Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 09: Biography
Series 16: Celebrations, Special & Annual Events – Christmas
Series 31: Religion
ALICE COBB STORIES “Pre-Christmas Sunday School at PMSS 1934”
TAGS: Alice Cobb Stories “Pre-Christmas Sunday School at PMSS”; Alice Cobb; Pine Mountain Settlement School, Harlan County, Kentucky; Christmas; kitchens; foodways; Community House; Big Laurel Medical Settlement; Lexine Baird; Miss Josephine Merrill; Virginia Lee Callahan; B.C. Boone Callahan; Earl Cornett; Nativity; Sunday School; Burkham School House; Sol Day ; Mrs. Sol Day;
**Note: Alice Cobb arrived at Pine Mountain Settlement School in the early 1930’s. She came with what she perceived to be a fully formed set of ideas about the world. Her mother, Alice Culler Cobb [Mrs. J.B. Cobb], was a prominent missionary in the American Missionary movement of the Methodist Episcopal Church. At an early age Alice had been fully submerged in Methodism and had what she believed to be a well-formed grasp of what a religious education should be. Her mother had formed the Alice Cobb Bible School in Georgia and was well-known for her Bible School education. Alice had grown up that rarefied world of interpretative religion.
During Alice’s years at the School and her association with the varieties of religious experiences in the Pine Mountain community, she came to question her belief system and opened her mind to a much broader understanding of what it means to be religious. Testing and adjusting her belief system over the long course of her association with the School and her later adventures, Alice never abandoned her spiritual journey but continued to question her relationship to God throughout her life.
Her dogmatic exchange with four-year old Virginia Lee Callahan is one among the many exchanges in the Pine Mountain community that graphically captures her early frustration and revelation and the growing forces at work in her spiritual transformation.
Sunday evening, December 8, 1934
PRE-CHRISTMAS SUNDAY SCHOOL AT PMSS
Yesterday Mrs. Baird [Lexine Baird] came down from Big Laurel and she and Miss Merrill [Josephine Merrill] and I met at Far House and made the plans for Big Laurel Christmas Tree. I have decided to have the older people take the parts in the pageant, and made some more specific plans for keeping everyone busy all day so there won’t be time for drinking, and we can be sure Joseph and the five shepherds and the Three Wisemen will get there sober. We are planning to have a cover dish dinner and have everyone bring something and eat it at the community house, then the school children from both the Little Laurel and Big Laurel schools will come up and all together give the program and the pageant, then have Old Santa Clause give out the presents. Miss Merrill [Josephine Merrill] is writing to some friends to ask for peanuts and we will probably have some hard candy from the school, and we’re going to make these little stockings and stuff them with candy and peanuts.
Well, so then I walked part of the way back with Mrs. Baird, and stopped at Sol Day’s and Mrs. Day gave me two gourds with curly handles. I am going to dry them and they make the most beautiful decorations for a room. Well, I rushed back from there half frozen for it has been cold here, and tore around getting ready for supper at the Morrises [Glyn and Gladys Morris]. Chloa Smith, one of our senior girls, is getting her diploma in cooking and will be assistant dietitian in the kitchen next year, just as Joan Ayers is to be my assistant in the office. Chloa was giving her graduation dinner to Mr. and Mrs. Morris, as part of her course. They were permitted to have one guest, so I was the guest and we had such a good time.
Well, then I went over to Far House and talked Big Laurel again with Miss Merrill.
This morning I had a great huge fire built in the schoolhouse fireplace and fixed a long table with chairs and blue crepe paper and a vase of flowers to make it look rather festive. Well, I had planned for the three Sundays before Christmas and arranged to make all three of them Christmas lessons. The first (today) was to be a general story, about how Mary and Joseph happened to be at Bethlehem, and all that, the second to emphasize the shepherds, and the last the wise men, thus cementing the entire story very firmly, and at the same time learning some Christmas songs. I got paste, picked out a lot of Christmas cards with pictures of the baby and the manger, and had scissors and different colored paper for pasting purposes, and fixed this cozy long table with chairs before the fire, and then sat and waited. Nobody came. Then it occurred to me that Virginia Lee Callahan probably hadn’t been asked. Her father is our woodworking teacher [B.C. “Boone” Callahan], and they live on the school grounds. So I put on my coat and went over to their house which is just a little piece from the schoolhouse, and went in and told Mrs. Callahan I’d come to take Virginia Lee to Sunday School. So she hustled up and got VL [Virginia Lee] ready and then we went back over and the two of us waited some more — still nobody came.
