Closing Words by Rev. Tom Goldsmith Volume 7

20 December 2020

c99e3db826c0f4cc2688a36ce3b60e1a_L.jpg

It wasn’t until I first entered the ministry that I experienced my first Christmas Eve service in a church. I thought it would surely end my career right then. The service didn’t go badly. The church didn’t burn down. No child was scorched by a candle’s dripping wax. We started on time, the soloist showed up, and I didn’t fall out of the pulpit. What could have gone wrong? Perhaps I should explain.

My mother, like most cultural Jews, loved Christmas. She had a bagful of inviolate traditions extending back to her childhood in Germany. She reluctantly surrendered only one of her holiday practices thanks to my father’s fortunate perseverance. She forfeited lighting candles on the Tannenbaum, probably the only concession she made in her lifetime. 

The flow of Christmas Eve was always the same, culminating with a roasted goose dinner that I still crave. It’s been more than 40 years since I last digested the gamey waterfowl guaranteed to harden my arteries.  A little arteriosclerosis was a small price to pay for my mother’s goose.

Despite loving the Unitarian Church in Queens where I grew up, all bets were off for ever attending a Christmas eve service. It interfered with the carefully orchestrated chain of events which could not be moved to a different time in order to accommodate the service. My mother could no sooner sing Silent Night in church with her goose roasting in the oven at home than fly to the North Pole. Even in my last year of seminary when I should have been in church taking notes about conducting Christmas Eve services, I was held hostage by my mother’s unbending rules, and was home celebrating Christmas Eve like every year. I knew I could never escape the Jewish guilt she could unload for missing Christmas, until ministerial duties pulled me in new directions. Indeed, the following Christmas I was called to a congregation situated along the Massachusetts coast, and they were expecting their newly minted minister to provide for them a fine Christmas Eve celebration. I was happy to oblige.

My parents arrived at the parsonage on Christmas Eve day, with packages and long-drawn faces. Traditions are not easily changed. For the first time my mother was no longer in charge of Christmas which was akin to tossing Julia Child out of her kitchen because she was no longer needed. 

In typical New England manner, the parsonage was located no more than 30 feet from the church. I never discovered if it was a case of the minister looking out for the church or the other way around, but I wished the commute was a little extended. I left the parsonage for the service half an hour early and told my parents to come soon to ensure a good pew. As I sat on the chancel waiting for the conclusion of the prelude, I glanced at my mother whose face revealed nothing but tormented anguish. I was annoyed by the excessive drama but refused to let it interfere with my first Christmas Eve service for which I had spent untold hours of preparation. 

I never looked her way throughout the entire service and noticed that when the last parishioners hurried home to celebrate their own family Christmas, my parents remained glued to their pew. “Shall we go,” I suggested more sternly than was called for. “Not without your help,” my mother responded. “I slipped on the ice coming over here and need you to get me back to the parsonage.”

Her ankle was clearly swollen, and we decided after a grueling time just wrestling with appetizers, that she needed to go the hospital which was half an hour away. What a heavy price to pay for forsaking a Christmas goose. 

On the way home from the hospital, my mother with crutches and a fractured ankle, informed me she was going to sue the church. I laughed, she didn’t. I said, “Mom, you can’t sue the church especially when your son is the minister.” “Oh yes I can.” My guts churned. My ministry would be ended, not only throughout Massachusetts but throughout the world. No church would call a minister who carried such a liability as a litigious mother.

When the Board met on the first Monday in January, (they were called the Parish Committee), I felt a little squeamish knowing that I had to forewarn them of the lawsuit. 

The Parish Committee seemed especially enlivened following the holidays, a nice buzz and warm feelings prevailed as we quickly ran through the necessary church business. When it was my turn to report, I stammered a bit. “What was that?” a few committee members asked, not sure of what they thought they heard. I took a deep breath and spit it out: “My mother broke her ankle in front of the church on Christmas Eve and is going to sue us.”

The silence that followed my pronouncement on that frosty New England winter’s night, felt as though it lasted for two hours. The gods had taken away everyone’s power of speech, and we were left to ponder this new crisis silently for eternity. Finally, the chairman of the Parish Committee, an elderly gentleman who always looked dapper and loved this church ever since being raised in it as a child, began to laugh. His laughter proved contagious as everyone except me was laughing. His comment was: “That’s the funniest damn think I’ve ever heard.”

I failed to see the humor. He explained, “This church was founded in 1636 and suffered though the Revolutionary War, World Wars, the Great Depression and theological battles that can make your toes curl, but it has never been sued” He said to the parish clerk “I want this recorded in the minutes for all time that in January, 1976, the minister’s mother threatened a lawsuit against the church.”

Still laughing he turned to me and said, “Let me talk to your mother,” confident that his charm would disarm her. He was right. He phoned her the next morning and they agreed that the church would pay all out of pocket medical expenses. The case was closed.

Neither the chair nor my mother disclosed the contents of their negotiation. I assume, however, there was laughter and grace and possibly even a miracle. There was definitely the gift of a new friendship. They sought out each other the following Christmas and chatted away like old friends. 

I think I owe my ministry to the chair of the Parish Committee, whose wise and gentle way kept me in the ministry and shielded me from becoming an accountant. Some church historian in the future, researching the First Parish of Scituate, Massachusetts may come across an entry in the Parish Committee minutes and wonder: What ever happened to the lawsuit? What was that all about?

My mother could never have imagined winding up as a footnote in New England Unitarian history, along with the other extraordinary events that occurred in that church since 1636. 

So think twice before you amend your Christmas traditions. Leaving behind the roasted goose surely changed the course of my life. 

Tom Goldsmith