In 1958, Beaufort, North Carolina, which is located on the coast near Morehead City, was a place like many other small southern towns. It was the kind of place where the humidity rose so high in the summer that walking out to get the mail made a person feel as if he needed a shower, and kids walked around barefoot from April through October beneath oak trees draped in Spanish moss. People waved from their cars whenever they saw someone on the street whether they knew him or not, and the air smelled of pine, salt, and sea, a scent unique to the Carolinas. For many of the people there, fishing in the Pamlico Sound or crabbing in the Neuse River was a way of life, and boats were moored wherever you saw the Intracoastal Waterway. Only three channels came in on the television, though television was never important to those of us who grew up there. Instead our lives were centered around the churches, of which there were eighteen within the town limits alone. They went by names like the Fellowship Hall Christian Church, the Church of the Forgiven People, the Church of Sunday Atonement, and then, of course, there were the Baptist churches. When I was growing up, it was far and away the most popular denomination around, and there were Baptist churches on practically every corner of town, though each considered itself superior to the others. There were Baptist churches of every type—Freewill Baptists, Southern Baptists, Congregational Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Independent Baptists . . . well, you get the picture.
Back then, the big event of the year was sponsored by the Baptist church downtown—Southern, if you really want to know—in conjunction with the local high school. Every year they put on their Christmas pageant at the Beaufort Playhouse, which was actually a play that had been written by Hegbert Sullivan, a minister who’d been with the church since Moses parted the Red Sea. Okay, maybe he wasn’t that old, but he was old enough that you could almost see through the guy’s skin. It was sort of clammy all the time, and translucent—kids would swear they actually saw the blood flowing through his veins—and his hair was as white as those bunnies you see in pet stores around Easter.
Anyway, he wrote this play called The Christmas Angel, because he didn’t want to keep on performing that old Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol. In his mind Scrooge was a heathen, who came to his redemption only because he saw ghosts, not angels—and who was to say whether they’d been sent by God, anyway? And who was to say he wouldn’t revert to his sinful ways if they hadn’t been sent directly from heaven? The play didn’t exactly tell you in the end—it sort of plays into faith and all—but Hegbert didn’t trust ghosts if they weren’t actually sent by God, which wasn’t explained in plain language, and this was his big problem with it. A few years back he’d changed the end of the play—sort of followed it up with his own version, complete with old man Scrooge becoming a preacher and all, heading off to Jerusalem to find the place where Jesus once taught the scribes. It didn’t fly too well—not even to the congregation, who sat in the audience staring wide-eyed at the spectacle—and the newspaper said things like “Though it was certainly interesting, it wasn’t exactly the play we’ve all come to know and love. . . .”
So Hegbert decided to try his hand at writing his own play. He’d written his own sermons his whole life, and some of them, we had to admit, were actually interesting, especially when he talked about the “wrath of God coming down on the fornicators” and all that good stuff. That really got his blood boiling, I’ll tell you, when he talked about the fornicators. That was his real hot spot. When we were younger, my friends and I would hide behind the trees and shout, “Hegbert is a fornicator!” when we saw him walking down the street, and we’d giggle like idiots, like we were the wittiest creatures ever to inhabit the planet.
Old Hegbert, he’d stop dead in his tracks and his ears would perk up—I swear to God, they actually moved—and he’d turn this bright shade of red, like he’d just drunk gasoline, and the big green veins in his neck would start sticking out all over, like those maps of the Amazon River that you see in National Geographic. He’d peer from side to side, his eyes narrowing into slits as he searched for us, and then, just as suddenly, he’d start to go pale again, back to that fishy skin, right before our eyes. Boy, it was something to watch, that’s for sure.
So we’d be hiding behind a tree and Hegbert (what kind of parents name their kid Hegbert, anyway?) would stand there waiting for us to give ourselves up, as if he thought we’d be that stupid. We’d put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, but somehow he’d always zero in on us. He’d be turning from side to side, and then he’d stop, those beady eyes coming right at us, right through the tree. “I know who you are, Landon Carter,” he’d say, “and the Lord knows, too.” He’d let that sink in for a minute or so, and then he’d finally head off again, and during the sermon that weekend he’d stare right at us and say something like “God is merciful to children, but the children must be worthy as well.” And we’d sort of lower ourselves in the seats, not from embarrassment, but to hide a new round of giggles. Hegbert didn’t understand us at all, which was really sort of strange, being that he had a kid and all. But then again, she was a girl. More on that, though, later.
Anyway, like I said, Hegbert wrote The Christmas Angel one year and decided to put on that play instead. The play itself wasn’t bad, actually, which surprised everyone the first year it was performed. It’s basically the story of a man who had lost his wife a few years back. This guy, Tom Thornton, used to be real religious, but he had a crisis of faith after his wife died during childbirth. He’s raising this little girl all on his own, but he hasn’t been the greatest father, and what the little girl really wants for Christmas is a special music box with an angel engraved on top, a picture of which she’d cut out from an old catalog. The guy searches long and hard to find the gift, but he can’t find it anywhere. So it’s Christmas Eve and he’s still searching, and while he’s out looking through the stores, he comes across a strange woman he’s never seen before, and she promises to help him find the gift for his daughter. First, though, they help this homeless person (back then they were called bums, by the way), then they stop at an orphanage to see some kids, then visit a lonely old woman who just wanted some company on Christmas Eve. At this point the mysterious woman asks Tom Thornton what he wants for Christmas, and he says that he wants his wife back. She brings him to the city fountain and tells him to look in the water and he’ll find what he’s looking for. When he looks in the water, he sees the face of his little girl, and he breaks down and cries right there. While he’s sobbing, the mysterious lady runs off, and Tom Thornton searches but can’t find her anywhere. Eventually he heads home, the lessons from the evening playing in his mind. He walks into his little girl’s room, and her sleeping figure makes him realize that she’s all he has left of his wife, and he starts to cry again because he knows he hasn’t been a good enough father to her. The next morning, magically, the music box is underneath the tree, and the angel that’s engraved on it looks exactly like the woman he’d seen the night before.