I simply cannot get through the Advent and Christmas season without being transported in mind and spirit back to the days of my childhood Sunday school. My teacher from the time I was four year’s old until I turned seven was a spinster-lady by the name of Hattie Hack. Henrietta Hack – Hattie to the grown-ups and Miss Hack to the children – was a lifelong teacher at the First Presbyterian church where I grew up. I remember once my mother telling me that Miss Hack had been an old lady when she was a small girl in Sunday school, so she held that reputation of being eternally old, eternally teaching, eternally THERE.
She stood tall at just over six feet, and she weighed all of eighty pounds. Her mouth protruded in perpetual purse, and she had dark, penetrating eyes that knew nothing of humor or kindness. She was serious about most things, and deadly serious about all things Christian. She was an institution of the Presbyterian Church (pre-ordained?) and her father had been a pastor in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She carried his pulpit Bible – a massive King James Bible weighing twenty pounds with color plates and gold leaf – as her teaching/study Bible. She would sit in a hard wood chair with the Bible open across her knees to tell us stories. She also had a collection of the most horrifying pictures from the Bible that she would gleefully show to innocent little unsuspecting children. I remember two in particular that still cause me to wake screaming in the deepest, darkest hours of the night. One was of Moses coming down from the mountain to see the Hebrew people worshipping the Golden Calf. A mass of writhing drunken and debauched people are depicted on the valley floor, with Moses standing on a summit above them. His hair is wildly flying in every direction and he has a feral Charles Manson-like visage – eyes huge and wild, spittle flying from curled lips, nostrils flared, tablets held aloft in preparation to smash them down on the sinful crowd. The pure rage and fury of the picture remains to this day. Lightning flashes in the background, and you can almost hear the thunder rumbling God’s disapproval. Powerful stuff – especially at age 4! The second picture I remember is of Isaac stripped naked and tied tight to a pyre, with Abraham mirroring the Moses face just described, his hand tangled in Isaac’s hair so that he can pull the lad’s head back. His other hand has a Scimitar-sized knife poised at his son’s throat. There is no sadness or anxiety on Abraham’s face – just pure rage and revulsion. These are images of an unrepentant people at the hands of an angry God. The intensity of these pictures illustrate the intensity of the teacher who shared them.
Hattie carried an obsession with the devil, hell, demons, and eternal damnation – an interesting platform for the 4, 5 & 6-year-old class teacher to possess. Miss Hack was one of the great lovers of the flannel-board, and I recall multiple depictions of demons with pitchforks tormenting children who talked back, didn’t clean their plates, wouldn’t go to bed when asked, and didn’t finish their homework. Hattie’s religion was firmly rooted in the Old Testament, defined by rules, laws, and the commensurate punishments when broken.
Hattie Hack held a novel and narrow view of the Christmas holidays. I remember one lesson in particular warning us off the commercialization of Christmas. Twenty-five years before Dana Carvey made it funny, our own “church lady” pointed out the similarity between the names “Santa” and “Satan”, telling a classroom of tiny children that if they believed in Santa they would offend God, disgrace Jesus and risk going to hell. The most remarkable thing about Hattie Hack was that she continued to teach. I cannot fathom adults today putting up with the grossly twisted and terrifying world view she promoted. As a pre-schooler, I learned that Christmas trees, wreaths, cookies, candies, holiday songs about reindeer, snowmen, and sleigh rides were sinful/Pagan/Barbaric and unchristian. Actually, candy canes were okay because they represented shepherd’s crooks…
The time frame for this recollection is 1964-1966 – pop-culture mavens will immediately latch onto the fact that this is the time when animated Christmas shows first hit the mainstream (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 64, Charlie Brown Christmas in 65, How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 66). Hattie Hack took this personally, and a half-century before right-wing conservatives decried the War on Christmas, Hattie enlisted and took up arms. She wrote letters to our parents, spoke up during announcements in worship, painted signs and placed them in every hallway in the church, wrote letters to the local papers, called for a boycott of the networks broadcasting the offending fare, and hosted “parties” at the church opposite the broadcast times of every non-religious Christmas shows. (The parties were flannel-board diatribes against the demonic forces of flying reindeer, talking snowmen, oh, and ghosts – Hattie had a field day with Dickens… Ignore the fact that the core messages of such holiday shows were friendship, integrity, redemption, fellowship, kindness, and the overwhelming power of love to transform the world – secular equaled Satanic in Hattie’s faith-view.
Children in my church lived for the day they would graduate and move on, and the passage to older childhood and young adolescence brought with it an unkind contempt and mockery of Miss Hack. In the self-righteousness of tweenerhood, we viewed her as a joke (of course, never to her face – we were all secretly terrified of the woman – even the pastors…). Yet, with the passage of years, God’s grace has been good, and I actually think I understand and grudgingly admire Hattie.
While I will never agree with her faith, I see that it was the most important thing in Hattie’s long, and I believe lonely, life. She was an only child of a very strict Scottish father. Her mother died when she was a toddler. She had no family in America except her church. She began teaching Sunday school when she was twelve years old and she was still teaching Sunday school when she died at age 93. While this is not substantiated, the myth is that she never missed a single Sunday in 81 years – that would work out to teaching approximately 4,200 weeks in a row. I can fairly confidently say that she never missed a week the three years I attended her class.
Hattie truly believed what she believed, and it was from a deep center of concern for the eternal soul of every single child that she crusaded as she did. She was not intending to terrify for the sake of fear, but as a motivation to faith. Wrong-headed? Perhaps, but never done with anything but the finest intentions (road to hell, and all that…). She is a memory of literally hundreds of people – somehow contributing to our faith (what to believe, as well as what NOT to believe). When she died in 1973, the funeral was standing room only – the 800 seat sanctuary couldn’t come close to handling all who came.
Part of the story I didn’t know growing up was that Hattie was not just a teacher in the sharing-of-information sense, but she was a true disciple of Jesus Christ, living what she believed. Hattie worked at the downtown Mission with the same attendance record as her Sunday school class. Hattie volunteered at the hospital. Hattie supported families through hardship. Hattie put a dozen young people through college (Bible college, but college nonetheless). Hattie visited people in nursing homes, as well as the homebound. Hattie had no life apart from her faith life. Every single day of the week, she was serving someone, helping someone, visiting someone, feeding or clothing someone. Was she also scaring the hell out of them? Most assuredly. But she never sought solely to scare the hell out of them without trying to love the hell out of them as well. Merry Christmas, Hattie. In ways both positive and negative, I will never forget you.