The Story of Yuletide Carol

In every town, in every time, there are those rare individuals who become part of the “local color.”  If they are wealthy, they are labeled eccentric.  If they are poor, they are simply “crazy.”  Outsiders see these people and marvel.  Townies hardly notice them – they become part of the fabric – odd threads that give special texture to the whole piece.  One woman – Yuletide Carol to the residents of Muncie, Indiana – was such a thread. 

Growing up, I was ever aware of the troll-like woman who wandered the downtown streets of Muncie.  I cannot recall the first time I ever saw her, but it was not until she died that I even learned her true name.  Yuletide Carol just was.  She waddled the streets spring, summer, fall, and winter bawling Christmas songs at the top of her lungs.  Remarkably, her voice was not awful, and she had the uncanny ability to recall dozens of songs in their entirety.  Dressed in a worn wool coat – regardless of the weather – Yuletide Carol would wobble, weeble-like, waddling along the sidewalks.  A raspberry colored babushka encircled her jack-o-lantern face – squinted eyes, vegetable-lump nose, picket-fence grin, and potato-shaped, warted chin.  She stood all of five-foot tall, but was a yard wide.  Tree trunk legs propelled her on her way.  Amazingly, most people in town didn’t even see her, so familiar a sight did she provide.

I remember asking my dad – who left home when I was six, so I was very young – who she was.  He looked at her for a moment, pursed his lips, exhaled long and hard through his nose, and said, “I don’t really know.  She’s been around Muncie forever.  When I was a teenager she used to sit outside Central High School.  We all called her Yuletide Carol, because all she does is sing Christmas songs.”

That was the extent of the answer I was given, and it sufficed for many years.  Yuletide Carol was Yuletide Carol — as it was in the beginning, it now and ever shall be, myth without end.  Amen.  For the next twelve years I would have various encounters with this woman, but would be none the wiser for any of them.

I recall one winter I was with my grandmother, Dortie, at her yarn shop downtown.  Dortie was (and will ever be) one of the sweetest, kindest, and most generous people I know, but she was terrified of Yuletide Carol.  I didn’t understand this as a child, but learned why when I was a little older.  For a time I couldn’t imagine why this merry troll scared my grandmother so.  All I had ever witnessed was a Christmas chorister – albeit, one conceived by a Charles Addams mind – who seemed fairly safe.  Then, one day, as Dortie and I left her shop, we walked along the sidewalk toward Yuletide Carol.  In somewhat juicy, sibilant tones, Yuletide Carol sang While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.  As the words, “Fear not! Said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind.  Glad tidings of great joy I bring. . .“, I happened to glance at Yuletide Carol’s push cart, which contained all her earthly possessions.  Without pausing for breath, Yuletide Carol grabbed my wrist and hissed, “Touch my f***ing stuff, and I’ll break your f***ing arm,” then finished with “to all of humankind, to all of humankind.”  Dortie hustled me away as quickly as she could.

One of my deepest regrets in life relates to this poor woman.  When I was about twelve or thirteen, I was hanging out with a group of four or five of my friends, smoking and joking and just wasting time.  It had been snowing for a day and a half, and the temperature had begun to climb.  The snow was wet, heavy, and perfect for packing.  Intermittent snowball wars would erupt, then we would shift back and forth from foot to foot blowing on scarlet, chapped hands until next time.  A little toady in the group looked down the street and saw Yuletide Carol struggling through the slush with her cart, pointing her out to the rest of us.  A second brave soldier grinned and said, “Let’s get her with snowballs.”  At the time, I knew that I didn’t really want to pelt this poor woman with snowballs, but the desire to be cool in the eyes of my friends won out.  I didn’t really know this freakish woman, and so what would it cost to terrorize her a bit?  I packed three hard snowballs and took off running with the gang.  Hollering like a posse of vigilantes, we raced at the defenseless woman.  At the last possible moment, she turned her head, and the look of utter fright that I caught in her eyes will stay with me the rest of my life.  We creamed her with a dozen snowballs, and all she could do was drop to her knees and cover herself.  One of my gang reached out and dumped her cart in the slush at the curb, and for a moment I wanted to stop and help her gather her things.  To my deeper shame, I simply ran on.  Throughout her entire ordeal, Yuletide Carol kept on humming Angels We Have Heard on High.  As we sped away, a pathetic wail of “Gloria” snapped at our heels.

The memories I have of Yuletide Carol from my childhood and early adolescence are different from my memories later on.  When I was fifteen, life changed dramatically for me, and I looked at the world very differently.

