The old man on the street corner was asking for money from people who were holiday shopping. Except he wasn’t begging. He was singing songs and dancing.

There is a big difference between panhandling and entertaining.

He was dressed in a red velvet coat and Santa cap. He had skin the color of rich mahogany, and he was as lean as a Q-tip.

In his aged eyes you could tell he’d been around. But in his voice he was Ron Isley.

A few of us holiday shoppers gathered around to watch his one-man show. There we were, carrying large shopping bags from upscale stores, dressed in our nice suburban clothes, drinking designer coffees in eco-friendly paper cups.

And this man had holes in his shoes.

But it was hard not to smile while watching him spin around, dancing like the Godfather of Soul, singing Christmas carols at the top of his voice to people on the street.

He also had a knack for inventing lyrics to songs for which he didn’t know the words.

The following are actual substitute lyrics he composed, on the spot, to “Joy to the World.”

“Joy to the world,
“Joy, joy, joy,
“Joy… Joy… Joy…!”

It wasn’t exactly Gershwin, but it worked.

I stood in the back of the crowd with others and gladly tossed money into his bucket between each burst of our applause.

“This guy’s good,” said one lady.

“He really is,” said a man.

“I wish I could dance like that.”

“How is his groin still intact?”

Then the man began taking song requests. He smiled at us, and I could see that he was missing several teeth. His face was covered in white stubble, and he was out of breath from exertion. But that smile was one-hundred watt.

A young woman in the crowd said, “Do you know ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’?”

“You better know I do,” he said.

He sang the with conviction, and he even played a tambourine. I half expected him to finish by doing the splits.

Again we applauded. Again we threw cash in the bucket. I was about to move along and continue holiday shopping until I overheard a young woman ask:

“Can you sing ‘Oh Happy Day’?”

My shopping can wait, I thought.

The man started his rendition by clapping out a rhythm. Then he told us he needed our participation. The next thing I knew, we were all joining him, clapping on two and four.

“You gotta hep me, now!” he kept saying. “You gotta hep me sing!”

And hep him we did.

“Oh happy day!” he sang.

Then he pointed to us.

“Oh happy day!” we croaked.

After a few choruses, the crowd started to peter out because we are uptight Americans who are about as adept at showing emotion as domesticated iguanas. But a few in the crowd really got into the music.

And while he sang, I started thinking about what kind of year we’ve all had. You and me. I thought of all the troubles and heartaches my friends and family have been going through.

I found myself thinking of all the letters I receive from people who are enduring hard times this Christmas.

The young man with brain cancer who emailed me yesterday and said he doesn’t know if he’ll make it through the year.

The little girl who wrote me, whose mother just passed away in an auto accident last week.

I thought about the man who just adopted a non-verbal foster child who flinches whenever his foster dad tries to hug him.

I thought about the young woman who just buried her infant.

Soon, I felt hot tears fill my eyes as this little man danced around in public, singing “Oh Happy Day.”

Here was a man who likely has less material possessions than anyone in his audience, and yet he’s singing about happiness.

I looked around the small crowd. There wasn’t a frown in the bunch. And it was all because of him.

The truth is, I don’t know this singing man. I don’t know whether he will go home to luxury or squalor tonight. I don’t know what troubles he might suffer, nor what struggles he might face this Christmas season. But I know one thing. Today he gave me a gift.

When he finished singing, we all cheered and threw our bills into the bucket. A few of us shook his hand. One of us hugged him. And I found myself still humming when I got to my car.

Because he was right. It was a happy day.

40 comments

  1. Debbie D., AL - December 23, 2021 6:13 am

    ❤️

    Reply
  2. Sandi. - December 23, 2021 6:30 am

    That happy man’s singing was a nice Christmas gift to the entire crowd gathered by/listening. God bless him, and Sean, God bless you for telling us about him.

    Reply
  3. Kiki - December 23, 2021 8:25 am

    I want to be happy and it’s so hard right now. I easily hide from family and friends what I feel. I was diagnosed with a terminal cancer of the bile ducts in my liver. It’s rare and aggressive. Life expectancy is short. I Cannot sleep at night yet am able to get up and get a few things done. Your columns help me. Most days you write things that seem specific to me. I’m grateful for them. I like to think It’s a God thing. I’m working on that peace from within.
    I would love to be able to dance like this man. I’m dancing in my heart. People like you and Jamie are special and help me focus on the important things in life. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Melanie - December 23, 2021 12:30 pm

      @Kiki (((hugs))) ❤️

      Reply
    • Noah - December 23, 2021 12:53 pm

      I lift prayers for your comfort, and that you will find God in those unexpected places like Sean’s stories.

      Reply
    • KBH Harrell - December 23, 2021 12:56 pm

      Bless you and your family.Kiki

      Reply
    • Karen - December 23, 2021 1:53 pm

      Kiki, I pray you feel
      God’s peace and love.💖

      Reply
    • Sandi. - December 23, 2021 5:05 pm

      Kiki, may God’s unconditional love enfold you at this difficult time in your life.

