Happy Birthday JesusEven when Christians are faced with different cultures and language barriers the message of Jesus remains the same. He is our Savior and I hope you will think of Him often during the whole year, not just at Christmas time. – Bob

Happy Birthday, Dear Jesus, Happy Birthday to You!

It was Christmas Day 1967 and the snow was falling fast and furiously. A white Christmas for sure. It had snowed all night and had made our world a beautiful white sculpture, like you expect to see on a picture postcard.

We could not remember another genuinely white Christmas; some ice from time to time, and a few flakes that excited our senses, but never a really “white” Christmas, like this one!
We were in Nashville, Tennessee, for a year’s leave-of-absence from my teaching at Wingate to study at Vanderbilt University; hopefully the homestretch of a doctoral program. We had visited my parents some thirty miles away on Christmas Eve because of somber weather reports.

Our children were thrilled at the snow. We lived on 19th Avenue in sight of Vanderbilt on 21st, and looking out from our Scarritt College apartment, we knew we were in for the day.

All was well. We were prepared, and Santa had come. Presents were piled high around our live decorated Christmas tree. Our children played most of the morning with the toys and various gifts they opened for Christmas. We had read the Christmas story and talked about the meaning of this special time.

We had been to several Christmas programs at the church near where we lived. The Christian Education Center in the basement of our apartment building which was run by the Christian Education Department of Scarritt College had focused on the Christmas story.

Even at that young age, both Jo and Bill (ages 4 and 3; this was before Allen was born) knew the Bible story and could sing the Christmas songs from church. This was a special Christmas. Here we were in Nashville, 450 miles or so from our home in Wingate, snowbound for the day, but happy and excited about Christmas.

There was one other event that made this a Christmas that we reminisced about many, many times. Alice and I still remember and our memory has become a memory for our children.

The Greshams who also lived in the apartments were from India. There was Mr. Gresham, Mrs. Gresham whose name was Elizabeth, and their daughter, Emily. They had come to the United States for Mrs. Gresham, Elizabeth, to work on a Christian Education degree at Scarritt College.

We never knew Mr. Gresham’s first name. It always reminded me of some character out of a James Bond movie, like Rahajime, or something like that. We simply called him Mr. Gresham.

Emily was high school age and had baby sat for us several times. Both Emily and her mother wore the traditional garb of their native India, the long, wrap-around sarong and sandals and many times the red dot in the middle of their forehead.

Mr. Gresham was dressed like a typical business man. In fact, when they made plans to come to the United States, he had gotten a job somewhere in Pennsylvania. They said Pennsylvania and Tennessee did not look that far apart on the map.

Late in the afternoon on this particular snowy Christmas day, after our children had worn themselves out playing with their “Santa Claus” gifts, and had finished their usual afternoon naps, Emily appeared at our apartment door with an invitation. We were invited to a “birthday party” in their apartment, a birthday party for Jesus.

With the excited glee of Jo and Bill we accepted, and about supper time went to celebrate with a cake and candles, the singing of “Happy birthday to you . . .”, and the eating of a light supper and birthday cake.

It was indeed a memorable occasion. Here we were, a typical American family and a family from the other side of the world with different customs, a different native language, who were far away from their home in India, but drawn together by similar interests.

I was a student of New Testament at Vanderbilt University School of Religion, Elizabeth was studying for a degree in Christian Education at Scarritt College, we lived in the same apartment building on the Scarritt campus, we were friends, Emily was our baby sitter and felt close to our children, and . . . most special of all, we were drawn together by our Christian faith in Jesus as Lord and our celebration of His birth.

That year in Nashville was special for us all. We met and became friends with people from many places. We had a map of the world on our living room wall where we marked with colored pins where our many new friends came from and were going back to after their degrees were earned – the Philippines, the Belgium-Congo (later Zaire, and then later the Belgium-Congo again), Germany, American missionary kids, who knew no English when the year started, from Brazil, from out west Native American Indians who had been adopted by parents who also were in graduate school at Scarritt, adopted Korean kids, and several others.

Our children were becoming very cosmopolitan, knowing other kids from around the world. Our son Bill thought all languages that were not English were German.

Sometimes after an afternoon of play on the playground with the many other children in the apartments, Bill would say, “Mom, why do all those kids speak German?” I was amazed that language was no barrier to their play. Sarah, the daughter of Methodist missionary friends from the Belgium-Congo, and Bill were both three years old and played together.

Bill talked about Wingate and Sarah talked about the Congo. Both talked about “going home.” Bill asked his mother one day, “We can drive to Wingate. Can Sarah drive to the Congo?” That is when we got the idea for a world-map for our living room wall. Our children learned geography that way.

It was a good year. Jo, Bill, and later Allen feel close to Scarritt College (no longer a degree-granting college, but a place for year-round “elder hostels” and a place for continuing study for furloughing Methodist missionaries), Peabody College (now a part of Vanderbilt), and Vanderbilt University.

After our two different years of sabbatical study and our many summers for degree completion for both Byrns and Alice at Vanderbilt, they feel they “grew up” on those campuses there.

It’s been 44 years since that good year. We went back several other times for study times. Even after that many years, we still remember that snowy Christmas day in 1967 when we sat with a family from India and sang

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,

happy birthday, Dear Jesus, happy birthday to you!”

We lighted the candle to remind us of “the light of the world” and we ate cake and worshiped God!

So, every Christmas, Alice and I and our children and their families will remember that special snowy Christmas day so long ago and say sincerely, “Happy Birthday, Jesus.”

December, 2009

About the Author

G. Byrns Coleman is a retired Professor of Religion and Chair of Department of Religion & Philosophy, Wingate University, Wingate, NC . He is also a member of Wingate Baptist Church .

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