John plunks us in the middle of the holiday season in 1953. Johnny is eleven, and it's the first Christmas following his mother's death. Harriet decides that they should spend Christmas away from the Eastmans. That way, if they all miss each other, they won't spend the whole time missing Tabby.
Johnny spends his time divided between 80 Front Street and Dan's apartment at Gravesend Academy.
Dan spends a lot of time drinking. Harriet refuses to decorate her house for Christmas.
Owen and Johnny have a little bit of mischievous fun: they take Dan's master key and break into the dorm rooms of the Gravesend students who have gone home for the holidays.
Every year, Dan directs a production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. We also learn about the Christmas Pageant that the Christ Church puts on every year.
Owen hates the Christmas pageant because Rev. and Mrs. Wiggin always make Owen play the part of the announcing angel.
Johnny has never been to the Christ Church Christmas pageant before because he's usually in Sawyer Depot. Now he might actually get to be in it.
He learns quickly that Owen has a lot to say about what's wrong with the pageant: nobody can tell what the turtledoves are; Mary stands around and looks pretty; Joseph is always smirking; and, worst of all, they use real babies to play the Little Lord Jesus. The babies are always crying, so Mrs. Wiggin keeps a whole line of adults holding babies offstage so they can swap in non-crying babies for crying ones.
John directs us back to Waterhouse Hall (the dorm that holds Dan's faculty apartment). Most of the faculty and students are away for the holidays. Only the Brinker-Smiths, a young British couple, are still there. The Brinker-Smiths just had twins. Mrs. Brinker-Smith, who goes by Ginger, is apparently a major hottie.
Otherwise, Owen and Johnny spend a lot of time going through the dorm rooms of the absent Gravesend Academy students. Owen has this thing about trying to figure out the personalities of the inhabitants based on their possessions and the states of their rooms.
Johnny and Owen also discover a lot of dirty magazines hidden under various mattresses. Owen believes that the boys with the biggest interests in sex are probably also the unhappiest.
In the room of a young man named Potter, the boys discover a stash of unused condoms – or, as Owen calls them, "BEETLESKINS" (4.57). They unwrap a condom and take turns trying to put it on themselves, which, yeah, is kind of gross.
John starts describing the Christmas Pageant of 1953 to us.
To Barb Wiggin's dismay, Owen flatly refuses to play the part of the Announcing Angel – he's tired of people laughing at his voice. Then the fun begins: he starts giving a bunch of suggestions as to how the pageant should take shape.
First off, Owen declares that John should play the part of Joseph. Then he suggests that Mary Beth Baird, "a wholesome lump of a girl, shy and clumsy and plain" (4.95) should play the part of Mary.
John draws our attention to "fat Harold Crosby, who was not grotesque enough to be teased – or even noticed – but who as enough of a slob to be rejected whenever he caused the slightest attention to be drawn to himself" (4.105).
Harold falls over his chair, which Rev. Wiggin takes as an indication of Harold's interest in the role of the Announcing Angel. We find out that Harold is afraid of heights, which doesn't exactly bode well for a role that involves being hoisted up in the air.
Next, Owen nixes the turtledoves and asks that they be replaced with cows. Mary Beth Baird volunteers to make cow costumes.
Then, as the cherry on top, Owen convinces everyone that he should get to play the part of the Christ Child – after all, he's tiny enough to fit in the crib and won't cry like all the other babies.
Owen continues to exercise his opinions during all of the rehearsals, progressively driving Barb Wiggin crazy.
John brings us back to the present in 1987. He talks about how he goes to church pretty frequently. He goes during the week because he hates seeing cranky families who are there against their will on Sundays.
Then John takes us back to Christmas, 1953.
This time, we learn more about Dan's production of A Christmas Carol.
Mr. Fish, the neighbor, stops by 80 Front Street whenever he sees Dan's car out front. He has a lot to say about the quality (or lack, thereof) of the actors in the play. Mr. Early plays Jacob Marley and completely overacts the part. The Ghost of Christmas Past is pretty bad, too. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Mr. Kenmore, is even worse.
Yet, the very worst actor is Mr. Morrison, the mailman, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. He threatens to quit because he doesn't get any lines – it's a completely silent part.
Mr. Fish plays the part of Scrooge. John reveals a little bit more about Mr. Fish.