As a teenager I never fit in with any crowd.  Where I did try to fit in, it was with a crowbar and duct tape – I forced myself in.  I landed in the gentry of drugs and drink, primarily because no one cared who joined this club.  I was one of a vast and growing number of delinquents-in-training.  Days were filled with pot smoke, weekends with alcohol.  I drifted from party to party, un-chaperoned house to un-chaperoned house, in a fog of “who gives a damn.”  My freshman year of high school was a desperate attempt to find a place to call home.  Drinking and drugging was an easy way to make space for myself in high school.  But through it all I was miserable.

Something about the company I kept troubled me mightily.  I really didn’t like the people I was with.  Some of them were okay, but for the most part we were all on the path to perdition.  I look at how most of them turned out and thank God that I found some other way.  But, that other way wasn’t so clear at the time.  Had God not sent an angel – two angels, actually – I might have traveled a very similar road to those of my druggie pals.

One night, as I sat in the living room of a complete stranger, I watched a young girl with owlish glasses sink as far down into a couch cushion as was humanly possible.  She had been drinking continuously for an hour and had twice taken some pills that a friend had given her.  I still remember thinking, “she looks like a cornered squirrel.”  Her eyes were huge behind her glasses, and she watched everyone with a patina of fear covering her pretty face.  She was a blond, with a round face, full lips, and large green eyes.  I don’t remember that she said a single word all night.  She had the appearance of someone hiding in plain sight.  I fell in love with her from across the room.

Around ten o’clock, people began to pair off and disappear to other parts of the house.  Suddenly, I realized that I was all alone in the room with the frightened squirrel.  She was staring at me, looking like she might bolt for the door if I made any sudden move.  I got up – slowly – and walked over to her.  I remember sitting on the floor in front of her, while she watched my every move.  I cannot remember anything that I said or that she said, but I know that we began talking, that we went out for a walk, and that by morning we had held hands and become a couple.  When I walked her to her house she kissed me.  That was my first night with Lisa Jennings.

Lisa was a very bright girl who was tired of trying to live up to her parent’s expectations.  She regularly blew off homework and tests just to keep her grades in the low B range.  She could ace any exam and nail any project without half trying, but the burden of being perfect took its toll.  Lisa was rebelling in a significant way from a life where dad thought she was perfect and mom was jealous of everything she accomplished.  Lisa had an older sister, Elizabeth, who lived up to the expectations – she was perfect, and mom and dad both reveled in holding Lisa up to Elizabeth’s standards.  More than anything else, Lisa was just plain tired.  She wanted off the treadmill.  Drugs had become her escape.  But, like me, she did drugs because nothing better offered itself.  Suddenly, we both provided the other with an alternative.

Lisa and I became a pair – or more accurately, we became one.  My relationship with Lisa offered me a gift that has lasted a lifetime.  I never dismiss the love of young people as “puppy love” – it is no less “real” or significant than “mature” love (whatever that actually means…).  What Lisa and I discovered together was as real and as meaningful as anything I have ever known.  Lisa completed me in a way that I never imagined possible.  She loved books, and learning, and old movies, and walks, and trivia, and gazing at stars at night.  We never found anything between us that we didn’t share.  This is not as miraculous as it sounds, because we didn’t have long to explore.

I met Lisa in April of 1973.  From the first night I met her, we never spent a full day apart.  We were inseparable.  I recall the night in June that she told me that she and her mom were flying to Denver to stay with her sister for a week in August when her sister was due with her first baby.  I dreaded the thought of a week to ten days where we couldn’t be together.  That June and July, we spent every possible waking moment together.  Throughout this entire time, neither one of us did drugs or drank or engaged in any other form of self-destructive behavior.  We were straight, clean, and getting our lives together – together.  When I watched her plane take off out of the Indianapolis airport, I felt my heart pulled from my chest – a part of me left that day, and it never came back.  Four days later I got a call from Lisa’s dad.  Lisa and her mom were killed in an automobile accident.  My world came apart.

I honestly don’t remember much of that summer and fall.  I withdrew, both emotionally and physically, from everyone.  I drank a lot.  I smoked a lot of dope.  I escaped into trashy novels and watched a lot of television alone in my room.  And I walked.  One morning I started walking at about four o’clock.  I ended up in Indianapolis – about forty miles from home.  I talked a college kid into buying me a pint of bourbon, and I downed it in about four gulps while standing on Interstate 69.  The last thing I recall about that day was screaming obscenities at God and flinging the empty bottle into the sky, all the while tears ran down my face.  I crumpled in a field along side the road, sobbing.  The next memory I have is waking up back in Muncie on a bench outside of the student center at Ball State University the following morning.  My grades plummeted, my relationship with my mom – strained under the best circumstances – collapsed, and I had absolutely no one to talk to.

