Christmas is a weird time for me. I knew Christmas had to do with some religious experience people expected me to know but never bothered to explain, and for some reason Santa came into play. In my child world, Santa had the bigger role because TOYS AND CANDY. That, and the very real possibility that there would be no toys and candy. Church did not really exist for me until I was around ten, so the only thing about Jesus I learned was from TV specials. Jesus was in black and white.
Papa got a tree after Thanksgiving, usually a little chopped-down seedling from the woods. Buy
a tree? – pshaw, that’s for uptown folks. One time we found a little abandoned nest in a tree, so that counted as an ornament. We listened to Papa cuss at the burned-out bulbs he had to replace and untangling the mess without considerable difficulty, and then listened to the whoop when the string finally lit up. Then we held our collective breaths as he and my brother Domio strung the lights on the tree and plugged the lights in.
Oh, the magic of big fat colorful bulbs, glowing from a dark evergreen nest! The intense aroma of that evergreen as it filled the room with its heavy pine odor, a smell that triggers fond memories to this day. It was not all “we’re poor, I’m sad” aroma. It was more of a celebration, a “we made it this far and by God we’re going to enjoy ever sliver of good times we can manage” kind of olfactory feeling.
We had ornaments I thought were ancient, but in reality were probably about ten or fifteen years old, at least as old as my brother. There were delicate glass bulbs, hardier thicker glass bulbs, venerable decorative items like Santas or angels or snowmen. One ornament was a little gold bird that Papa had embellished with a peacock feather. That was an honor ornament, and the kid who was the best helper or made the best marks in school or whatever criterion held for that year, got to put it on. We weren’t especially all that good for Santa; we were good mainly for the bird ornament.
We popped corn and strung it around and around the tree. A raggedy star, the victim of many a fall by a curious cat or dog, got top billing. We would stand back and gape at the wonder of colored beauty, and then the hot lights were unplugged and the rest of the preparation could begin.
We had a Nativity set of figures made out of chalk. It was so old that one of the camel’s legs had been replaced by a matchstick, but there was such care in setting it out that it was not broken by careless children. I learned who all the figures were and how they figured into the Christmas story but nope; sorry, I didn’t feel the same sort of religious fever as I supposed I should have. Naturally I never told anyone this, because even as a small child I was reluctant to call attention to myself on a matter than might have resulted in some dreadful instructional indoctrination, when I could have been busy with the serious business of playing.
We always put the baby Jesus aside and added him on Christmas Eve before we went to bed.
Mama would give us each what she could, maybe a dollar or two, and in the weeks before Christmas we would go into town to the Ben Franklin’s store (sort of an early Wal-Mart) or the venerable Dollar General or the Rexall Drug Store or wherever we could find, and make our purchases. Ben Franklin’s was a five and dime store and it was usually there we could buy little gifts for everyone in the family. Then we went home and wrapped them and put them under the tree. There was always plenty of wrapping paper since Mama got it at Dollar General post-Christmas sale on Boxing Day the year before, and of course we saved white butcher paper instead of making a year-end Family Newspaper (“The Beartown News”) so we could draw and make our own wrapping paper. They were cheap gifts yes, but to a child in poverty a big pile of wrapped presents was a big deal, a reassurance. Sand is cheap too, but if you have enough of it you can build a castle.
We might ask for what we would like but we never expected to get much, and there were years when we knew Santa’s bag might be almost empty by the time he got to our house. Still, my parents managed to scrape up enough for hard candy, nuts, an apple and orange for each child and a toy or game of some kind. Oh, but that wasn’t the treat of Christmas. The real treat of Christmas in my childhood was Papa reciting from memory “The Night Before Christmas” complete with pantomime. We all joyfully anticipated “the prancing and pawing of each tiny hoof” as he made the fingers of his one hand prance in the palm of the other. The twinkle in his eye and the song within his voice made that story. I cannot re-create it. I hope there is an afterlife because I intend to ask for the recitation again.
We went to bed all tingling with excitement, with Papa’s big clean work socks out waiting to be filled, and the chalk baby Jesus home at last with the Nativity scene.
Mama had been baking and preparing the next day’s meal on Christmas Eve, pausing only for the recitation. Thanks to the government Commodity program, a program long since retired, we had plenty of sugar and flour and cornmeal and powdered milk and canned vegetables in generic white boxes and cans with stark black print on front. From this larder my mother added eggs from our chickens and packets of yeast and jars of spices and whatnot. She made pies and cakes and OH MY GOD THE SAGE DRESSING! Mama’a sage dressing MADE Christmas dinner. Whether Papa brought home a frozen turkey or he simply picked out the biggest meatiest cockrels from the flock, neither Christmas nor Thanksgiving was complete without her sage dressing. My sisters still regard it as the one side dish to rule them all. She also made heavenly light fluffy yeast rolls that rivaled store-bought. You couldn’t beat my mother’s cooking, not with a stick bigger than a redwood. Everything she crafted was tasty and filling.
She did not mind our waking them up at five in the morning, because she had to put the bird in the oven anyway. Papa always groaned and complained, but we could tell by the tone of his voice that it was all an act, that he was every bit as much of a kid at Christmas as we were. For his fifth Christmas all he got was a cut-glass creamer. My grandmother was a tough, practical woman (born on Christmas Day; resentment maybe?) who did not regard Christmas or her birthday as anything special. My grandfather did, so the boy got a gift. A cut-glass piece of crystalwear. He knew he mustn’t show anything but appreciation, but Papa’s little heart sank that day. He remembered the feeling and was determined not to let his own children have a similar Christmas.
We squealed over what Santa brought us, opened the pile of presents and sneaked a few pieces of candy while we played. We didn’t have to be told not to ruin our appetites because after all, SAGE DRESSING. Then when dinnertime came we washed our hands and faces, sat on the benches at the table sides while Papa and Mama sat in the chairs at the ends, and tucked into dinner. Sometimes uncles and aunts and cousins came over, which meant adding the card table at one end and pulling in more chairs, but that was fine because it was family time and the more, the merrier.
We kept as many of the traditions as we could after Papa died and we moved into town. We still had the ornaments, but Mama didn’t explode with colorful phrases and deliciously naughty words as she untangled the lights. She didn’t need to because she wound them around pieces of cardboard to keep them neat and tidy. I kind of missed the Grand Cussing Out but I had to admit, I was relieved to know there was a better chance we wouldn’t have to mess with many bad bulbs.
The bird ornament went to whoever called it first. Other ornaments had stature too so those were consolation prizes. The chalk Nativity figures got more fragile as the years passed, but no less respected. In time the real tree was replaced with fake trees or an aluminum tree and for a couple of years we had a white flocked tree lit by a revolving color wheel off to one side. Yes, Mama did not mind modern trends. Papa likely would have objected strongly but Mama liked new experiences and since she was unwillingly now the head of the house, she did things her way.
My children and I have our traditions, traditions which are becoming harder to keep as time and circumstances change over the years. Job requirements and schedules have resulted in a couple of members missing from our ranks this year, but we always have a Sibling Day in which my three get together with their Significant Others, to celebrate. There is a big dinner somewhere and the day is filled with playing board games and watching a movie together and simply enjoying each other’s company. That’s a pretty good way to go about celebrating.