

They moved forward between the empty fields.

Warren, like Farmer, asks a simple question through this Christmas story—How can we as a society and world commit to the lives, the welfare and the fulfillment of every child born on this earth?  It is a Christmas question and challenge for us all.

Merry Christmas!

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 29, 2013 3:01 pm

    Sill’s father has impregnated this young woman who came to live in his home with his family. – The girl arrived in the summertime, and she’s giving birth at Christmas; so she must have been pregnant when she arrived.

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