Well, so I determined we were going to have Sunday School, and I sat down and told Virginia Lee all my stories and made her go through the whole program. First of all, I asked her why Sunday was different from other days, and she told me they had a better dinner on Sunday. She is a tiny tot, about four, I guess, and spoiled; but not stupid. Finally, I got her to say that Sunday was the day you went to church and then asked her what we went to church for. She said because you had to. Daddy and mama did. (Mr. Callahan usually brings her to church on Sunday mornings). I asked her what we did at church and she said we just sat there. I asked her what happened, and she said somebody got up and talked and then we sang a song, and then there was some more talking, then there was some more singing, and then we went home. I asked her what they talked about, and she said, after thinking a while, that the last time she went to church was Thanksgiving Day. That seemed hopeful, and I started off on that trail, asking what we had Thanksgiving Day for, but of course she said turkey and chicken and she just couldn’t get the turkey and chicken off her mind after that. It kept cropping [up] all through the morning. I asked her then where the chicken came from, and she said Earl Cornett’s father, they were all his, always had been and nobody ever gave him the chickens. I simply could not get the child to give God any credit. So finally I said that I thought none of us could have chicken if it weren’t for God, and she agreed, obviously relieved that I’d stopped asking questions for the moment. So then I suggested that she name some other things that God had given her to be thankful for — I had some trouble again to make her see that God, and not mother and daddy would be responsible for her new boots. Really I can see just how she felt about that because after all mother and daddy are close and reasonable, and God just doesn’t seem to be necessary, I suppose. But then we did decide that we should thank God for all these good things, and that was the reason we were going to have Sunday School — to talk about how good God is, and to thank him, and to learn how to live as he wants us to. So we learned the little prayer about “Father, we thank thee for the night, and for the pleasant morning light,” and she promised to say that over to her mother when she got home.
I asked her then, in order to get along to the Christmas story what season this is, and she gurgled out Santa Claus. I asked her what else but she hadn’t thought of anything else. So then I started right in and told her the story. I believe she had heard it before because at the end she answered all the questions and seemed sure that Christmas is the birthday of Jesus.
At the close of the story I got out the picture cards and scissors and together we cut out a picture and pasted it on some orange colored paper and then pasted on a gold border, and two candles, so it was very ugly and made her very happy. While we were cutting and pasting I had her point out the different people in the picture — Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, and the shepherds and the three Kings and we started in learning “Away in a Manger.”
This finished what I had planned, and believe me I was pretty blue. Was already to say the closing prayer, and pick up the scraps, when — in came the Sunday School! Some of the Lewises and the Collinses, either family of which would make a congregation, and one Morgan! Well, I sort of lost my breath, but I unbuttoned all their coats and got the boys’ hats off, and we introduced ourselves to each other. Of course they know me, but there are so many of each of those families that I never have learned them individually. Cornwallis Collins was a total surprise. He’s a little round three-year-old who won’t open his mouth, or raise a hand to do anything just sits and smiles pleasantly. And there was one named Walty Walins Collins, and Anna May Collins, and Warty Morgan, and Una Lewis and Elmer Lewis. I guess that was all. Una is the oldest, and a sort of mother to the others. She is too old, and too far along to be having the same class as the others, so I have put her in charge of the handicraft, and am trying to make her feel like an assistant.So I started Sunday School over again from the beginning. Of course, it moved along much more briskly for I got the answers I was looking for almost at once.
I asked first what made Sunday different from other days, and right away Una told me it was the Sabbath day, and we shouldn’t work that day. So then I asked why and right away they told me it belonged to the Lord God. I asked what we had Sunday School for and all of them answered in a chorus as if they had memorized it “to study the word of God.” I wondered who had taught them that, and think they must remember it from the Sunday School they had three years or four ago, but these kids would have been only four or five years old then, I think. Well, then by asking them why we studied the word of God, what it told us and all that, I easily got the response that God was so good to us and that we wanted to thank him. I asked each one to name something that we should thank God for and the first of all was Una who answered, “He gave us life.” Other things were shelter, and food and friends and flowers, and our fathers and mothers and school and trees and so on. There was no question of what God had to do with all this — the idea seemed quite familiar to them. I believe one trouble with Virginia Lee is that she hasn’t been taught very much and then has been spoiled until she can’t think of anything except chicken and new boots.
Then we all said the little prayer poem. When I asked what day was coming they all shouted Christmas, and they said it was Jesus’ birthday, except for Virginia Lee who had forgotten it by this time, and was again insisting on Santa Claus. So we had the story, and they all told it together. We sang the manger song, which they had learned before, and then passed out the pictures and cards. They loved the pictures and tacked them on the wall. then we picked up the scraps, cleaned up the paste and again all sat around the table for a quiet closing. We talked a little more about our story and I read the Bible verses and said a closing prayer. And we sang “Our Sunday School is over and we are going home.”
Just about this time the chapel bell began to ring and I realized I was late, and I was rattled and made off without giving out the Sunday School papers.
Since church had already started at the Chapel I got ready and went on out to Big Laurel [Medical Settlement] where I was to meet a crowd of the children to start talking up the Christmas pageant. There were quite a few there, and when I discovered that not one of the whole crowd had been to Sunday School in the morning, I started in and repeated the morning program to them, and did a much better job than before …. It does seem to me that the response of the Big Laurel children is so complete and so sincere, that it sort of carries one along. They just listen with the biggest eyes and seem so eager and interested. Mrs. Baird and I went down to Alice Boggs‘ house to talk about the pageant. She is the postmistress and the most energetic woman in the community. It just happened that the school teacher was there so we all got together, and made a few more plans. I felt that it was a very successful afternoon. Alice Turner, the school teacher, is going to have all her children coached in singing the songs, and Mrs. Baird and Alice Boggs will get the folks told about the pageant and the parts assigned, so Ev Wilson [PMSS teacher] and I can go down and hold a real rehearsal next Saturday afternoon. Ev is our Antioch worker, and is especially interested in dramatics, and planning scenery.
Then I went back to the settlement, and Nancy Boggs, one of the children, came over and sang ballads to me, and I got the words to the two and the music to one, so altogether, I felt that the day was very well spent.