I’ve always loved Christmas time, it’s just like Thanksgiving but you get presents. For our family, Christmas season began whenever Mom let us put up our meager Christmas decorations consisting entirely of a wooden toy barn where we placed the beloved porcelain Nativity set, in flat white, and a hand woven tapestry from Peru which was a souvenir from when a relative adopted a child from there. My siblings and I would fight over who got to put baby Jesus in the barn, I’m sure he was flattered at all the attention. These modest Christmas decorations stand out vividly in my memory and they were precious to my siblings and me. The decorations grew each year. Mom added some hand painted camels to the Nativity scene and once the house was renovated and stairs were added she strung garland on the handrails. Finally, she added one of those miniature porcelain villages replete with real powdered snow that proved a grave temptation to the toddlers that followed after we had reached adulthood.
Once our decorations were set up, we would venture out as a family in our Burgundy Chevrolet Astro Van to look at other people’s Christmas lights, a tradition that I still enjoy today, although I think the lights were cooler back then. Mr. Lansford was the undisputed king of Christmas lights in our community. I couldn’t pick him out in a crowd, but I could identify his house. It was the third house on the left once we got on Highway 25 and headed to our weekly pilgrimage to Nonna & Pop’s to eat. We would all look with anticipation to see if Mr. Lansford had decorated his house, another tradition that marked the beginning of the Christmas season, not just for him, but the whole town. Mr. Lansford not only decorated his house, but also made the driveway loop that circled his house into a light display and he encouraged people to drive through. This was when Christmas lights were multicolored and many of the decorations were original. Eventually, Mr. Lansford got up in years and wasn’t able to decorate his home as he had done for so many years. This happened around the same time that multicolored Christmas lights gave way to the colorless trendy new icicle lights. The new all white Christmas lights that have prevailed in the past twenty years are the equivalent of microwavable grits, you still enjoy them, but it’s not the same.
Unlike microwavable grits, my childhood was filled with delicious homemade dishes during the Christmas season, as well as the rest of the year too. I’m not sure if the chicken and dressing that Nonna made on Christmas was any different from the chicken and dressing that she made fifteen other times throughout the year, but it wouldn’t have been Christmas without it. After all, “Dressing”, a dish made from cornbread, is one of the surest ways to tell a true Southerner from an import or an imposter. Southerners eat dressing, and it will confuse us and hurt our feelings if you try to serve us “stuffing”, which is what you put in pillows and homemade dolls, and certainly not something that you eat for Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner in my childhood was an express image of Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, ham, chicken and dressing, or just plain dressing, chicken and dumplings, deviled eggs, rolls, macaroni and cheese, cranberry sauce (from a can), green beans, sweet potato casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and about a dozen cakes. These were the staple dishes for Christmas, but they were supported by any number of side dishes including but not limited to, fried okra, fried potatoes, scalloped potatoes, slaw, pork and kraut (homemade kraut), butter beans, Lima beans, pinto beans, creamed corn, baked beans, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, boiled potatoes, and potato salad. Perhaps a bit heavy on the starches, but you get the picture. I’m sure I left something out and offended one of my great aunts. We may not have had fancy silverware and fine China, but we made up for any shortcomings in class with heaps of delicious food.
Once Christmas Eve finally arrived, we were on a tight schedule for the next two days. One of the disadvantages to being related to every one in the county, next to trying to date anyone, is that you’re expected to attend as many Christmas get-togethers as possible. We would eat Christmas dinner at Nonna & Pop’s, my Dad’s parents, with about fifty other people in the afternoon, then drive smooth across the county to eat supper with my Mom’s maternal grandmother, then drive back to Nonna and Pop’s to open Christmas presents. Once we got home from a full day, we would beg Mom & Dad to let us open presents early. They eventually caved and it became a tradition, I haven’t been as successful getting my wife to start this tradition at our home. On Christmas morning, we would go to my maternal grandmother’s house and eat breakfast and open presents before we went out into the back yard and shot guns for an hour and a half. It’s because of the many odd traditions like shooting guns on Christmas that Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck jokes didn’t make much sense to me as a child.
Although this full schedule of family Christmas celebrations was full of delicious food and fond memories, it also exposed us to our stranger relatives. After my brother had a gun pulled on him as he was waiting to fix a plate at my great grandmother’s, my parents decided to change our Christmas traditions slightly so our Christmas Eve schedule wouldn’t be so cramped. It seems like it was around that time that we adopted the new tradition of opening our gifts on Christmas Eve. As an adult, I’ve taken the approach that if it feels like a obligation, it might be a tradition that needs to be replaced. Obligation is no substitute for genuine love, and the Christmas season is too short to spend with anyone but the dearest of friends and family, and to do this, sometimes you need to create new traditions.
What I looked forward to at Christmas more than anything was opening presents. I would start making my Christmas list shortly after my birthday. In April. I enjoy the anticipation of a gift as much as actually getting to open the gift. When I was a child, my parents got me some pretty amazing Christmas gifts. Here are a few that stand out in my memory: a bicycle, Lincoln Logs, action figures, GI Joes, Cowboy LEGOS (Nonna got some of these too), and a Marlin .30-30 rifle. It seems like our parents were able to make Christmas special every year, and even if money was tight for them in certain years, we never knew it. It was during one of these leaner financial seasons that I got one of the most memorable Christmas presents, in addition to all of my cousins hand me down GI Joes, we each got our own personal roll of commercial bubble wrap. You would have thought they bought us each a pony, the way we enjoyed that bubble wrap. It seemed like it lasted for a week. I still think of that Christmas every time I get some bubble wrap. Although my parents were able to work some Christmas miracles and I still have some of those gifts today, I must say that the best Christmas present that I ever got came on Christmas Day 2015 in the form of my daughter, Miriam Vivian Wells. Since her birthday falls on Christmas, I realize that we’ll have to rethink all of our Christmas traditions, but I’ve had some experience already in that area.
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