ROSWELL, GA. : Celestine Sibley reads 'Daily Strengths for Daily Needs' a book containing scripture, poetry & early New England philosophers work. Photo taken at her Sweet Apple cabin. (AJC Staff Photo/Joey Ivansco, October 1997)

Celestine Sibley: Christmas means love

Editor’s note: Late Atlanta Constitution publisher Ralph McGill knowingly dubbed her "the queen of our news shop." For more than 50 years, AJC reporter and columnist Celestine Sibley informed and entertained millions of readers up until her death in 1999. Here is a column that appeared on Christmas Day 1987 under a headline “Christmas means love.”

A young girl named Tiffany who lives in Snellville is doing a research paper for her honors program in junior English. "I'm basing my report on how you write about Christmas," she wrote, adding: "If you would tell me about why you love Christmas and enjoy writing about it so, it would be most appreciated. Thank you!" 

Thank you, Tiffany. 

You have made me pause in the midst of the pressures and confusion and weariness that inevitably accompany the weeks before Chistmas to ask some questions myself - and to savor and be mindful of the quiet pleasures, the little revelations that come with this day. 

When you are older - and I know girls your age hate sentences that begin that way - you will know that the getting and giving today, however much fun they are, amount to a very small part of what Shakespeare called "the most holy and reverent season." You will know, if you are perceptive, as I think you are, that of all the days in the year, this one is most glorious, most precious because its message is one all kinds of people in all walks of life try to demonstrate in the fumbling, inexpert ways of human beings. That is love. 

"Christmas means love" by Celestine Sibley was published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Christmas Day in 1987. Here is a copy of the article as it appeared, with illustration by Vernon Carne.

Because of the birth of that little baby 2,000 years ago in the most humble, even dangerous, circumstances, we have some valuable instructions, which many of us think of only sketchily most of the year. At Christmas, we try to love one another, to forgive those who have treated us badly, to do good to our enemies, to share what we have with "the least of these," the helpless and the hungry, those who are in jail and those who are ill. 

That's a pretty big order, I know, Tiffany. But I have seen it work, and maybe that's why I am moved to write about it so often. All around us in this city, there are shabby, striving men and women with the most radiant faith in the importance of love, even the necessity of loving. I think about some I have known. 

There was an old woman named Miss Lucy Gartrell who traveled the streets of Atlanta wearing deepest black, winter and summer. She ate out of garbage cans and slept in alleyways and the bus station until one wintry night they insisted that she move on. After that, a remarkably kind and generous man who was poet laureate of Georgia and wrote a rhyming comment on the day's news for our paper - his name was Ollie Reeves - gave me money to rent a room and buy some food for Miss Lucy. (She refused to apply for an old-age pension, denouncing it as "charity - and our family has never received charity.") 

It wasn't a lot of money, but it kept her warm and alive, and one day just before Christmas, she came to see me, bringing a shopping bag. She had spent her week's money for food on gloves and a scarf and a pocketbook for her sister, who was a patient at Milledgeville State Hospital for the insane, the sister who in the throes of mental illness had been hateful and cruel to her for many years. 

Even as I wrapped the presents for Miss Lucy, I protested. 

"You are sending gifts to her?" I demanded. "She was mean to you!" 

The shriveled little woman in the grotesque garb drew herself up haughtily and said crisply, "It's Christmas. Don't I have the right to buy a pretty for my sister?" 

The obligation to love and forgive was strong in the lonely and impoverished little body. 

And there was Mrs. Arizona Bell, Tiffany. I wish you could have known her - a sturdy, independent, very old woman who sold our newspaper at the corner of Broad and Walton streets in all kinds of weather every night for many years. She claimed to be an ex-circus rider who performed with Buffalo Bill Cody, and she insisted that she was more than 90 years old, although her energy seemed to contradict that. 

Christmas night downtown is a very quiet time. Few places are open and operating, but the buses still run, and Mrs. Bell took on as her personal responsibility making sure that bus passengers and drivers could get their nightly newspaper. She brought a thermos of coffee for the drivers she called "my boys." 

One Christmas night, we found her there, wearing the old Army coat and Red Grange-type football helmet that caused a generation of Atlanta children to call her "Halfback." She was shivering from the cold and coughing badly. Some of us called Grady Hospital, and an ambulance was sent to pick her up. The intern accompanying it thought she might have pneumonia. 

"I won't go a step!" Mrs. Bell insisted. "It's lonesome down here on Christmas might for folks who have to work. I got my papers to sell, and my boys need their coffee." 

She went finally, but only because we promised her we would stay on her corner and dispense coffee and her papers until the last bus ran. She did indeed have pneumonia, but overreaching and outshining that was her love, her caring, her belief that Chistmas especially required something from her. 

Oh, I know there are people who say Christmas is at best legend, at worst a commercial ploy. I heard a man on television making a lot over the date. Jesus he contended, was not born on Dec. 25, but sometime in March, when, according to the best historical evidence, the shepherds could have been watching their flocks in the fields. Presumably, they were all in their fold on the night of Dec. 25. 

What does that matter? 

Who could quibble about a date when they hear the music of Christmas? The voices of mighty choirs lifted in the majestic oratories is wonderful, but the other night, I sat in a candlelit church and heard the Atlanta Boy Choir and the Sandy Springs chamber music group in concert. And it was a small thing that brought a lump to my throat and stays with me even today. In the midst of the powerful and passionate rendition of a medley of Christmas music by orchestra and chorus, there was a sudden hush and the pure, sweet voices of the little boys rose in the candlelit, Christmas-tree-scented air. 

"Noel! Noel!" sang the children, and it struck me that all over the world, the hearts of people were liftingto the sound. 

There are many things I love about Christmas. The times spent with my children and grandchildren, making cookies with the bent, old tin gingerbread man and lambs and the pointed tree that were my mother's, tramping through the woods in search of the "right" Christmas tree, going to the home of a friend and standing by the piano while singers, often more enthusiastic than talented, sing the poignant words to old hymns. I love being on the street and seeing people toiling along with their shopping bags, riding the bus and seeing a young woman balance a list and a box of cards on her knees while she writes messages to friends and relatives. 

And today I wish for you, Tiffany, and for all the little girls in the world, some of the material things you longed for, pleasure in all the legends we cherish, Santa Claus and Rudolf, the red-nosed one, and the Grinch. But most of all, I wish for you what I think is the great gift of Christmas - love to receive and love to give.

READ MORE: Celebrating Celestine Sibley at the century mark

Why Ralph McGill called Celestine Sibley ‘queen of our news shop’

Her last column: Back porch soothes when sleep won’t come [1999]

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