Each year, early in December, my thoughts return to my hometown and to some of the significant memories of my young life. One signficant memory concerns one of those eccentric, colorful characters that seem to populate every small midwestern town. These people become accepted fixtures, even though they behave in odd, bizarre ways. They are just part of the landscape — even though sometimes they are treated in less than kind ways, especially by youngsters who should know better but don’t. In Muncie, Indiana in the 1960s and 1970s one such person was a woman known to many as Yuletide Carol.
I am fuzzy on Carol’s full story, but what I was told and what I remember is that in a matter of months she lost her husband and three children, and it pushed her over the edge. One child was hit by a car, one drowned in a boating accident, and her husband and last child were in a terrible automobile accident. Carol ended up living in a converted garage on Willard Street and she could be seen daily walking the streets in a dirty, frayed sweater singing Christmas songs. It didn’t matter what time of year — she sang Christmas songs in a dreamy, detached voice. If you tried to talk to her, she would look at you and sway back and forth, but she would never stop singing. As kids, we all thought she was crazy, and we took every opportunity we could to make fun of her and torment her. She must have walked twenty miles every day, just wandering through town, singing.
When I was a teenager I was really screwed up — depressed, self-destructive, and fairly stupid. I smoked, I drank, I stole things — all by the time I was fifteen. But at the end of my freshman year of high school I met a girl who changed my young life. I won’t bore anyone with my first love story, but Lisa Jennings was a gift and a savior, helping me to find some value in myself. We were together constantly, and I never felt like anyone else the way I did about Lisa. The only time I can remember her ever being mad at me was one time we were in a park and Yuletide Carol walked by and I made some unnecessary and unkind remark. Lisa went ballistic. She yelled at me and made me go apologize — which I did, though to absolutely no response.
Lisa and I were inseparable for five months, then she had to go to Colorado for her sister’s wedding in August. I counted days, hours, minutes, and seconds until she would come back, but it never happened. While in Colorado, she and her mom were killed by a drunk driver. My world came crashing down. I spiralled into an angry despair — sharing my unhappiness with everyone I knew. I became an even more unpleasant person than I had been before. My poor mother bore the greatest brunt of my rage — something I am sorry about to this day. As the holidays loomed large, I got more and more morose.
One night in early December, I went for a walk — something I did just about every night. I prowled the streets, wallowing in my unhappiness, and on this particular night I happened past the Lutheran Church on Riverside Avenue, where a Nativity scene graced the front lawn. Seeing the Creche, I flew into a blind rage, unleashing a pent-up torrent of anger at God for taking Lisa. I raced across the grass and yanked a shepherd’s crook from one of the wise men and began swinging it and battering the nativity. I absolutely annihilated it, splintering every piece and leveling the scene to a pile of rubble. Year’s later I saw the scene in the film, Diner, where Kevin Bacon destroyed a Nativity scene, and I had to leave the theater, it upset me so much. Few times have I ever so totally lost control. I collapsed in the mess I made, sobbing and wailing and wishing I was dead. As I sat with my head in my hands, I felt a hand rest on my shoulder. I looked up through tears and snot to see the dirty, but concerned face of Yuletide Carol. We looked at each other for a minute, then she said, “You know, it does get better.”
I was stunned. I guess I didn’t think she could talk — at least not coherently. She sat down beside me on the grass and holy destruction and she lifted my chin and said, “You have to make a choice.” I asked her what she meant, and she told me that after her family died, she decided that she was going to only remember what made her happy: Christmas. But she said to me that she was older and her life was almost over, but that I was young and that it would be stupid for me to just let life happen to me and for me to give up. She stood up and told me that a lot of bad things happen in life — some of them even worse than what had already happened. With that she turned and walked away, singing Away in A Manger.
Bits and pieces of that experience are crystal clear, but more happened that I don’t even remember. I do remember the police showing up and the pastor of the church being called, and that he was very kind and forgiving to me and refused to press charges. I remember him as kindly as I do Carol.
I cannot say that this experience made everything okay. I was still deeply depressed and I stayed mad at God for another couple years. But I did clean up my act. And I did start treating people better and stopped blaming the world for my unhappiness. And I learned to deal with people — especially street people and those who act a little strangely with respect and kindness. We never know when we entertain angels unawares — and Yuletide Carol was indeed an angel — one who touched and transformed my life at a critical time. In this season of angels, I often recall Carol’s dirty, sweet, concerned face — and I realize once more the love of God.