Roamer: The sheep that stole the show, pop goes the army, and the stars that shine at Christmas

(1)The Joy Strings Brought Christmas Cheer. L to R - Sylvia
(1)The Joy Strings Brought Christmas Cheer. L to R - Sylvia

Coinciding with the viciously cold Christmas five years ago in 2010 a News Letter reader wondered if anyone knew a poem that began with the words ‘Oh the snow the beautiful snow’.

Coinciding with the viciously cold Christmas five years ago in 2010 a News Letter reader wondered if anyone knew a poem that began with the words ‘Oh the snow the beautiful snow’.

There was an enormous response, including letters explaining that the poem was about a young American girl from a privileged background who fell from high society into the degradation of prostitution and died alone on the snow-

covered back streets of Cincinnati – frozen to death in her flimsy coat.

The poem, discovered in her pocket, ended with the pathetic lines ‘to be and to die in my terrible woe, with a bed and a shroud of the beautiful snow’.

A recent letter from an Irvinestown reader referred to a poem greatly loved by his sister about 70 years ago.

It begins ‘So many things I do not know, about the stars above.’

It may be a Christmassy poem, as this is the time of the year when a star in the East becomes significantly seasonal!

The poem continues on the theme of stars ‘but this I know God put them there, and at His will they move’.

The letter-writer, who has mislaid the old poem, hopes that someone might know it, and warns “this is only the first part, but it was long!”

Hopefully someone might remember even a few verses, and if they’re seasonal they’ll be shared here in the run-up to Christmas.

The first Syrian refugees have arrived in Northern Ireland, and with Christmas just around the corner it’s timely that I’ve been told a very endearing story about a family who came here from Africa nearly 25 years ago.

Each of the 11 families who have just arrived in Belfast from Lebanon will be helped to find a home, a job and school places for their children.

Circumstances were different when the African family came here a quarter of a century ago, and a young mother and father had to find their own home and a school in East Belfast for their little boy.

They were successful and the wee lad started school just before Christmas.

It was a difficult time for a youngster who spoke no English, but his teacher was hugely sensitive about the little boy’s plight whilst his classmates were growing excited about the school’s forthcoming nativity play.

The shepherds and the wise men were learning their lines.

Mary and Joseph were proud of their starring roles in the production and their plastic doll in swaddling clothes was appropriately affixed with a tin-foil halo.

The choir of angels were fitted with wings; the inn-keeper was well-practised with “there’s no room in the inn” but the wee African boy couldn’t understand or pronounce any of the words that were so familiar to his classmates.

Teacher had a brilliant idea!

Knowing that the boy and his parents were from an African farming background, his teacher draped him with a sheepskin rug and all he had to do was position himself appropriately in the manger and bleat!

Delighted with his role the lad over-played the part and the manger sounded more like a busy farmer’s mart than a hallowed nativity scene!

But thanks to his teacher’s empathy and innovation the boy’s first Christmas in Belfast was a happy one that he still vividly remembers.

In July this page looked back a century and a half to 1865 when the long-bearded 36-year-old William Booth began preaching in London.

His first religious service in Whitechapel was the beginning of the Salvation Army, a uniformed Christian organisation that ultimately spread to nearly 130 countries around the world.

News Letter readers’ memories of the Sally Ann arrived in Roamer’s in-tray during the organisations’ 150th anniversary year, including Knockloughrim-reader Charles Wright’s account of his former-alcoholic great grandfather - Sergeant

Major Wright - headlined in a 1907 newspaper article as “an Out-And-Out Salvationist” in Londonderry.

A Co Down reader then told us about “a young Salvation Army lad from Bangor called Kevin Platts, who was called ‘the boy with the voice of an angel.’”

The boy soprano’s many appearances included packed houses at Covent Garden, Sadlers Wells and the Royal Albert Hall.

I kept the remainder of the reader’s letter till now, because it contained information about a Christmas hit record that most of us will have forgotten about, if we ever even knew about it in the first place.

Performed by the Salvation Army’s Joy Strings chart-topping pop group, a song called Starry Night opened with the words

‘It was on a starry night when the hills were bright, earth lay sleeping, sleeping calm and still’.

After appearing on Cliff Michelmore’s BBC Tonight television show, the Joy Strings were given a recording contract by EMI Records, and in 1964 they became the first Salvation Army singing group to achieve pop-chart success with It’s An Open Secret and On A Starry Night.

Led by their classically trained keyboard-player and singer, trainee Salvation Army officer Joy Webb, the Joy Strings became a national and international phenomenon with appearances on Top of the Pops, Ready Steady Go, and even in London’s Playboy Club.

And their Starry Night smash hit was followed by a host of other festive releases.

It’s amazing what can start at Christmas!