Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas Past

      We arrived back in Richmond last night in time to hop into the frantic pace of holiday festivities...there was shopping to be done, parties to attend, presents to wrap, lights and garlands to hang, the tree  to be selected and decorated,  fruitcake and cookies  to be endless list of preparations and tasks that must be completed in the fifteen short days that were left.  It seemed a bit overwhelming as I ticked through my list, trying to figure what to do when, how to get it all done, and if there would be time to just enjoy the season without being completely exhausted.
     I thought of the piles of boxes  that needed to be hauled down from the attic and remembered last January when I had hauled them all back into storage.  As I shoved over 27 containers full of nutcrackers, tinsel trees, nativity scenes, glass balls and garlands, I told my husband,  "I don't think this was what Christ had in mind for the celebration of His birth. Next year, I'm going to hang one wreath, display one nativity scene,  put out one candle, and that is going to be it for the decorations. This has gotten to be ridiculous." I had spent enough money on decorations to buy a heiffer for every starving family in Africa, and I knew all the garlands and bows in the world wouldn't really tell the true story of Christmas. I had been sucked into the mass consumerism that had overtaken the holiday.
     I thought of the stories my grandmother had told of her childhood holidays, and the stark contradiction between the obscene commercialism of our Christmas today and the profound simplicity of  her Christmas past caused me to experience a moment of shame. The simplistic celebrations of yore may pale in comparison to the consumer-driven, commercialized, mega-hpyed secular version our children experience today, but I would trade all the glitter and glitz of present for one chance to experience those simple but holy Christmases of her youth.
     The holiday was as it should be....a holy-day, with church and worship of the Saviour's birth the main focus.  This was long before Santa had replaced the babe in the manger, before shopping malls replaced sanctuaries, before "Holiday Trees" and "Holiday Greetings" crowded out "Christmas trees" and proclamations of "Merry Christmas",  and when the birth of Christ was still the focus of the season.There were no mounds of presents under the tree, no dancing reindeer lighting up the lawn or a million lights twinkling from the eaves of the house. Santa came, but he came quietly and without the abundance of gifts expected today.  There were no arguments about nativity scenes on courthouse lawns or bans on singing carols in the schools. We were still "One Nation Under God" and not ashamed to admit it, and the reason for the season had not been obscured by marketing executives determined to cash in on every belief system on the planet in order to turn December 25 into nothing more than a shopping extravaganza. The greatest gift was the time spent with family celebrating the birth of the Saviour.
     Christmas Eve was spent in church, with carols and candles heralding the birthday of the Christ-child.  Lights in the windows signified the coming of the light of the world, and Santa was still a Saint who gave gifts from the heart, gifts of love that were reminiscent of the gifts of frankencense, gold and myrhh laid at the manger by three wise men. There were no IPODS, four wheel drive vehicles, designer clothes, computers, bicycles, or other extravagent gifts waiting under the tree. Santa was practical, bringing sweet treats that were a holdiay delicacy and perhaps a few necessities such as socks and underwear, perhaps a woolen scarf or pair of kid gloves.
    As a child, my grandmother and her brothers would eagerly await Christmas with dreams of carols, family gatherings, and a grand Christmas dinner.  On those long-ago Christmas mornings, Grandfather would awaken everyone with an explosive greeting as he marched up and down the hallway igniting firecrackers to proclaim Santa's arrival. Everyday stockings had been nailed to the mantle, and the excited children would soon pull them down and search for treats that Santa had tucked inside. Before pulling down the stockings,  Uncle Benny would run to the fireplace, stick his nose up the chimney, sniff and exclaim "I smell bananas!" In the early 1900's, it was an exotic treat to get a banana from Santa in your stocking; an even greater treat was to receive a bunch of dried grapes which were still attached to the vine, the forerunner of today's raisins. Nuts and candies filled out the rest of the space, with an orange in the toe of the stocking capping off a perfect Christmas morning.
      As soon as the morning fires were lit, individuals who worked for the family would begin the southern tradition of knocking on the back door in anticipation of a holiday treat.  Jeff Wright, a carpenter, would always  be the first to bang at the back door, hands extended, a grin lighting up his dark face as he shouted "Christmas gift! Christmas gift!"  Other workers would follow, each eagerly awaiting gifts of money, a new sweater, and a hot Christmas breakfast of hominy, sausage, biscuits, and eggs.
    After church services, the entire extended family would gather around the dining room table for the Christmas meal of turkey and ham, dressing, candied sweet potatoes, asparagus, scalloped oysters, rice and gravy, cranberries and pickled peaches, relishes and aspics, biscuits and fresh butter. Fruitcake and cookies lined the sideboard, but the grand finale was always Gypsy Cake. This once-a-year holiday treat, still a family favorite, was dreamed of 364 days of the year in anticipation of that Christmas day delight.  Layers of sponge cake, made only according to the recipe in the Old Red Cookbook, were sprinkled with pecans and raisins, with each of those layers topped with a layer of creamy boiled custard, layer after layer, until the bowl overflowed.  The trifle dish, piled high and deep, awaited its presentation on the back porch if the day were cold enough or else in the icebox.  For the more adventuresome holiday guest, a dash of spirits was added to each layer, turning the dessert into  the self-explanatory "Tipsey Cake".  A dollop of freshly whipped cream completed the presentation.  Groans and sighs of contentment inevitably topped off the day. A walk through town to wish neighbors and friends a "Merry Christmas"  would be just enough to waken the senses and work up an appetite to gather round the table for a final holiday evening meal before bidding relatives goodnight and goodbye.
     And that was it. A simple but profound day spent with family and loved ones in  celebration of the birth of Christ, yet a day memorable enough that my grandmother lovingly recalled each memory and morsel of it more than eighty years later.  She is long gone now, as are the Christmases she once knew, but the memories  are enough to make me smile as I prepare for this holy season , knowing she is with the One whose birth we still celebrate.
      This year, I wish for a simple Christmas, a holy Christmas, a Merry Christmas, one that will be full of memories that will bind families together and  make future generations smile in recollection.   And to each of you, I wish the same. Have a very, very Merry Christmas!  


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