That’s not completely true.  I talked to God – a lot, but mostly to curse him (in my adolescence, God was always ‘he’ – the father I never had growing up) and to tell him what a crappy mess he was making of the world.  I had a hateful relationship with God.  The wonderful result of that time was an absolute assurance that God was there, somewhere.  When my life fell apart, I never doubted for an instant that God was really real.  That solid faith has never wavered, and I am who I am because of it.  I also understand true grace by virtue of the fact that God never creamed me while I called him every vile name in the book.  I lived in a state of unmitigated rage for four months.  And as Christmas drew near, the darkness and anger I felt inside grew hotter and deeper.

One thing I am still ashamed of to this day were the acts of vandalism I engaged in that year.  I acted out against God by destroying the property of others.  I took great pleasure and glee in targeting the displays of Christmas that people put outside on their lawns.  Many nights, in the wee small hours, I went on a one-man wilding rampage, ripping lights from trees, smashing snowmen and figures of Santa, and especially delighting in annihilating nativity scenes.  I carried a crow bar, and vented my rage on all the signs and symbols of the holiday.  I kept waiting for a catharsis that wouldn’t come.  I couldn’t deal out the payback that God so richly deserved.

A lot of people tried to talk to me, to help me deal with things, but it just made everything worse.  I fought with everyone.  Each attempt to calm me, to help me heal, just fueled the anger.  I wanted to hurt others the way I was hurting.  I wanted to destroy happiness that I couldn’t claim for myself.

Three days before Christmas I decided to get drunk – not a rare or unusual decision in those days.  I stole a bottle of gin and wandered downtown.  From the first swig of the bottle I knew getting drunk wasn’t in the cards.  The gin tasted sour and metallic.  My stomach clenched and I gagged.  The combination of emotional bile, anger and booze refused to mix, and my body just wouldn’t tolerate any more.  I stood behind People’s Studio – a photography shop – and pitched the pint of gin against the back wall and screamed.  My bellow of rage caused lots of people to turn and look at me, but I didn’t care.  The beast of my anger felt larger than my skin.  Four months of grief and rage at Lisa’s death exploded inside me.   Images of the hunchback of Notre Dame and the Frankenstein monster played in my mind.  My rational side broke.  I walked along muttering at God, swinging my fists and jerking my head.  To observers, I must have appeared to be an escapee from a psychiatric hospital.  In my wandering I caught sight of the crèche scene at the High Street United Methodist Church.  In three years I would join this church – it would be my home church, and its leaders would vote me into the candidacy program which led to my ordination – but for now all I could see was a target for my unhappiness.  I waited and watched and sat for hours until the street cleared.

I found a two-by-four in an alley near the church and started to cross the street.  My focus was glued to the nativity scene in the churchyard.  I drew to within a few steps of the display when I became aware of a sound.  The sound was almost human, almost music, almost melodic, but not quite right.  I stopped and looked around.  Huddled on the steps of the church was a figure, rocking from side to side.  Connections clicked in my mind and I identified the figure as Yuletide Carol.  For a long time, I just stood, not knowing what to do.  I couldn’t very well desecrate the manger scene with an audience.  Once more my rage began to build.  Even my opportunities to be destructive and hateful were being thwarted.  I pitched the two-by-four with all my might, decapitating Balthasar.

“You shun’t otta do that.  Them’s purty.  They’s nice.”

I looked at the woman who sat scratching her elbow through a tattered sweater.  She looked at the baby in the manger and started to sing a snatch of O Little Town of Bethlehem.  It was as if I weren’t even there.  I followed her gaze to the baby and felt a grab deep in my chest.  I wanted to run away.  I wanted to scream some more at God.  I wanted to find something to drink.  Instead, I walked over and sat down near Yuletide Carol.  I buried my head in my arms, leaned on my knees, and started crying.  Without pausing, Yuletide Carol moved onto O Holy Night and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.  She put her hand on the back of my head and patted me in time to the music.  I let her.

“What’s so bad?” she asked when she stopped singing.

“You wouldn’t understand,” was my choked reply.

There was a moment of silence, then Yuletide Carol said, “Is it your girlfriend, Dan?  Is it the girl who died?”

