When Mrs. Adams put our star on the tree

OVER at the First Baptist Church here in town, they've been teaching a course in comparative religion. Well, maybe not a full course. Not even a mini-course. It might better be described as an appetizer, a tidbit easily digested by the agile minds of the three- to five-year-olds in the kindergarten classes.

''We're teaching the children how December holidays are celebrated in different ways,'' the preschool kindergarten director told me the other day.

For the first time, both teachers and pupils are learning about Judaism, and along with the Christmas plays presented for parents, friends, and church members, the children will perform the traditional candle-lighting ceremony of Hanukkah. The ''Festival of Lights,'' which this year will be celebrated the week before Christmas, is a joyous observance commemorating religious freedom, the very cornerstone of man's eternal wish for ''Peace on earth, good will unto all men.''

Such understanding of the common Judeo-Christian common heritage would have been unthinkable when I was six years old, growing up in Somerville, Mass. Yet, in that ''first-grader'' year of my life, I too had begun a ''course in comparative religion.'' Momma was way ahead of her time, practicing ecumenism (long before any of us had ever heard of the word) not through religious doctrine but in her natural, unaffected, day-in and day-out love of people.

It didn't matter if they were of a different faith. What counted was that they were our friends and neighbors, and this meant simply that you cared about each other. And you shared, happily and with a full heart, their holidays as well as your own.

Momma would send me scurrying from house to house, distributing cakes and goodies she had prepared for our holiday feast. The neighbors in turn remembered us at Christmas with fruitcake, candies, pomander balls, and nut bread. And often, when I was little, I'd be asked to ''come help trim the tree.''

Momma always approved, even urging me to go. ''That's how we learn,'' she'd say, in between her usual admonitions to ''behave like a perfect lady'' and ''say please and thank you.''

Nobody taught me more about old-fashioned yuletide charms and customs than Mrs. Adams, an elderly lady who lived right across from us on Concord Avenue. Her gray frame house, with its wide porch and balustrades, was tidy and modest, but somehow it seemed more dignified than all the others. Maybe it was the secluded garden, nestled behind a spiked iron fence with a creaky gate. Maybe it was the hexagonal turret, rising loftily above the rooftop, with stained glass window panes sparkling in the afternoon sunlight. Or those delicate white lace curtains covering a huge oval glass in the carved front door.

Mrs. Adams was dignified, too. She wore long navy blue dresses, fastened at the high neckline with a mother-of-pearl cameo. She walked slowly, leaning on a silver-handled cane.

She would always refer to members of her family by their last name only. ''I haven't offered you tea! What would Mother Adams think?'' Or, ''Great-grandmother Adams made this quilt.'' On the parlor mantel were two faded miniatures to which she would point, asking as she did with every visitor, ''Did you know that we Adamses gave this nation two presidents?''

She was exceptionally proud of her fine old furniture, linens, cookbooks, and tableware that had been ''in the family for generations.'' Also in the family were the holiday decorations which each and every year she lovingly unwrapped from layers of whispery tissue papers, to hang once more on her Christmas tree.

I remember that first time at Mrs. Adams's place, when she taught me to string fresh-made popcorn and shiny red cranberries on stout button thread. She gathered and plaited them into festoons and garlands, draping them over and through the fragrant fir boughs. Then she stuck wads of cotton wool here and there, to look like fluffs of snow.

''Great-aunt Adams gave me this one,'' she muttered softly, reverently arranging a fragile angel's trumpet of spun glass. There were hand-painted ornaments, crystal beads, cardboard peppermint sticks; a tiny lantern of silvery tin, pierced and dented with a poinsettia design; a celluloid infant in blue flannel swaddling clothes; and dozens of tinkling bells hand-sewn to bright red silk satin ribbons.

''Glory to the highest,'' she singsonged as we both hung a long paper chain on the tree.

''Who is the highest?'' I asked.

Mrs. Adams stared hard at me over the tops of her wire-rimmed spectacles, her face crinkling like a piece of crumpled white cotton. She cleared her throat slightly and said, so softly I could barely hear her, ''Why God, child. That's what this holiday is all about. It's our way of giving thanks for all His blessings.''

She looked at me searchingly. ''Do you know what I'm saying, little one?''

''Of course,'' I answered, skipping around the tree. ''Momma says the same thing about our holiday.''

Mrs. Adams looked startled for a moment, then smiled a shy, secret smile. She reached down into a cardboard box and pulled out a gilded wooden star. ''Grandfather Adams made this when he was a boy,'' she said, carefully mounting it at the top of the tree.

''It has six points!'' I cried.

''Let me see - one, two, three - that's right, dear, six points.''

''I've got one like that,'' I said.

''You have? A star of Bethlehem?''

''Oh no! That's the Star of David.''

Once again she peered over her spectacles. She turned slowly, hooked her cane over the back of a chair, and ever so gently enfolded me in her two thin arms.

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