When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
— Matthew 2:16
God bless us everyone!
— Tiny Tim
I was in charge of the Christmas pageant for my small country church. The population of the town was 300 and my church was the only church in town. Most God fearing people went to church in larger nearby towns and cities. That meant that the children of alcoholics and ne’er-do-wells went to my church. Producing the Christmas pageant was a challenge. The good children of nearby churches had mothers who sewed authentic Biblical costumes and fathers who constructed Bethlehem from original blueprints. My children had mothers who were passed out on the sofa with cheap wine and fathers who were behind on the child support payments.
I gathered minimum props necessary to produce the tale: a crudely constructed manger and some hay … various bathrobes and long sticks for shepherds’ crooks … white sheets and cheap silver garlands for angels and halos … and one Goodwill doll Jesus wrapped in a dishtowel from my kitchen.
My “Mary” was an older girl who had body odor and anger management issues. It was not unlikely that she too would be an unwed teenage mother. Only her child would not be conceived of the Holy Spirit. Her child would be conceived in the back of a Chevy by a high school drop out who worked at the machine shop next to the church.
My script was simple. The children had no written lines. We would create a series of tableaus as the congregation sang an appropriate Christmas carol. Enter the Holy Family … “Away In a Manger” … enter the shepherds … “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” … enter the angels … “Angels We Have Heard on High.” A simple but doable production.
The one rehearsal on Saturday went fine. Holy Family. Check. Shepherds. Check. Angels. Check. There were only a few minor adjustments.
“Billy, on Sunday do not wear the Black Sabbath Concert Tour t-shirt with your bathrobe.”
“Shepherds, do not make farting noises with your lips on your arms as the angels enter. Yes, it is funny … but don’t do it.”
“Joseph, stand closer to Mary when you reach the manger. No, she does not stink. Mary, quit hitting Joseph with the Jesus doll.”
The Sunday of the performance things seem to be falling into place. The children gathered at the back of the sanctuary and I was pleased that a few of their parents had come to the service.
Angels to the rear, adjust your halos. Third shepherd, zip up your pants. Joseph, where is Mary? I’m sure she will be here soon.
I welcomed the parents and was relieved to see that Mary had slipped into position as I launched into the “there-was-no-room-in-the-inn” portion of the narration. And just as the pianist was to strike the first chord of “Away In the Manger,” Mary yelled out from the back of the sanctuary, “Where the hell is Jesus?”
The production went downhill from there.
The thing that I have noticed about Christmas pageants is that they tend to disregard certain elements of the story. The wise men are brought in with the shepherds and few productions portray Joseph nearly backing out of the deal until he has a bad dream. But most curiously of all I have never, ever seen a production that mentions Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
There are no young boys dressed as Roman soldiers brandishing cardboard swords. The platform is not strewn with Goodwill baby dolls painted with splotches of red paint to represent the boys of Bethlehem. There is no teenage Herod laughing maniacally center stage, shouting at the top of his lungs: “Kill them! Kill them all!” It’s just not very Christmassy.
In the scripture, when Matthew records this horrible incident he concludes it by alluding to an ancient prophecy:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
We do not tell this dark tale at Christmas because the wail of the inconsolable Rachels would frighten the angels.
Las Vegas, Nevada
The story of my second gay Christmas is a dark tale. I apologize in advance. I do not tell it to garner your sympathy or to spoil your Christmas pudding. I am Rachel in Ramah and telling this story brings me a small amount of comfort.
My first gay Christmas my mother died. My second gay Christmas I met Dale. My third gay Christmas I left the ministry.
I met Dale on the internet. (Please stop rolling your eyes.) A small window appeared on my screen and in an Instant Message a man from Las Vegas, Nevada was introducing himself. I don’t remember much of the electronic chitchat. I do, however, remember that there was enough chemistry in our conversation that he asked if he could call me on the phone.
Having only begun the process of coming out I was flattered that someone found me “irresistibly charming.” We discovered that we had a great deal in common. We were both 48. We both had two sisters and a brother. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a lot we had in common but it seemed like it at the time. We talked for two hours and then said “good night” several hundred times. Our first conversation took place the week before Thanksgiving.