I was absolutely stunned.  I remember looking into the face of this woman I thought was crazy, and for a moment I thought she might be psychic.  “How do you know my name?  How do you know about my girlfriend?”

Yuletide Carol leaned back and broke into a picket-fence grin.  “I’m crazy.  I’m not stupid.  Nobody looks at us bums, so we can look at anything we want, and you cout’nt believe what we see and know.  I know just about everybody that lives in this town.  I been here sixty years and I been on the streets for forty-five.  I watch and listen and learn more than most other people ever know.  I know you been breaking s*** all over town.  You better stop it.”  This last she said with genuine concern and wide-eyed sincerity. 

“I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to do. I can’t handle things these days, and I sure wasn’t expecting you to know what was bothering me.  I’m having a hard time this year.  I can’t get all excited about Christmas, not when God did what he did to me.”

“What did God do?”  Yuletide Carol asked.

“He took Lisa.”

I wasn’t expecting what came next.  Yuletide Carol threw her head back and laughed.  “Boy, you don’t know much do you?  You don’t know nothin’ about God, that’s for sure.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked, more than a little annoyed by my new troll-friend.

“God didn’t take your girl friend.  God may have welcomed her in, but God didn’t do nothin’ to her.”

“Then why did she die?”           “Why, why, why?  Why am I living on the street?  Why do good people get hurt and bad people get good stuff?  Why don’t somebody give me money?  It’s cause it’s life, that’s why?”

“That doesn’t make sense.  Why believe in God if God doesn’t do anything for us?”

Yuletide Carol rubbed the bristly hair on her chin.  “God does lots of stuff for us, by giving us all the stuff we got.  But God doesn’t do nasty stuff to us.  Why would he?  That’s just dumb.  You know what your trouble is?  You’ve decided to be mad, and sad, and mean.  You don’t have to be that way, you know.”

I stared at this woman who, to the best of my knowledge, had not spoken coherent sentences to anyone in years.  Now she was filling the role of sage theologian, and it disarmed me.

“I don’t want to feel like I do,” I said.

“Yes you do, or you’d feel differn’t.  Nobody’s making you feel like you do.  Look at me.  I used to have a nice house and a family and a job and good clothes.  I lost my mom and dad and my baby and house and clothes in one big fire.  I lost my job, nobody helped me, and I ended up living in a box by the White River.  I have most of my meals from what other folks throws out.  You know how I feel about all that?”

I shook my head.

“I feel like singing Christmas songs.”

“What?!”  I asked, hunching my brow to indicate how crazy I thought that sounded.

“In my whole life I was always happiest around Christmas.  Christmas was the very best time of the year.  When I lost everything else, I thought about what I wanted to keep, and what I wanted to keep was the feeling I get at Christmas.”  Yuletide Carol paused and looked at her bags.  “And so, that’s what I do.”

“It’s not that simple,” I began to explain.

“What’s not?  Why not?  Why does it have to be harder than that?  Why can’t people just decide that they will be happy?”

I looked into the squinting eyes that faced me and realized that they squinted because they were smiling.  I saw this “poor” woman as if for the first time.  I saw a woman who had once been handsome, had once been normal, and who had always been happy.  This was a person whose happiness was not conditional upon any outside influence, but was a result of a conscious decision.  The happiness that Yuletide Carol spoke of didn’t come from some outside source.  Yuletide Carol’s happiness was something I had never even begun to know: joy.

“Look, Dan.”  Yuletide Carol leaned her elbow on her knee and looked like the old philosopher preparing to dispense sage advice.  “You have a life on the other side of today.  It could last weeks or it could last years.  Nobody else can live it for you.  Nobody else can give you happiness, but get this – nobody else can take it away from you unless you let them.  It’s your choice.  If I can choose, you can choose.” 

Yuletide Carol lifted her head back, opened her mouth, and roared “Joy to the world, the Lord is come…”

I waited for her to stop and talk to me again, but she launched fully into her song, and I disappeared from her world.  All that remained was anti-climax.  Yuletide Carol got to her feet, grabbed the handles of her shopping cart and trundled off down the road.  I loitered for a few more moments, then I, too, ambled off.  I walked toward home thinking about the crazy lady I had just spoken to.  As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t dismiss what she said.  I went home and locked myself in my bedroom and stayed there for two days.  On Christmas Eve, I got cleaned up, dressed in a jacket and slacks, and knocked on my mother’s door to tell her that I wanted to go the church with her.