John can remember a time when Mr. Fish seemed to be young and carefree. He used to play football in the yard with Owen and Johnny, even though they didn't really like the game. Mr. Fish's dog, whose name was Sagamore, always played along.
Down the street, a young couple had a new baby. They always yelled at the neighbors to stop making noise.
One day, Owen punted the football into the street. Sagamore, the dog, chased after it and got hit by a diaper truck – the truck crashed directly into Sagamore's head. He died instantly. Owen told Mr. Fish, "I DON'T THINK YOU WANT TO SEE IT" (4.264). Hmm, remind you of any other instances of deadly head injuries in this novel?
Tabby helped the boys take care of Sagamore's remains. Owen and Johnny buried Sagamore; Mr. Fish insisted that he'd never have another dog.
John remembers how cold his mom looked. They had a funeral ceremony for Sagamore complete with candles and prayers. Rev. and Mrs. Merrill were drawn to the scene. John remembers how startled his mom looked when they showed up.
John mentions that he was only "dimly aware of Owen as the conductor of an orchestra of events – and totally unaware that this orchestration would lead to a single sound" (4.282). Keep this image in mind for later.
John describes the way he remembers the Meanys' house. They didn't ever have a lot of Christmas decorations, but they did have a crèche with a series of painted wooden figures. There were cows; there was a figure of the Virgin Mary; there was a Joseph; there were angels and animals. The only thing missing was "the Little Lord Jesus himself" (4.285).
We learn more about Mr. and Mrs. Meany. Mrs. Meany never really says anything. She just sits and stares out the window.
One day in the winter of 1953, Johnny goes over to Owen's house. Mr. Meany asks how the pageant rehearsals are going. Johnny mentions that Owen is playing the part of the Baby Jesus. Both Mr. and Mrs. Meany are really startled. It gives Johnny the shivers to look at their reactions.
Johnny gets the vibe that he said something he shouldn't have said.
Owen and Johnny leave Owen's house, but Johnny realizes that he forgot his hat. When he goes back to get it, Mrs. Meany speaks to him for the first time ever, saying, "I'm sorry about your poor mother" (4.321).
We meet Ethel, the maid who replaces Lydia after her amputation. Harriet and Lydia make it kind of hard for Ethel to acclimate – Lydia and Harriet seem to be best buds, and they always talk about their fond memories, like how they used to throw out old jars of jam together. They do so mostly as a passive-aggressive tactic to ask Ethel to do things (like throw out old jam) without actually asking her.
Then we meet Germaine. She's the other maid that Harriet hired when Lydia had to stop working. Her specific job is to look after Lydia. Germaine is kind of clumsy and awkward. Harriet and Lydia make things kind of hard for her.
Germaine seems to be afraid of everyone, but she is especially creeped out by Owen.
One day at dinner, Johnny mentions to his grandmother that, despite the suggestions of others, Owen decided not to go see Tabby's voice and singing teacher because he thought that God gave him his voice for a reason. More than anything, Harriet is interested in finding out the identity of this teacher because she thinks it might give them a clue about Johnny's father's identity.
It's still Christmastime in 1953. One day, Owen Meany and John go back to Gravesend Academy and hang out in Waterhouse Hall while Dan rehearses the Gravesend Players.
As the boys examine a room on the second floor, they hear the Brinker-Smiths approaching. Johnny hides in the closet, while Owen hides under the bed.
The Brinker-Smiths end up doing it right above Owen. They go at it so vigorously that a bedspring scrapes Owen's nose.
Owen and Johnny are totally shocked about what happened. They decide to go hang out at 80 Front Street where things are a little bit tamer.
When they get there, Mr. Morrison comes to the door as part of his mail route and tells Harriet that he's quitting the play – he doesn't want a silly non-speaking role!
Owen overhears the exchange and tells Mr. Morrison what an important part it is – the Ghost of the Future is the scariest ghost of all!
In spite of Owen's best efforts, Mr. Morrison quits the play. Owen calls Dan. Johnny realizes what Owen is up to – he's angling to get the role for himself! In the process of trying to convince Mr. Morrison not to quit, Owen must have convinced himself that it was a prime part.
Owen goes to rehearsal one day. Later, Dan recounts how Owen was so scary and convincing that it made the hair on the back of his neck stands up.