      Reply
    • Liz+Watkins - December 24, 2021 12:07 am

      @KiKi- dance in your heart and soul! Love and prayers! God Bless you❤️🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻❤️

      Reply
  4. Oliver Rhett Talbert - December 23, 2021 9:44 am

    Loved this. As a young pastor, I struggled with my own prayer life. I was plenty good at telling others how and what to pray, but my own heart often felt dry and weary. Then one day, I got out of bed aware of the likelihood that I was probably going to screw up something that day, for me and someone(s) else. (The weights we pastors carry are often unholy.) And before I knew it, I prayed a prayer that has stayed with me through the years – almost every morning: “Thank you God for the forgiveness of sins. I’m gonna need that today. And thank you for the smile You place in my heart. Remind me to wear it all day long.”
    It has made a difference. It still does.
    Today’s column about a minstrel dispensing smiles – and tears – made it an easy prayer.
    May Christmas smile upon you and yours with special grace this year. You probably need it.
    We all do.

    Reply
    • Karen Snyder - December 23, 2021 8:59 pm

      Thank you, Pastor Talbert. I’m gonna make your prayer mine. You could not have shared it at a more opportune time, and I am, honest to goodness, gonna print it and hang it where I’ll see and pray it every morning. Merry Christmas.

      Reply
    • Karen Snyder - December 23, 2021 10:43 pm

      It would seem that my first reply to your comment has lost its way, Pastor Talbert. Thus, in case it fails altogether, I again say thanks for sharing your prayer. I needed it! I hope you won’t mind if I use it, credit to you of course, because I have printed it and am preparing to frame and hang it where I will be reminded to pray it every day. 💙

      Reply
  5. Donna George-Moskovitz - December 23, 2021 11:23 am

    Oh happy day! Thank you sweet Sean of the South. Love to you and Jamie! God bless both your hearts.

    Reply
  6. Jewell Wray - December 23, 2021 11:48 am

    Merry Christmas thanks for sharing and encouraging me with your words you and your sweet wife and fur babies have a Merry Christmas and God Bless you as you bless me everyday with your words I hope you are writing us another book❤️

    Reply
  7. Joan+Moore - December 23, 2021 11:55 am

    Blessings to you and your lovely Jamie, may we use our gifts to the Glory of God and pass true Joy.

    Reply
  8. Marilyn - December 23, 2021 12:09 pm

    How beautiful!

    Reply
  9. Diane White - December 23, 2021 12:32 pm

    Merry Christmas to you and your wife!
    Thank you for being you!

    Reply
  10. Heidi - December 23, 2021 12:56 pm

    So grateful….for writers that bring us kindness and humanity, for singers that bring joy, a husband with hugs and children & grandchildren with wonder and good health. So many things to be grateful for and forget, for a moment, all the troubles……

    Reply
  11. Hope A Ewans - December 23, 2021 1:23 pm

    Thank you Sean! Merry Christmast to you and Jamie.

    Reply
  12. Suellen - December 23, 2021 1:28 pm

    Now I’ll be singing that all day. Thank you for spreading the happiness.

    Reply
  13. Elizabeth - December 23, 2021 1:30 pm

    Touching insight. Thank you! It is a Happy Day. Oh, and BTW, thank you for your book. It’s a delightful little ditty now making the rounds in my little social circle. Your writing has been a surprising discovery.

    Reply
  14. Karen - December 23, 2021 1:55 pm

    God sends angels in many ways. Thank you for sharing this beautiful gentleman with us. What a blessing.

    Reply
  15. JACKIE LEON DARNELL - December 23, 2021 2:08 pm

    Good stuff, but I don’t think my comments make it for some reason…????

    Reply
  16. Pingback: Sean of the South: Happy | The Trussville Tribune

  17. Paul McCutchen - December 23, 2021 2:35 pm

    I think of my problems and come across someone like your singer. You know he is, if only for a few minutes, happy. We didn’t have anyone for Christmas last year and this year part are vaccinated and part are not. Because of our health issue my wife and I are fully vaccinated but cannot take a chance. The two of us will have Christmas again and say a few prayers and have a “Happy Day”.

    Reply
  18. Shelton A. - December 23, 2021 2:42 pm

    Every day we wake up on the right side of the grass should be a happy day. We are blessed to have another day with friends and loved ones. Let’s all try to commit a random act of kindness each day we have been given. Let’s pay it forward, let’s love our neighbor as ourselves. Thanks for sharing this story, Sean. It reminded me that I needed to ask for forgiveness for behavior that was not very good at all. It reminded me to take my own advice and to think first before inserting foot into mouth. Thank you for reminding me of what is really important and what is just a problem to be solved…an opportunity to be kind, that slipped through my fingers. God bless and peace, y’all.

