Recently I have been suffering from the ghosts of Christmas past. No, I’m not reliving Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and I don’t consider myself a Scrooge. But without any traditional family with which to share, I can’t help thinking back to earlier times. Oh, I have friends to help celebrate the holidays, but these holidays lack the special festivities that I remember.
My early childhood memories are gone or forgotten. As a child I focused on what gifts I would get and took my family and surroundings for granted. I assumed that everyone lived as we did. We were of modest means and lived simply so the gifts usually were clothing. Penney’s, Montgomery Ward and Sears had liberal exchange policies so it wasn’t a problem if items didn’t fit. I can’t recall a special gift or holiday as a child, but I always looked forward to Christmas that was centered on church activities.
They were traditional celebrations with my father, mother, and sister. My father Frank was a Methodist preacher so we moved a lot and were hundreds of miles away in Texas from their families in Tennessee. But we always seemed to have a crowd of friends and lonely church members they took in. My mother, Julia, was born on Christmas Day, and according to tradition her Swedish name was Yulia, for the Yuletog. Even though it was her birthday, and thus it should have been a time for her to be free of cooking and other household chores, she loved fixing a big Christmas meal with turkey and all the trimmings. The rest of the family helped out, but she was the one who always got up first on Christmas Day to start cooking. She came from a very large family, and Christmas had always been a special holiday in her family tradition.
An incident sticks in my mind from 1952, when I already was 17. We had just moved from a small Central Texas town to the big city of Fort Worth and hadn’t formed any friendships yet. The big event was the first television in the family: a 19-inch B&W TV that was as big as a compact refrigerator and wrapped in maroon vinyl and sitting on a TV stand. I found a photo of it next to the Christmas tree with the family posed in front of it. I don’t remember any Christmas TV specials. The big shows were Ed Sullivan, the Texaco Star Theater, and What’s My Line. One evening just before Christmas one of the church members dropped by to deliver a Christmas gift. Later their daughter told us that when she was coming up the steps to the big front porch and looked into the living room windows we seemed like the picture of the perfect family. At the time I recall wondering if her family might not have seemed as happy.
My recollection skips forward several years to 1960 after my father had retired for the second time and bought their first home. It was a small, simple cottage, but it was not a parsonage that belonged to the church so they could do with it as they wished. That fall they bought a 21-inch color television just in time to see the World Series of baseball. My father and mother were both great baseball fans, and what was a $1,000 investment for them was equivalent to several thousand dollars today. The 70-inch, flat-screen, high definition TVs of today don’t offer any more excitement than that first color TV. I flew home from a Navy assignment at Fort Meade, MD, and my sister flew home from a recent transfer to Fayetteville, NC so we were reunited again. In all the years my mother lived, we never missed a Christmas together except for one in 1945 when my sister Mary Louise first went into the Army.
In 1962 I was then living in Albuquerque, NM, and I flew home to Fort Worth to join my parents. We drove through to Fayetteville in their new Chrysler sedan (the first new car in the family that traditionally bought used cars). We woke up Christmas morning in my sister’s small apartment to find several inches of snow on the ground. We occasionally got snow in Fort Worth but rarely for Christmas. I recall one year when it was 90 degrees on Christmas Day but then was freezing on New Year’s Day.
From 1970 to 1976 I flew to Fayetteville since by then my parents had moved to be with my sister after she had moved into a large house. For several of those years we either drove up to Roanoke, VA to join one of my mother’s sisters Inez, or she and her husband Jim drove down to Fayetteville. I remember driving back from Roanoke to Fayetteville one year in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. Another year I recall going shopping in the mall with Inez just a few days before Christmas, and we saw an animated toy bunny in a store window that she loved. I later bought it for her, and she showed all of the pleasure of small child on Christmas morning. In 1977 after my father died, mother and my sister flew to Texas to join me in my small apartment in Bryan, Texas. Late on Christmas Eve we got a phone call from Lela Latch, an old friend from Cisco in the high plains, who was en route to visit her sister in Houston. Somehow we managed to find room to squeeze her into that small space, and it was a joyous reunion perhaps because it was totally unexpected. I continued to come to what had become the family “home” in Fayetteville until 1986.