We talked on the phone almost every night before Thanksgiving. He was going to Atlanta for the holiday. I was spending it with friends in town. Before he left for Atlanta he said he was sending me a gift, a surprise.
Thanksgiving came and went. On Friday the mailman put a package in my mailbox. It was the surprise from Dale. I have never opened a gift so excitedly in my entire life. Under the wrapping was a video entitled: Wilde. It was a telling of the life of Oscar Wilde, the English playwright who had spent years in prison for being gay. And with the movie was a letter. I do not know if I saved the letter but if I did I have no desire to go looking for it. In part it read something to the effect:
David, I hope you enjoy this movie. Maybe it will give you something to do on your day off. I don’t know where our friendship will go, but I do know that you are a special person. Love, Dale.
Dale had beautiful handwriting. I watched the video and reread the letter. That evening I sent him flowers.
After the Thanksgiving holiday we resumed our nightly telephone conversations. I was so happy to have someone to say good night to at the end of the day, even if it was just over the phone.
One of the things we talked about on the phone was “what do you look like?” I had sent him a picture of me and I had two pictures of him. I knew he was six foot three. Those of you that know me, know that I am not six foot three.
From the outset I told Dale that I was short. At one point I said, “Dale, do you have tape measure? Take it out and mark five foot three on your wall. Stand next to it. Can you handle that?” He assured me that my height was not a problem. The fact that I was bald was not a problem.
There was one secret that I held back for several days, but I decided that if this relationship was going to go anywhere he needed to know. “Dale, I have something I have not told you … I am a pastor.” He laughed, “That is your horrible, terrible, dark secret?” Again, it was not a problem. In fact he began to joke about “being the pastor’s wife.” I was relieved.
Eventually, the subject came up of meeting in person. Christmas was now only a couple of weeks away. It seemed like the logical time. But I was also aware that it might not be a good time, “Dale, you realize that this Christmas I will be very vulnerable. My mother died last year only days before Christmas.” (A freak blizzard had delayed my mother’s memorial service. I vamped my way through twenty minutes of Christmas carols trying to keep the people entertained.) I also reminded him that as a pastor I would have certain obligations on Christmas Eve.
The “certain obligations” that year included a Bluegrass Christmas Eve service. I was thrilled because I had arranged for a five-piece bluegrass band to be featured at the church’s Christmas Eve service. I had fronted $2000 of my own money to make it happen and spent a lot of time on publicity in the community.
Dale assured me that things would be fine. And I told myself what better way to spend Christmas than to wake up in the arms of a man. It was agreed. Dale would fly in on Christmas Eve and spend three days in Portland.
The next several phone conversations revolved around making our Christmas Plans. I would reserve a table at the Heathman on Christmas Day for our evening meal. We planned what we would cook for breakfast that morning. Dale had never had a Christmas stocking, so I made a day’s excursion out of finding a Christmas stocking and finding fun and wonderful things to put in it.
It was one of the first Christmases I remember feeling the joy of gift shopping. I went to Powell’s bookstore and I found two books to buy for Dale. The first was as small book on walking tours of Portland. The second book was photographic essay of Oregon. I was so excited because in the book was a photograph of the Grande Ronde Valley, the place I grew up. The picture captured perfectly the beauty that place held in my heart. I brought the gifts home and put on Christmas music and wrote sappy notes in the front of each book. After the books were wrapped, I placed them on the hearth of the fireplace. I then hung Dale’s stocking. This was going to be the best Christmas ever!
The night before Christmas Eve Dale and I talked on the phone. He had a sore throat, but wild horses couldn’t keep him from coming to Portland. “You know I would be heart-broken if you could not come to Portland.” “I know,” he replied.
We played that silly game of who would hang up the phone first and then said good night. At 10:30 pm the phone rang again. My heart sank. Was it Dale calling to say that he had cold feet and would not be coming? Had he changed his mind?
“I was worried that you were calling to say that you weren’t coming.”
“No. I just called to say good night again. I wanted to get used to saying that.”