    Reply
  19. chrisswain3 - December 23, 2021 2:45 pm

    How about that? You start out to write a column or a post or , call it whatever you like. I bet when you started out you had no idea that it would turn out to be what it is, this rich interchange of those people you meet along the way and the passing along of those meetings to us that read these pages. It’s really about the magic that is created . Wish I’d been there to see and hear the man you talk about above. I play a mean tambourine myself. Merry Christmas and god bless you and your family, although I believe he has.

    Reply
  20. LeAnn - December 23, 2021 2:50 pm

    Dear Sean
    Thanks for writing every day. I just wanted to send some words of courage to Kiki. My husband had that kind of cancer. His journey with it was very short. The beautiful thing was how he readied himself to meet his Maker, did all he could to fight the disease and ultimately accepted that he would die. It was so comforting to us that he shared with us his thoughts and feelings. His passing was peaceful and beautiful and of course we miss him and are sad. But he won! And that is what’s beautiful. Leave your loved ones with that assurance… may you find true peace in the rest of your journey here… say hi to Dale for me….
    PS I think heaven is going to be the most amazing adventure!

    Reply
  21. Shelton A. - December 23, 2021 2:52 pm

    Hugs and love to Kiki. Merry Christmas! Prayers for comfort, peace, and strength for you, Kiki. May your days be filled with God’s love for you…and we are all loving you right now and in the days ahead.

    Reply
  22. Liza - December 23, 2021 2:58 pm

    God is watching out for us, isn’t he?!
    Thanks, Sean!💜

    Reply
  23. Cathy M - December 23, 2021 3:22 pm

    Another Christmas gift from Sean❤️🎄. The singing Santa shared his happiness with song and dance. Wish I had been there. Thank you Sean for sharing the happiness. Kiki, I pray for your comfort and the peace that passes all understanding. Let your family love you. You wil give them a happy day❤️🎄🙏🏻

    Reply
  24. Stacey Wallace - December 23, 2021 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Sean. Your writing talent is a gift from God. My husband and I are blessed by it every morning. Love to you and Jamie.

    Reply
  25. Wanda Wiebe - December 23, 2021 7:19 pm

    I will be praying for Kiki too! Dale was my sister’s husband. We miss him a lot but are comforted in knowing that he is free from all suffering. To God be the glory!

    Reply
  26. Linda Moon - December 23, 2021 8:35 pm

    For Kiki: If you not have done so, please look into M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX. As a survivor of multiple cancers, you are certainly in my heart and mind and prayers.

    Reply
  27. Linda Moon - December 23, 2021 8:45 pm

    The title here made me feel good. I already did, but “Happy” added to the goodness. And when I thought about James Brown and the Isley Brothers it got even better. And, then, I had to stop a while to listen to the the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and that just did it! My smiles and dancin’ feet got involved. The song & dance man’s story was a gift. And, you Sean Dietrich, are a gift to me and Kiki lots of people…but no, you’re not JUST a gift. Your gift is from God.

    Reply
  28. chipnoon - December 23, 2021 9:07 pm

    Wonderful post! Thank you!

    I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
    In worn out shoes
    Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pants
    The old soft shoe
    He jumped so high
    He jumped so high
    Then he’d lightly touch down
    I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
    Down and out
    He looked to me to be the eyes of age
    As he spoke right out
    He talked of life
    He talked of life
    He laughed, clicked his heels and stepped
    He said his name, Bojangles and he danced a lick
    Across the cell
    He grabbed his pants, a better stance
    Oh, he jumped so high
    Then he clicked his heels
    He let go a laugh
    He let go a laugh
    Pushed back his clothes all around
    Mr. Bojangles
    Mr. Bojangles
    Mr. Bojangles
    Dance
    He danced for those in minstrel shows and county fairs
    Throughout the south
    He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
    Traveled about
    The dog up and died
    He up and died
    After twenty years he still grieves
    He said I dance now at every chance in honky tonks
    For drinks and tips
    But most the time I spend behind these county bars
    He said I drinks a bit
    He shook his head
    And as he shook his head
    I heard someone ask him please
    Please
    Mr. Bojangles
    Mr. Bojangles
    Mr. Bojangles
    Dance

    Reply
  29. Debbie g - December 24, 2021 3:30 am

    Sean. So much love around us to share
    Thank you and all of us give love every day. Love is free.

    Reply
  30. Barbara Yeida Zuleski - December 24, 2021 7:19 am

    Thank you, Blessings to you and your wife this Christmas. May Light and Love surround you always.

    Reply
  31. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - December 26, 2021 4:58 am

    What a blessing that little old man gave you and, you made me feel like I was there too! Thank you for these uplifting stories.

    Reply
  32. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - January 21, 2022 4:37 pm

    Reply

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