I’d be lying if I said James W. Foley was one of my favorite poets. Hokey might be the best word to describe him (but kind of wonderfully hokey). Foley, North Dakota’s longtime Poet Laureate (way before current Laureate Larry Woiwode) has been dead 75 years now, but there’s a renewed interest in his work, as evidenced by a series of new reprints of some of his 20 books of poetry, and you can now buy most of them in new, paperback editions, (Alibris.com is the best place) for less than $20. Kindle versions are even less.
What’s fun about these books is that they are facsimile reprints of the originals, so, thanks to the magic of 21st century digital reproduction, other than a new cover, the books look just like the editions our grandparents may have read from, to our parents, at bedtime decades ago.
This new spate of reprints is not the first time Foley’s work has been resurrected. Foley died in 1939, and as the years passed after his death, most of his original works were sold out. But in 1963, the members of the Seventh District of North Dakota General Federation of Women’s Clubs decided it was time to make it possible for anyone to buy a copy of his works. In a foreword to their edition, published by The Bismarck Tribune, they said they contacted librarians across the state, who recommended the Book of Boys and Girls as their choice. By 1971, this too, was sold out, and they published a second volume of his work, entitled Foley’s Poems, a collection selected by a committee of the Women’s Clubs. This edition still shows up from time to time in used book stores and in online used book sites as a collector’s item.
I’d also be lying if I said that I don’t get nostalgic for Foley this time of the year. Foley grew up in the North Dakota Bad Lands, where I spend much time (including during the Christmas season, this year–we’re leaving for our winter camping trip tomorrow (Thursday) morning). His family served as caretakers for the home built in 1884 by the Marquis de Mores for the parents of the Marquise, Medora. The restored home, now known as the Von Hoffman House, remains open to the public during the summer. Foley’s father was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt during TR’s time in the Bad Lands, and Roosevelt later, after his presidency, wrote an introduction to one of Foley’s books. Foley loved Christmas, and he loved Children, and he loved Children’s Christmas poems. Here are a couple of his best. I’ve shared them here before, but they’re worth sharing again. Merry Christmas, everyone.
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS PRAYER
By James W. Foley
Dear Lord, be good to Santa Claus,
He’s been so good to me;
I never told him so because
He is so hard to see.
He must love little children so
To come through snow and storm;
Please care for him when cold winds blow
And keep him nice and warm
Dear Lord, be good to him and good
To Mary Christmas too.
I’d like to tell them if I could,
The things I’m telling you,
They’ve both been very good to me,
And everywhere they go
They make us glad;–no wonder we
All learn to love them so.
Please have him button up his coat
So it will keep him warm;
And wear a scarf about his throat
If it should start to storm.
And when the night is dark, please lend
Him light if stars are dim,
Or maybe sometimes you could send
An angel down with him.
Please keep his heart so good and kind
That he will always smile;
And tell him maybe we will find
And thank him after while.
Please keep him safe from harm and keep
Quite near and guard him when
He’s tired and lays down to sleep
Dear Lord, please do! Amen.
BILLY PEEBLE’S CHRISTMAS
By James W. Foley
Billy Peeble he ain’t got no parents—never had none ‘cause
When he was borned he was an orfunt; an’ he said ‘at Santa Claus
Never didn’t leave him nothin’, ‘cause he was a county charge
An’ the overseer told him that his fambly was too large
To remember orfunt children; so I ast Ma couldn’t we
Have Bill Peeble up to our house, so’s to see our Christmas tree.
An she ast me if he’s dirty; an’ I said I guessed he was,
But I didn’t think it makes no difference with Santa Claus.
My his clo’es was awful ragged! Ma, she put him in a tub
An’ she poured it full of water, an’ she gave him such a scrub
‘At he ‘ist sit there an’ shivered; and he tol’ me afterwurds
‘At he never washed all over out to Overseer Bird’s!
‘An she burned his ragged trousies an’ she gave him some of mine;
My! She rubbed him an’ she scrubbed him till she almost made him shine,
Nen he ‘ist looked all around him like he’s scairt for quite a w’ile
An’ even when Ma’d pat his head he wouldn’t hardly smile.
