Dec. 24, 2009

Table Grace

by Gary Johnson

Here we sit as evening falls
Like old horses in their stalls.
Thank you, Father, that you bless
Us with food and an address
And the comfort of your hand
In this great and blessed land.
Look around at each dear face,
Keep each one in your good grace.
We think of those who went before,
And wish we could have loved them more.
Grant to us a cheerful heart,
Knowing we must soon depart
To that far land to be with them.
And now let's eat. Praise God. Amen.

"Table Grace" by Gary Johnson. Used with permission of the poet.

Today is Christmas Eve, the subject of the beloved holiday poem that begins:
"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."

It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars. In many areas, the truce held until Christmas night, while in other places the truce did not end until New Year's Day.

It's Christmas week, and we're celebrating with Christmas stories. There's a story called "Dancing Dan's Christmas," by Damon Runyon. (books by this author) Runyon set many stories in New York City of the Roaring Twenties, creating characters who coolly defied Prohibition laws.

It's Christmas Eve and a few buddies are at a speakeasy owned by Good Time Charley on West 47th and Columbus. They're drinking mugs of hot Tom and Jerry, glossed by the narrator as "an old-time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry."

There's a knock at the front door and in comes a good-looking, well-dressed young guy by the name of Dancing Dan, and he's got a package under one arm. Dan's legendary for his dancing skills and also for his suspected involvement in illegal activities. He throws down the package and has a few rounds of Tom and Jerrys, declares that he likes the drink so much he'd recommend Tom and Jerry to everyone he knows, except that he does not know anyone good enough for Tom and Jerry, "except maybe Miss Muriel O'Neill" — a nightclub employee whom he adores.

They lock the front door to the speakeasy as a precaution against running out of Tom and Jerry for themselves, put a sign up that the place is closed on account of Christmas, and keep drinking. A guy dressed as Santa knocks on the door, and they recognize that it's their pal Ooky, who's usually a janitor for a clothing store but this week has been doing advertising duty dressed up as Santa. They let him in and give him Tom and Jerrys, and he soon passes out drunk. A very intoxicated Dancing Dan decides to try on Santa Claus's outfit. They strip snoring Santa of his suit, put it on Dancing Dan, and decide to go do Santa's work: stuff stockings.

The enthusiastic drunk men head up Broadway a couple blocks to W. 49th Street, wishing Merry Christmas to passersby, and arrive at the little tenement flat where Miss Muriel O'Neill lives with her grandma. They walk through an unlocked door and find a patched-up, heavily-mended stocking. Dancing Dan unslings his Santa sack, opens the package he'd had under his arm when he came into the speakeasy hours before, and dumps out a bunch of diamonds — diamond rings, diamond bracelets, diamond brooches and diamond necklaces — into Grandma's hung stocking.

The narrator suddenly remembers headlines from the afternoon papers about the robbery of a diamond merchant. A few weeks later, he learns that Grandma O'Neill dies just after Christmas believing that there is a God. Her daughter, Muriel, called the diamond merchant to return the stolen goods, and he rewards her with $10,000 for her honesty. And outlaw Dancing Dan has gone off to San Francisco to reform himself of his outlaw ways so that he can train to become a dance instructor and in good faith court Miss Muriel O'Neill.

"Dancing Dan's Christmas" can be found in Guys and Dolls: The Stories of Damon Runyon (1992). It can also be found in a treasury entitled Christmas Stories (2007), edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, part of the Everyman's Pocket Classics series:

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