…drizzly, 50-ish Christmas. Or possibly a crisp, sunny, light-jacket one.
Which is nuts. Because here I am, in Europe, the Home of Christmas. Or, more accurately, the Home of the White Christmas Myth.
It would not be crazy to expect snow in Europe by December 25th, even as far south as Vienna. But in Tennessee, my original stomping grounds? Highly unlikely. Not much more likely in the DC area, my adopted home.
It’s not just about the snow, of course. Everyone has their own idea of what Christmas should be. For some people, it’s about going to see the Nutcracker and having dinner in a fancy restaurant. For others, it’s about going to a beach or ski resort for a week. For still others, it’s about the loot. Big loot.
For me, child of flyover country that I am, it has always mostly been about people and food. A lot of people and a lot of food.
When I was growing up, we had a minimum of three Christmases every year. One at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve; Santa Claus and pecan waffles on Christmas morning; and then a two-hour drive out to a don’t-blink-you’ll-miss-it town in west Tennessee for a big Christmas dinner (lunch, of course) and gift exchange with my great-grandmother, great-aunts, great-uncles, second cousins, and whatever other relatives happened to be around at the time.
Snow was not a factor. Which is just as well, what with all that driving. Southerners really should NOT drive in the snow. Ever.
My great-grandmother’s tiny old house was warm and packed with people. There were always several women in the kitchen, talking a slow but consistent blue streak about nothing in particular, and stirring plenty of butter into the corn simmering on the 1950s-era white enamel stove. There was always a big ham as well as a turkey, cornbread, green beans, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, rolls, and Jell-O salad (which was never my favorite.) Dessert was pecan pie, chess squares, date roll, sometimes fruit cake, and Christmas cookies. Homemade pickles on the table, and sometimes an exotic recipe picked up at a church supper. For some reason, a Luden’s cough syrup cake sticks in my mind. Possibly because it was the closest alcohol ever came to the table in that strictly Baptist home.
The men sat outside—it was usually warm enough to do that—smoked cigars, whittled, and generally tried to stay out of the way. There was hardly any TV reception that far out in the country, so football was not a major factor. Sometimes, a transistor radio would be turned to a game.
My brother and I—there were no cousins our age on that side of the family, alas—made little houses and forts out of the moss, pine cones and pine needles in yard, climbed around in the clay gully, looked for frogs around the old pump, or asked to explore my great-grandfather’s dusty old shop—if we were sure to stomp on the floor when we went in to scare the snakes away.
At dinnertime, after a communal blessing with everyone standing in the kitchen holding hands, the oldest folks and men sat at the big table in the kitchen, and the “kids”—which included my mother and any of her cousins that happened to be there—sat at card tables in one of the two original rooms of the house. All the older women fixed plates for their husbands. My mother never did, and my dad gave her a hard time about it, but he didn’t really mean it.
Much, much later, my husband would actually wash dishes at one of these gatherings and completely freak these ladies out. In a good way.
Gifts were modest, for the most part. “Drawing names” at Thanksgiving was the thing, and gifts were opened in turn. We all sat on two big beds in the one bedroom in the house, or pulled in chairs from the other two-and-a-half rooms. The Christmas tree was always a little local cedar, with dangerously hot, thumb-sized old Christmas lights on it.
Either my brother and I, or my disabled great-uncle were assigned the task of distributing presents. I remember several people got good house slippers, gloves, or scarves every year. “Santy Claus” would usually bring a little extra for the kiddies, along the lines of a flashlight, or a pocket knife.
After dinner, all the old folks collapsed on various beds, sofas, and easy chairs around the house to “digest.” This involved much pulling down of pantyhose, loosening of belts, and snoring. My brother and I, stoked on sugar and getting a little bored by then, went out in the yard again to make trouble if we could find some to make.
Leaving at dusk always took forever. My dad and granddad told us that this family does not know how to say goodbye, so just set back and get used to it. I never did.
The next day, or at least some time in the next week, there would be yet another heart-attack-on-a-plate Christmas lunch with my grandfather’s people, a somewhat more citified bunch. More food, some small gifts exchanged, sometimes a little homemade wine or hard cider, and a businesslike packing-up-to-go after three hours or so which I very much appreciated. (Blood will tell.)
Nearly all those people are gone now, and the days of large families are too. There were times when it got a little, as my grandmother would say,”tedious,” but now that I have heard more about other people’s families. I really appreciate how peaceful our Christmases were. I guess it would have taken an awful lot of Luden’s to get these folks riled up.
When we moved back to DC seven years ago, we actually ended up with a bigger house than my parents. With more space to put up people, and with the drive to Tennessee being just a little longer than was pleasant with kids, a new tradition developed. Everyone came to our house for Christmas. Which worked pretty much the same way it had at my great-grandmother’s house. Lots of food and people—with somewhat larger gifts and movies on a wide screen TV.
This year, it’s just the four of us here in Vienna. The Christmas markets are really nice and I enjoy them a lot (really!) but they are not truly Christmas to me. They are a little too cold and a little too cute. And these are definitely not my people.
On the positive side, it will certainly be a restful holiday this year. I’m really looking forward to seeing my daughter after four months. And with no one but ourselves to please, if we want to have paella or fajitas for Christmas dinner we certainly can. Heck, we can spend the whole day in pajamas eating frozen pizzas and watching Doctor Who reruns if we want to. There’s something to be said for that. I am even considering radically downsizing the tree. Could be a good use for that monster Drexel table: an itty-bitty tree and piles of presents.
This may be one of the best things about the Foreign Service. The chance to remake holidays in whatever image we choose, and to fully appreciate, from a distance, holidays of the past. We’ve done it before, in much less “Christmassy” places than Vienna. I’m a little out of practice now, but I am pretty sure we can do it again. We’ll just have to see.
Thanks for the Christmas article. Glad you remember “Christmas Past” so well. Brought back many memories and a tear to my eye! Thanks again for sharing your Christmas memories. With much love, Nanny
Lovely post. The pictures and stories about those past Christmases put such a smile on my face. Thanks for sharing that. It’s so different from my experience as a kid. It’s fun to see another perspective. I think we’re still trying to figure out what kind of traditions or whatever we’ll do place to place. This gives me a lot to think about.
We put our little tree on the big old DH table last year with our nativities and things.