“En after w’ile Ma took some flour-sacks an’ ‘en she laid
“Em right down at the fireplace, ‘ist ‘cause she is afraid
Santa Claus’ll soil the carpet when he comes down there, you know
An’ Billy Peeble watcher her, an’ his eyes stuck out—‘ist so!
“En Ma said ‘at in the mornin’ if we’d look down on the sacks
‘At they’d be ‘ist full of soot where Santa Claus had made his tracks;
Billy Peeble stood there lookin’! An’ he told me afterwurds
He was scairt he’d wake up an’ be back at Overseer Bird’s.
Well, ‘en she hung our stockin’s up and after w’ile she said:
“Now you and’ Billy Peeble better get right off to bed,
An’ if you hear a noise tonight, don’t you boys make a sound,
‘Cause Santa Claus don’t never come with little boys around!”
So me an’ Billy went to bed, and Billy Peeble, he
Could hardly go to sleep at all—ist tossed an’ tossed. You see
We had such w’ite sheets on the bed an’ he said afterwurds
They never had no sheets at all at Overseer Bird’s.
So we ‘ist laid and talked an’ talked. An’ Billy ast me who
Was Santa Claus. An’I said I don’t know if it’s all true,
But people say he’s some old man who ‘ist loves little boys
An’ keeps a store at the North Pole with heaps an’ heaps of toys
W’ich he brings down in a big sleigh, with reindeers for his steeds,
An’ comes right down the chimbly flue an’ leaves ‘ist what you needs.
My! He’s excited w’en I tell him that! An’ afterwurds
He said that they never had no toys at Overseer Bird’s.
I’m fallin’ pretty near asleep w’en Billy Peeble said:
“Sh-sh! What’s that noise?” An’ w’en he spoke I sat right up in bed
Till sure enough I heard it in the parlor down below,
An’ Billy Peeble, he set up an’ ‘en he said: “Let’s go!”
So we got up an’ sneaked down stairs, an’ both of us could see
‘At it was surely Santa Claus, ‘ist like Ma said he’d be;
But he must have heard us comin’ down, because he stopped an’ said:
“You, Henry Blake and William Peeble, go right back to bed!”
My goodness, we was awful scairt! An’ both of us was pale,
An’ Billy Peeble said upstairs: “My! Ain’t he ‘ist a whale?”
We didn’t hardly dare to talk and got back into bed
An’ Billy pulled the counterpane clear up above his head,
An’ in the mornin’ w’en we looked down on the flour-sacks,
W’y sure enough we saw the soot where he had made his tracks.
An’ Billy got a suit of clothes, a drum, an’ sled an’ books
Till he ‘ist never said a word, but my, how glad he looks!
An’ after w’ile it’s dinner time an Billy Peeble set
Right next to Pa, an’ my! how he ‘ist et an’ et an’ et!
Till he ‘ist puffed an’ had to leave his second piece of pie
Because he couldn’t eat no more, an’ after dinner, w’y
Ma dressed him up in his new clo’es, an Billy Peeble said
He’s sorry he’s an orfunt, an’ Ma Patted Billy’s head.
W’ich made him cry a little bit, an’ he said afterwurds
Nobody ever pats his head at Overseer Bird’s.
An’ all day long Pa looked at Ma, an’ Ma she looked at him,
Because Pa said ‘at Billy looked a little bit like Jim
‘At was my brother, but he died oncet, years ago,
An’ ‘at’s why Billy Peeble makes my mother like him so.
She says ‘at Santa brought him as a present, ‘ist instead
Of little Jim ‘at died oncet. So she ‘ist put him to bed
On Christmas Night an’ tucked him in an’ told me afterwurds
‘At he ain’t never going back to Overseer Bird’s.
We used to read Billy Peeble out loud, beside the Christmas tree, on Christmas Eve, when we still had kids around at Christmas. I think we should get back in that habit.