Now at this point you need to know that I had waited 45 years to hear those words. Being in the closet had robbed me of some very simple pleasures; saying good night to someone was one of them.
Christmas Eve 1999 in Portland was one of the most beautiful mornings I ever remember. There was a crystal clear blue sky. As I drove to the airport, Mt. Hood posed for a postcard. The radio in my car cranked out all the schmaltzy Christmas music. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
I arrived at the airport nearly an hour early. I sat at the terminal waiting. I clutched at the card I had made Dale. I wanted to bring flowers, but Dale told me not to bring flowers. The card had a picture of a rose and the words, “I love you” written inside. I knew what Dale looked like and what kind of shirt he would be wearing. The plane finally arrived and people began to deboard the plane. I tried to contain my excitement. The plane was full and it was a jostle of people as they exited the plane. I thought I spotted Dale in the plaid shirt and rose to go smile and hand him the card. As I got close I realized that the man was not Dale. More people exited and Dale was not among them. The last person to leave the plane was Dale.
There was a certain look in his eye as I handed him the card that should have clued me, but I chalked it up to nervousness or bad airplane food. “I hope the card isn’t too dumb.” We went to the baggage claim area and I tried to make small talk. Fortunately his bags appeared rather quickly and we soon seated in my Honda. I leaned over and gave him a small kiss, “Welcome to Portland.” Nothing. He’s just nervous, I convinced myself.
Because his plane arrived around lunchtime we decided a quick lunch would be in order. I had a lot details to attend to and it would allow Dale some time to unpack and get settled in. “A hamburger at the DQ sound okay?” He seemed to relax a little as we dunked French fries in little white paper cups of ketchup. We cleared the table and went to the car.
I began to put my key in the ignition. “Take me to the airport.” I smiled and turned to look at Dale assured he was joking. “Take me to airport.” He repeated his request and the stoic look on his face told me he was not joking. I was speechless, I managed to say, “You’re kidding, right?” He repeated his request in a monotone mantra. “I want to go home. Take me to the airport.”
I was so stunned I couldn’t cry. “Dale, I realize that I may be a disappointment. This doesn’t have to be about romance. I have a spare bedroom. This can be about friendship. Portland is wonderful city and I would like to be your tour guide.”
“Take me to airport or let me call a cab.”
“Let’s at least go to my house and talk about what’s going on in your mind. I deserve at least that.”
I started the car and drove to my house. I opened the trunk and went in to call a cab. I couldn’t believe this was happening. After calling a cab I made a quick phone call to Pat Moore, a close friend whom I knew would not say, “I told you so.” Unbelievably he was home and answered my call. I gave a hurried explanation, “Can you meet me at the church?”
As I left to return to Dale and the car I scooped up the two gifts off of the hearth. Dale was standing at the curb with his luggage. “Here, I want you to have these.”
“I don’t want them.” I was stunned yet again.
“Dale, take the presents. Have the decency to at least take the presents and pretend to be thankful. When you get the airport throw them in the garbage if you want.” I set the two gifts on his luggage and then got in the car and drove to the church.
The rest of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of that year are a blur of pain. Pat consoled me at the church. I prepared the sanctuary for that evening’s service. The music that under any other circumstances would have elated me now just seemed like an annoying buzz in the background. I managed to preach that evening. I went to a late candlelight service with friends, just so I would not be alone, just so that I would not be reminded there would be no one to say, “good night.”
On Christmas morning I went to my email thinking that Dale would have written an apology of some sort. There was no message waiting. I wrote him a note something to the effect, “As painful as this has been for me, I can only guess that there is a deeper pain in your life that would allow you to do this.”
The last image I have of all of this is returning to my house that night, opening the screen door and having two gifts fall at my feet. I was never given any explanation for the worst Christmas of my life.
The next year, Christmas 2000, I walked away from twenty years of pastoral ministry to come out as a gay man and began the New Year by returning my certificate of ordination to the Church of the Nazarene.
I keep celebrating Christmas. There are no teddy bears on the mantle like previous years. No stockings are hung. But I keep celebrating Christmas. How can a writer stop celebrating a holiday whose primary premise is, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us …”?
Comfort and Joy from your friend,