God's Gang


Copies of the Classic, The Christmas Gif, An Anthology Of Black Traditions And Literature Available For Purchase


A limited number of the Charlemae Hill Rollins out of print classic, The Christmas Gif,  illustrated by  Ashley Bryan,  have been discovered in God’s Gang storage. The members are selling the book for a donation of $20 (Plus applicable shipping, if required) through e-mail, phone orders and at sites around the city Proceeds will go into the group's general fund. Call 773-213-0229 for sales locations or to order.


From 1999 Tribune article: Scripture cake. Vinegar pie. Sweet potato candy. These are a few of the recipes in "Christmas Gif,' " a book being sold by God's Gang, a youth group at the Chicago Housing Authority's Robert Taylor Homes. The anthology of African-American traditions and literature takes its name from a Christmas Day custom practiced during slave times that celebrates the sharing of one's wealth, however great or small.

But the journey of the book itself, from its beginnings to its arrival at God's Gang's doorstep, reads like a Christmas story as well, resonating with generosity of spirit at each turn.

"Christmas Gif' " was compiled by a legendary Chicago children's librarian, Charlemae Hill Rollins, who headed the children's room at the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library from 1932 to 1963. Rollins devoted her career to promoting black literature and crusading against racial stereotypes in children's books. After repeatedly coming up empty-handed when patrons requested books about African-Americans and Christmas, she decided to publish one herself. She began with her own childhood memories of stories told by her grandmother, a former slave. Rollins recalls in her foreword:

"From her I learned that `Christmas Gif' ' was a surprise game played by the slaves on Christmas Day. Two people, meeting for the first time that day, would compete to be the first to call out `Christmas Gif' !' The loser happily paid a forfeit of a simple present--maybe a Christmas tea cake or a handful of nuts. Truly, there was more pleasure in being `caught' and having to give a present--the giving, though comically protested, was heartwarming to a people who had so little they could with dignity share with others."

Rollins gathered plantation recipes, traditional hymns and poetry by Countee Cullen, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks. She also included the painful reminiscences of slave Christmases observed by Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. The librarian leaned on her friend Langston Hughes, who contributed six poems, and enlisted many others who checked the accuracy of recipes and customs. When "Christmas Gif' " came out in 1963, it coincided with Rollins' retirement and was a sweet ending to a distinguished career.

The book had 10 printings, but when it went out of print, Rollins' son, Joseph, was deeply disappointed. As a tribute to his mother, who died in 1979, he renewed the copyright and eventually found a publisher. The new version included illustrations by an award-winning artist and children's author, Ashley Bryan. In 1993, "Christmas Gif' " was back in bookstores.

When a God's Gang supporter discovered a copy of "Christmas Gif' " in an art gallery in Maine, where Bryan lives, she was charmed by his illustrations of traditional Christmas figures--a thumb-sucking baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and Santa Claus--all portrayed as people of African heritage. She asked Bryan if the young entrepreneurs in God's Gang could market some of his images as note cards. He agreed, and children from the group picked eight images from Bryan's books on black American spirituals. Then, when the printing of "Christmas Gif' " was suspended this year, Bryan bought 1,500 remaindered copies from the publisher and sent them to God's Gang. The members are selling the book   .   .   . through phone orders and at sites around the city. After Bryan's initial investment is repaid, proceeds will go into the group's general fund. Call 773-   .   .   .    for sales locations or to order.

The book sale is a change for God's Gang, whose projects are mostly agricultural. With the help of Heifer Project International, a community-development agency that teaches self-reliance through farming, the kids harvest worm castings for rich fertilizer, and raise tilapia and organic vegetables, all for their own use or sale.