The Prayer Is In the Pipe

December 24, 2019


The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Prayer is in the Pipe”
Christmas Eve Meditation, 2019
Scripture Reference: Luke 2: 1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
          ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
          and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


‘Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung
by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas
soon would be there;

The children were nestled
all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums
danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ’kerchief,
and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains
for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn
there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed
to see what was the matter.

Away to the window
I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters
and threw up the sash!

Let’s stop there. “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or as it is sometimes called by its first line, “Twas the night before Christmas,” this poem is a woven into our imagination; this is Christmas; it is, to quote Cindy Loo Hoo, very holiday.
When it was written, though, it was a kind of wish, a dream, or hope for the future. It is hard to see how this was a wish, but Clement Clark Moore gives many clues that help us understand why he wrote the poem and what amazing power it possess.
The first clue is the “clatter” on the lawn. In 1822 in Manhattan, which is the location of the poem, a clatter on the lawn on Christmas Eve was a wealthy landowner’s great nightmare. Bands of revelers roamed the streets on Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. They were poor, out work young immigrants who demanded to be fed and given drink by patricians, or Knickerbockers as they were called. They were loud and riotous and often times destructive.
Clement Clark Moore was a Knickerbocker. He owned Chelsea. He didn’t live in Chelsea, he owned the entire section of the city. Moore, like the man in the poem, lived in a home where children dreamed of sugar plums and there were windows with shutters and sash. If you were reading this poem in 1822, you would have held your breath here. Violence was about to happen. For even if you plied the mob with food and drink, they might still vandalize your home and steal your goods. But it was not a mob the father saw on the lawn.

The moon on the breast
of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day
to objects below,

When, what to my wondering eyes
should appear,
But a miniature sleigh,
and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver,
so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment
it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles
his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted,
and called them by name;

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer!
Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid!
on, Donder and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch!
to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away!
Dash away all!”

Clement Clark Moore did not invent Santa Claus or St. Nick. But he did bring him to us in a way that changed our lives. And our lives needed changing. Manhattan in 1822 was a place of profound chaos. The city had grown from 30,000 in 1790 to 270,000 in 1830. This was a time of revolution and uprising. The city was emerging and it was rife with violence and poverty and hunger and homelessness.
Moore was literally being surrounded and overrun by change; the world he knew was vanishing right before his eyes. At first he tried to fight it, but then he did something that changed us forevermore. He wrote this poem and, in this poem, he took a traditional image, St. Nick, and he combined with the great challenges of the day. What he did was two things. The first we can see in the image of St. Nick. Listen to his description.

As dry leaves that before
the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle,
mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top
the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys,
and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling,
I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing
of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head,
and was turning around,
Down the chimney
St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur,
from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished
with ashes and soot;

A bundle of Toys
he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler
just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled!
his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses,
his nose like a cherry!

Moore describes St. Nick, not as a bishop as he was in tradition; he described him as a poor worker, a peddler, homeless perhaps. And St. Nick is a bit tipsy. It was common for the working poor to be paid partly in ale; and when you work for ale you eyes twinkle and your cheeks and nose are rosy.
But the real change is yet to come. By making Santa a peddler with a pack who is dirty and happy, but somehow a kind person, a saint as it were, Moore is reimagining the rabble, he is suggesting the threat might not be true. And then, he keeps going.

His droll little mouth
was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was
as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe
he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled
his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face
and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed,
like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump,
a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him,
in spite of myself;

We are almost to the best part of the poem. Before we read it though and hear the blessing of Christmas we need to linger with the pipe. For the Christmas prayer of the poem is in the pipe.
In 1822 in Manhattan, men smoked pipes. If you were wealthy or a man of means you smoked a long alabaster pipe, some were close to two feet long. If you were a worker, a tradesman, you broke the long, elegant stem and smoked just the stump. Moore is painting a picture of Santa as a worker, a tradesman, and thus an immigrant, a foreigner, a person living life day to day. The man Moore describes has nothing in common with him; they live in different worlds as far as east is to west. And, yet, the pipe is where we find the hope. They are different but they have something in common. We start to see this in their shared laughter. They are both laughing; “laughed . . . in spite of myself.” But then the true connection comes clear.

A wink of his eye
and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know
I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word,
but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings;
then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger
aside of his nose,
And giving a nod,
up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh,
to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like
the down of a thistle,

But I heard him exclaim,
ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all,
and to all a good-night.”

The common ground, the shared part of life, was children. Poor or rich, immigrant or landed gentry, educated or rabble, we love our children. St. Nick is the one who blesses children. Moore changed our lives; he changed the tradition of Christmas from one of tension, fear, to common joy. “I had nothing to fear.”
This is the finger to the nose. “You and I we are both hoping to love, to raise our children, to bless them. We both know, we are in this together. I can bless you; you can bless me. What is most important, what binds us together, is our children.
And so it is we gather on this night and rejoice, we sing and we pray, we break bread and pour the cup. We do this for what? For the child. For unto us a child was born, a savior, on this night. Here we begin again. Here we lay aside all of our difference, all of our pride and foolishness, here we let rancor and discord cease, so we can bless the children.
In this moment, God is born unto us, a new life full of hope. We look for the day when we can begin and end this season without needing to fear, to have divisions and strife. We look for this day, it is the prayer in the pipe. We are one in our hope, our love, our prayer for peace: unto us a child has been born, a savior. Let this prayer live in all of us tonight.

But I heard him exclaim,
ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all,
and to all a good-night.”

Merry Christmas. Amen.

Bible References

  • Luke 2:1 - 20