I’d like to say that I felt the loving presence of God, the rebirth of Jesus Christ in my heart, the epiphany of God’s Holy Spirit that night, but it would be a lie.  I felt as far off from God as at any time that summer or fall.  Everything was wooden, somehow false and shallow.  I wasn’t touched by the music or the words of the sermon, but I remember the discomfort of Yuletide Carol’s words, “it’s your choice.”  More than anything in the world I wanted to choose to be happy, but I didn’t know how.

With everything of value, time is the essential ingredient.  It took me the better part of two years to make my choice, but when I did my choice was for happiness, not despair.  I opted for a positive life instead of the anger and hate that I felt.  I chose to see life in all its glorious absurdities as a comedy to be enjoyed rather than a tragedy to be endured.

Two women changed my life – a beautiful young girl named Lisa and a gnome-like woman named – to the best of my knowledge – Yuletide Carol.  Out of the greatest loss of my life came the catalyst for my conversion, through the simple challenge of a homeless saint.

In 1983, one week before Christmas, I saw Yuletide Carol’s picture in the paper.  It was a small photo on the obituary page.  I still recall the shock in finding out that her name wasn’t Carol.  I was also shocked to find that she had a story – a life.  I made the decision that I wouldn’t let this poor woman’s death pass without some loving kindness.  I determined to go to her funeral.

I walked to Meeks Mortuary on the same night – a decade later – that Yuletide Carol had turned me around.  Perhaps it was the power of the anniversary that brought the night so clearly to mind.  I was completely unprepared for what I encountered at the funeral home.

The room was packed.  Bankers and street-people stood shoulder to shoulder.  Some of the most respected members of the community conversed with some of the seediest.  David Meeks himself presided over the arrangements.  My own aunt Chella was there.  I never even knew she was aware of Yuletide Carol.  I stood off to the side, waiting for the funeral service to begin.

The pastor who conducted the service was a jolly round man with a perpetual smile frozen on his face.  Tufts of hair stood from the sides of his head like a clown, and he interjected chuckles and quips throughout the service.  It finally dawned on me that the pastor was Yuletide Carol’s uncle.

He told of his niece who grew up in an abusive home, who ran away early in her teenage years, who got pregnant at 15 and had a child.  She hurried into a relationship, found herself in an abusive marriage, ran back home.  In a fire she lost everything and she ran away again, disappearing for a few years.  Growing up, she knew very little happiness, except at Christmas.  For whatever reason, at Christmas time a marvelous thing happened.  During the month of December, the abuses and strife ended, and they lived in an ideal home.  The family transformed the house into a Christmas village, and happiness and cheer filled every room.  By the turn of each new year the magic was gone, the suffering returned at the hands of her dysfunctional parents.

Carol’s escape from a horrendous marriage only came through the tragedy of fire that cost the lives of her parents and her infant daughter.  She never fully recovered.

Most people thought of Yuletide Carol as a crazy old indigent, but the truth was very different.  Margaret was not poor.  She had active accounts in three different banks, totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Each year, as Christmastime approached, Margaret would seek out families in hardship, children in need, people who suffered, and she would donate large sums of money to their relief.  Many people often saw Margaret enter the Muncie Mission or the Children’s Aid Society.  What they didn’t realize was that she went there, every single day, as a volunteer.  She would occasionally visit her uncle, get cleaned up and nicely dressed and go out for a nice dinner or to a show.  For years, family and friends had tried to get her medical help, fearing that she was bipolar or schizophrenic.  Always she went into the hospital, but then eventually checked herself out.  Whether she was disturbed or not, she often said, at least she was happy.

Her uncle emphasized, — many, many times – that she lived precisely the way she wanted to.  She was not unhappy, not crazy.  Would that we all could live exactly the life we wanted and be as happy in the process.

Yuletide Carol once told her uncle, “I am never poor, never alone, never afraid, and never sad.  You know why?  Because I always have a song.”

We ended the service together singing “Silent Night.”  As the pastor closed with prayer, someone asked if it wouldn’t be “more like Yuletide Carol” to sing “Joy to the World.”  Everyone sang it but me.  I cried instead.

Whenever I think of Yuletide Carol I ask a simple prayer.  It goes something like this:

Lord, please let me be a gift to someone else.  Let my life be balanced and pure and filled with a peace and joy that allows me to see other’s needs instead of always focusing on my own.  Please allow me to touch just one single heart the way that Yuletide Carol touched mine.  Oh, Lord, O God, please give me a song.”

 

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