The Christmas Story According to Matthew, by John Steinbeck
By the Rev. Michael Mulberry
December 24, 2007
Text: Story from Matthew (Cycle A, Christmas Eve)
Wasn’t no use gettin’ upset about 1936, and the way they had lost their farm. It was almost 1937, and things had to be gettin’ better. When they lost their farm in Heber Springs, Oklahoma, Jim Carpenter heard about pea picking in California, the promised land. So he and Minnie set off, thinking that even though Minnie was pregnant, he was young enough to work for the both of them. As they pulled away from what used to be their farm, Jim saw one of those new tractors plowing up what amounted to hard dust. Off to pea picking. Off to more opportunities than anyone might find in Heber Springs.
Now as he traced the scratches on his hand from a day of picking cotton, Jim heard Minnie beginning to scream even louder. This kid was coming. Even the cops who had thrown them out of the government camp couldn’t stop this kid from coming. Most people in California hated Okies, so they walked off the camp grounds and found a place all to themselves. Jim found a small tent to pitch and built a roaring fire. Even around Bakersfield, the nights could get right cold. As little as he knew about bringing a kid into the world, this kid was coming and so Jim walked back into the tent to be with Minnie.
“I’m still so cold, Jim, can you make the fire any warmer?”
“Minnie, that fire is just about as big as I can get it. I don’t know that a fella can make it any higher or warmer.”
But Minnie did not need to argue with Jim as much as she just looked at him hard, sweat pouring off her face, and Jim turned back around.
He called back. “I’ll see if I can find some extra wood.”
The fire was blazing when Jim returned. “The baby’s wants out, Jim, but I don’t think I can do this, Jim. It hurts, Jim. What will we feed him, Jim? Where will we live, Jim?”
“Shhhh, Min, let’s just bring this little one into the world. We’ll figure all this stuff out.” He dabbed at Minnie’s forehead with his shirt and ran his scarred hands through her hair.
At the government camp, Tom Joad wanted to know about the couple. “Where’d they go after the cops shooed them off?”
“I reckon they headed off to the west, just beyond that shed.
You can see that big fire burnin’ over there. I’d say that’s them.”
“And you think the girl was close?”
“Ok, here’s what I want you to do. Go around the camp and scratch up whatever food you can. Ask everybody for just a little. If you ask them for too much, they won’t give you any.”
The man nodded and walked out with a blanket Tom had given him.
“Ma!” Tom Joad shouted. “Ma!”
“What is it?”
“Does Rose of Sharon still have her milk?”
“She does. It’s right painful for her.”
“Wake her up. This young girl is going to need the sleep after this baby is born. She’s had way too much trouble the last two days.”
Tom collected the extra blankets. And when the man returned with three days worth of food, the three of them: Tom with his blankets and a bucket of water, Rose of Sharon with her breasts full of milk, and the man with three days worth of food followed the light of the fire to the west, outside of the camp.
Outside the camp, at a small tent, Jim Carpenter held the small child in his arms, both of them crying. Minnie was fast asleep, exhausted, and the child was clearly hungry. Jim had no idea what to do but hold the child tighter. Tears streamed from his face. He had sung all the songs he knew. He had walked round and round the tent until his legs just could not walk anymore. Life in Heber Springs was better than anything they had found in California.
Just outside the camp, the cops pulled the three aside to ask where they were headed. Tom Joad said he had family members outside the camp who were having a baby.
One of the cops locked eyes with Tom Joad and directly asked him, “You wouldn’t be trying to help that Okie couple we threw out of the camp today, would ya?”
Tom Joad kept the guy’s gaze and said, “Nope!”
Another cop jumped in. “Well then let us know where they are when you get back and we’ll make sure we take care of them in the morning. Maybe even run some fresh water out to the mother.”
Outside the camp and just outside a small tent, Jim Carpenter thought his eyes must have been playing tricks on him when he saw three people walking toward him on the other side of the fire. He knew he they might be cops come to shoo them off further, but he was so tired that he slowly put the child on the ground, and began moving out of the tent as if he was packing up to leave. He was relieved to see the three were not cops.
Rose of Sharon immediately took the baby and fed her. Tom Joad wrapped blankets around Minnie and threw two extra on the ground for when the father would get some sleep. And the man offered the father food he ate almost without swallowing.
Tom Joad led the young man outside of the tent and said to him, “The cops will be after you in the morning. They know we came out this way. You’ll need to leave this place. God blesses you in the dark, son. I know you’re Okies. So are we. Weren’t seem there is much place for us. God blesses you in the dark, son.”
Jim Carpenter heard the voice of Tom Joad or someone else’s voice in his head as he and Min and the baby traveled on just before daybreak. He thought he heard the voice say, “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the ways guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they built, I’ll be there too.” *
It was almost 1937 and Jim and Minnie Carpenter and their baby walked in the promised land, hoping that it would be better. Hoped and prayed that it would be better. Amen.
* Adapted from Tom Joad speaking in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.