The worst Christmas ever was in 1986 shortly after my mother had moved into a nursing home following a stroke. Inez again joined Mary Louise and me, and we had Christmas lunch in the nursing home while my mother cried about being there. Inez simply couldn’t understand how my mother could be so clear about some things and so confused about others. Julia still could recall events from many years ago, but she was unable to dress herself and frequently hallucinated so that she was unable to care for even her basic needs.
In 1987 after my mother had died, my sister and I went to Johnson City, TN to spend the holiday with a cousin and her family. My aunt also was there, but unknown to us my cousin Carolyn’s daughter had eloped just a few days before Christmas. As we were sitting around the breakfast table that morning, the daughter called to let them know where she was and that she was OK. Talk about excitement on Christmas morning! The last big family gathering was in 1992 at another cousin Susan’s home on Lake Cherokee, TN. My aunt (the last of 7 sisters), my sister and I, and three cousins and their families all gathered in their large living room in front of the fire. By that time Carolyn’s daughter had two children, and her son was engaged.
For the three years that I lived in Washington, DC from 1993 – 1995, my sister flew up to stay with me in my tiny apartment – so small that I had to put a roll-away bed in the small study (actually a walk-in closet). But I had friends there, and they joined us in celebrations at the National Cathedral and later Foundry Methodist Church where the Clintons attended. In 1996 I moved to Raleigh, and one of my DC friends Irene came down on the train, and we spent Christmas Day with Mary Louise.
Somehow I keep thinking back to Christmas 1998 when Mary Louise and I spent the holiday in Charleston, SC after her friend Mary Frances had died. Our families had shared the holidays for many years. It rained the whole time so we didn’t get to walk around as much as planned, but we did enjoy a lavish buffet at the Omni Hotel. But the highlight was a simple Christmas Eve pageant in a 200-year old Methodist Church where we worshiped in an integrated congregation that would not have been possible in my childhood. Mary Louise already was beginning to show the effects of Alzheimer’s and didn’t seem to mind the absence of the usual holiday trappings in her home. It was a big transition, and the holidays have never been the same since then. Fortunately I have friends here to share with, and I’m very comfortably situated in my apartment without the care of a house and yard
I learned a lesson from the experience with my mother in the nursing home so that in 2001 when Mary Louise also went into a nursing home I visited daily but I was absent on Christmas Day. I joined her in the exchange of gifts on Christmas Eve in the dining room and played Christmas carols on the piano the week before, but I spent the actual day with friends. She was even more confused than my mother had been so she didn’t know what day it was or really where she was. Eventually she wasn’t even able to call my name.
Since I walk at the nearby mall nearly every day during the winter when I can’t walk outside on the greenway, I am exposed to the mercantile mania that surrounds Christmas. The decorations go up even before Halloween so Thanksgiving seems almost forgotten except at the card shop. I wonder how many more clothing, shoe, and jewelry stores the world really needs. Judging from the crowds, the recession doesn’t seem to have had much effect except for the proliferation of big sale signs with deep discounts.
I’ve tried to think about the real meaning of Christmas and to separate the traditions and myths that have come to surround it even in the Christian church. Santa Claus has replaced Christ in many homes, but many families still make an annual pilgrimage to some kind of church. Big Christmas pageants in the church seem to have become passé except in the fundamentalist churches. But a pageant, even if it portrays the birth of Jesus, doesn’t capture the real spirit of Christmas. Even more than Easter, Christmas is focused on the family. Many families swap gatherings between Thanksgiving and Christmas with different in-laws, but that was never the situation in our home because we lived too far away from my parents relatives. Their parents already were dead by the time I was a child, and their siblings were way back east so family was just the four of us.
Cynics say that Christmas is just a religious adaptation of the winter solstice celebrations that reach back to pre-recorded history, and it’s true that many of our traditions such as the Christmas tree have no Christian basis or theological significance. But the focus on the family certainly is a major factor in Christianity even though Jesus broadened the concept of what it means to be a family beyond the traditional Jewish boundaries. And so my new family has become a small circle of friends with whom I share my hopes and fears as well as some of our memories of all the years past in the belief that even today in the midst of wars and chaos there is hope for today and promise for tomorrow.
The highlight for me this year was the privilege of getting to hear Reynolds Price read the text of the hymn of “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” and to tell the story of how Phillips Brooks came to write it. His melodious voice and gathered crowd of admirers brought a feeling of warmth and security that brought me back to my youth and my memories of Christmas.