A couple of years ago, I wrote a short post about one of my heroes, the late Ralph McGill, the crusading columnist/editor/publisher of the Atlanta Constitution.
McGill often was called “The conscience of the South.” He was brilliant, articulate, a keen observer of people and events and everything else. The world was his beat, the South was his passion.
Some of McGill’s columns assailed racism and hidebound provinciality; some were quiet reflections on nature or daily life; some showcased people, both the famous and the obscure, in life and in death.
On a Monday, his column might recall a fond memory of childhood. On Tuesday, he might bring tears or laughter — or sting with Old Testament vengeance. He was forceful and fearless when taking a stand.
Polls showed that readers were evenly divided about McGill — half loved him and half hated him. His colleague Jack Tarver observed that many readers could not eat breakfast before reading McGill’s column, while others could not eat breakfast after reading it.
I followed Ralph McGill’s columns faithfully for many years, and I idolized the man. He addressed important issues in an inspiring manner. Also, as a fledgling writer, I tried to pay attention. McGill showed me how to think critically and to observe. In a real sense, he helped make me the person I am today.
I tend to remember Ralph McGill as a firebrand and a crusader for justice, which he was. But he was equally effective when he spoke quietly.
This week, it seems appropriate to present a few thoughts from McGill about Christmas. The following is from his column of December 23, 1957:
A Story for Children
Jesus was born, as we all know, in one of several caves or stalls cut into the side of a hill at Bethlehem. It was one of the stalls of a caravanserai. You may see them even today in parts of the Holy Land, in India and in Arabia.
They are picturesque places, where the camel, donkey or horse caravans come. Their attendants sleep in the stalls or on piles of straw and blankets in the open by their animals.
Wherever there are horses and camels, there is grain. And wherever there is grain, there are birds.
Now, legend has it that in the stall where Jesus was born there was a little brown bird which had its nest high in the top of the stall on the ledge of rock. It is a most inconspicuous bird. It could not sing a note. He lived a very dull life, and he was shy and sad because he could not sing like the other birds.
One night, as the lonely and little bird slept on his nest, he was awakened by a great white light in his cave-like stall. He could hear the angels singing. And one of them said:
“Sing with us, little bird.”
“Alas,” he said, “I cannot sing.”
“Try,” said the angel.
And the little bird did try and found that he really could sing the joyous songs the angels were singing. He was so happy he sang with them, song for song.
And that is why, even today, the poets and everyone else agree the nightingale sings like an angel.
The following is from McGill’s column of December 24, 1958:
To Be Read to a Child
Early Christians had stories for their children. In their stories, Christ touched the lives, not only of men but of birds and animals.
There was one about how the robin got his red breast:
The bird called the robin had lived in the East long before Jesus was born. He was an undistinguished bird of olive-gray color, but good natured, and of a good heart.
On the night that Jesus was born, a robin was asleep in a tree near the stall.
Joseph and his relatives had built a fire not far from the mouth of the cave and they were sleeping on goat’s-hair blankets placed on straw. The women were with Mary.
All of a sudden a great light came from the mouth of the cave and awakened the gray bird and the men, who ran to the cave.
The bird watched all this from his tree. All at once he saw that the fire which Joseph and his family had left was about to go out. So he flew down and began to fan it with his wings. The flames grew into bright red ones, and he kept fanning until the fire was good and hot.
And because it was a holy occasion, everywhere the reflection of the flames touched the helpful bird, his feathers turned the bright red color of the fire and have remained so to this day.
That is why the bird came to be called “Robin,” which means “bright with flame.”
Perhaps the most charming legend is of how the lightning bug got its light. The story is:
Once upon a time they were just ordinary long, black bugs with wings. They flew in the daytime because they couldn’t see at night.
One night almost two thousand years ago one of these bugs was asleep in a cave near Bethlehem. It was one of several such caves used as stalls and was really the first motel.
Just as we have motels for travelers in automobiles, there were places for caravans in ancient times. There were no beds, nor rooms, and those traveling with the caravans had to sleep on the straw or blankets in front of the stalls.
It was in one of those stalls that the little black bug was asleep.
All of a sudden he was awakened by people coming into the stall. This didn’t bother him, and despite the noise he went back to sleep.
All of a sudden, though, he was awakened by a wonderful, soft white light which filled the cave. He looked down and saw a beautiful young woman with a baby in her arms and all about was the beautiful light. Then the angels came into the cave and began to sing.
The little bug was looking on, his eyes big with excitement. Suddenly, one of the angels took a bright, green jewel from her crown and laid it up on the small ledge of rock where the bug was. She put it down right on the bug.
“Ouch,” he said.
But the angel didn’t hear him. And after she had rearranged her crown she picked up the jewel and put it back in place.
It was then that the bug noticed that the back part of his body was lighted up with a light, just like the color of the jewel. After the angels left, so the mother and child could sleep, it was dark again, but he could still see because of his own light.
So he flew out of the cave and went about to tell all the other night bugs of the wondrous event in the cave. And ever after that he and all his children’s children have had a light to carry with them at night because he was lucky enough to have been in the cave where Jesus was born.
And last, the story below is from McGill’s column of December 25, 1938…
From the office window I watched Christmas eve come to Atlanta. It came slowly across a cloudy sky. Dusk came creeping down the street; “first dark,” as the Negroes call it.
Smoke from the trains billowed up. Lights took on a yellow sheen. The sidewalks were crowded with hurrying people. Old, young, messenger boys, children, all a part of the parade, all going somewhere.
The story of the first Christmas is a majestic, tremendous story because of its simplicity and its subject. It, too, was a part of a city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocks. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them, and they feared with a great fear.
And the angel said unto them: Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of joy, that shall be to all people; For: This day is born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying; Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.
That, too, had its accompanying voices. There were the narrow streets, the crowded city, the soft sound of the feet of camels and donkeys, the smell of spices and the odors from the shops and houses.
And there was Herod, plotting and preparing to go out and slay cruelly and wantonly.
There are those, cruel and harsh, who seek by terror to build strength. They will be forgot or remembered with curses as is Herod. The story of the first Christmas will be remembered when all their names are dust.