Guideposts Classics: Lillian Carter on the Joys of Christmas

In this story from December 1977, Lillian Carter, the mother of former President Jimmy Carter, recalls a long-ago holiday that was almost spoiled by measles.

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Posted in , Dec 12, 2013

Lillian Carter

Christmas was a time of enchantment for the Carter family when our youngsters were growing up in our little farm community in the pinewoods and red-clay country of western Georgia. Everything had a breathless expectancy about it.

There was always the afternoon when everyone piled into the old pickup truck with my husband Earl driving to go Christmas-tree hunting.

I remember how our breaths steamed in the frosty air as we bounced along the red-rutted roads, and the arguments about which tree looked most promising, and the chorus of shouts when the right one was spotted.

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I remember how Earl and Jimmy would jump out with axes to cut it while Ruth and Gloria and I gathered holly branches and pine boughs to decorate our house.

I remember the solemn-eyed expeditions to the 5 & 10 gift counters, with nickels and dimes clutched in small perspiring palms. And visits to less fortunate families with baskets of food and clothing. Oh, it was a magic time for all.

There was one year, though, that was different, a year when gloom fell like a thick curtain over everyone–because just before Christmas the children came down with old-fashioned measles.

There were just three of them that year (Billy hadn’t been born yet) and all three were spotted and miserable. Instead of baking cookies and preparing for our traditional Christmas breakfast and dinner, I spent my time bathing feverish little foreheads, easing sore throats and soothing pain-filled eyes.

To care for them better and give them companionship, Earl and I had moved their three beds into one big bedroom.

Now it was Christmas Eve. I leaned against their bedroom doorway as Earl read them the Bible story from Luke about the birth of Jesus.

Normally they’d be fresh from their baths, lying like puppy dogs on the rug around their daddy’s big old leather chair as he’d read the wonderful words. Now wan white faces looked bleakly up from their pillows.

I turned from the door, wiping my eyes. Why did sickness have to come now?

Earl and I had really looked forward to our children discovering what Santa had brought. This year we had bought them their first bicycles. Normally they would have been ecstatic. But they couldn’t even think of riding a bicycle now.

Later, after the children were asleep, Earl opened the big cardboard cartons and started assembling the bikes anyway. He said it was something to do.

I looked at the tree and noticed one of the light strings was out. They were the old-fashioned kind where when one light burns out, the whole string goes dark.

As I searched among the bulbs for the dead one, I thought back on the Christmas story Earl had been reading. The realization struck me that things had not worked out for that little family in Bethlehem either.

I thought about how Mary must have felt, having her first-born under such awful conditions in a strange place. How she must have missed her mother’s comfort, plus all the family festivities that go with the birth of a first-born child.

And yet, it was clear from the Bible that Mary did not complain but “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” as she quietly accepted the visits of all sorts of strangers–from rough shepherds reeking of sheep to exotic, curious foreigners.

The string of lights flared to life as I found the burned-out bulb. I walked back into the children’s room and touched their foreheads. Thank goodness, their fevers seemed almost gone. They were all asleep.

As I stood listening to their soft breathing, I tried to think of some way in which they could enjoy Christmas tomorrow. They couldn’t enjoy the succulent turkey, and they could only stare forlornly at the bicycles they couldn’t ride.

From the living room, where Earl was assembling the bikes, came the strains of Christmas music from our battery-powered RCA console radio.

Then I heard the announcer tell about Little Jack Little, a nationally famous radio and vaudeville personality of that day, who was in Atlanta for the holidays and would be singing over radio station WSB tomorrow.

A thought struck me. Could it be? No, I thought. It is too much to hope for. But the idea persisted and I went to sleep that night with a prayer on my lips.

In the morning I called the radio station and hesitantly asked to speak to Little Jack Little.

Miraculously, his famous voice came on the phone and I explained my request. There was silence on the line for a moment. Then he said, “Let me see what we can do.”

After hanging up the phone. I sank against the wall quietly praying. Then Earl and I moved the radio into the children’s bedroom.

“Merry Christmas!” I greeted them as cheerfully as I could. Inside I wanted to cry; the three bicycles leaned against the wall, hardly noticed by their tired eyes. I switched on the radio and as we waited for the console to warm up, said, “I thought you might like to listen to some Christmas carols.”

The old RCA hummed, and then came the sound of music. A spark of interest flickered across the speckled little faces as Little Jack Little came on singing Christmas tunes and thumping the piano. Inside I prayed.

The program continued as Mr. Little played and talked, and my youngsters’ heads settled back on their pillows. I glanced at my watch, my throat tight; it was almost time for the program to end.

And then his voice boomed out, “And now I’m going to sing a song especially for three little Carter children who are ill: Jimmy, Ruth and Gloria.”

Their three little heads jerked up. Eyes wide in astonishment, they stared at the old console as if Santa himself was about to burst through the speaker.

“Wooden Head, Puddin’ Head Jones,” sang Little Jack Little.

The children looked at each other. Ruth giggled. Jimmy sat up, a big smile on his face. Gloria squealed in glee. An explosion of delight filled the room.

“He couldn’t spell Con-stan-ti-nople,
Didn’t know beans from bones.
Pencils and books were never made for
Wooden Head, Puddin’ Head Jones.”

Then three quavering little voices joined the rollicking one coming from the speaker and bedsprings squeaked as they bounced in rhythm to the tune.

I stood at the door, my throat tight and tears streaming down my face. Earl stepped up behind me and his arm stole around my waist.

It had promised to be a sad Christmas and I had thought no one could give the children anything that would make it otherwise.

But thanks to someone who had room in his heart to listen to a farm wife’s plea, it turned out to be one of the most memorable Christmases we ever had. Jimmy, Ruth and Gloria still talk about it today.

I love to hear all the old Christmas carols. But right up among them is a song that to me is just as meaningful:

Wooden Head. Puddin’ Head Jones.

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