To be clear, my Christmases in a small southern town seventy years ago, where three generations of both sides of my family lived, would have been a challenge for Patton’s Third Army, but not for my mother.
There was one great-grandmother, two grandmothers, one grandfather and too many aunts, uncles and cousins to count.
Sound like a six-hundred page novel? No-no. Not as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old with all the excitement of Christmas swirling around.
Santa found our new home and left our gifts in the living room. My brother and I were up before dawn, but not allowed to leave our room before my dad stirred the fireplace coals back to life and added more wood.
That was the beginning of a long day of surprises and joy. The sun was up by the time what Santa had left was scattered all over the room and the disappointment of no snow had been forgotten. Then the wrapped presents under the tree were passed around. Hoping they contained more than underwear and socks, we had been shaking, smelling and guessing what they contained for days.
We were so excited we forgot about the stockings that had been hanging empty from the mantle, but were now filled. Caps for the Roy Rogers six- shooter Santa had brought, firecrackers for later, hard candy, nuts and there had to be a pair of socks which were not seen again until school started.
By then my mother had disappeared into the kitchen to start breakfast. We had way too much to explore, questions about how a toy worked and would have broken at least one by then. My dad was busy burning wrapping paper in the fireplace even though he kept saying it was not good for the chimney.
The incentive to get us to the breakfast table was that we knew we had relatives to visit where more presents would be waiting. We were allowed to take one of Santa’s gifts to show off. That was a major decision. We could also wear something we had gotten, like a cowboy hat or boots, a new jacket or fur-lined gloves. I had gotten a tie, but it was not in the running.
In the back seat of the car our adrenaline level had begun to return to normal. Next stop, Ned and Ethel’s house (my dad’s mother and father). The best years were when my dad’s sister’s family came from out-of-town with two girl cousins the same ages as me and my brother. Santa had found them, even at a different home. They were as excited over their dolls and other girly things as we were over boy stuff. The rest of the morning was spent opening more presents and talking about the gifts at home.
My dad’s side of the family was always more fun and were the very best cooks. My dad and his sister’s husband were like a vaudeville act. They played off of each other and kept us all laughing.
The traditional Christmas dinner at Ethel’s table was not some fancy array. It was a simple low-country meal–Chicken Perlo, a dish from hard times, made with a couple of stewed chickens and chicken stock. Rice, which was always available and cheap, was lightly browned in butter. Diced onions and celery were added along with the stock to simmer covered until the rice was just right. As the noon hour approached, the chicken was added, and the pot placed in the oven for another few minutes.
With ten or more around the table, the Perlo, green peas, salad and biscuits were passed family style–then passed again. We ate so well that we almost never had dessert, but for Christmas my mother always made a large bowl of Ambrosia topped with fresh-grated coconut. What a pain that was! Punching a hole to drain the milk, cracking the shell, digging out the meat, and then grating it.
After a few hours, and after a couple of adults had fallen asleep by the fire, we were off to see my mother’s grandmother (my great grandmother.) Mom’s side of the family was gathered in a big brick house that just said, “You better behave in here.” The gathering there was much more sedate– only one child, a second cousin a year older than me. He, as always, had been showered with gifts from a number of aunts. We exchanged a few more gifts–knowing ours would be clothes–I’m sure from a list provided by my mother.
Coffee, tea, punch, cookies and fancy little cakes were served by Lou, their cook and maid. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure Lou had been there since the Civil War.
By this time we boys were getting tired and anxious to get back for more time with Santa’s gifts. The car was loaded down with the haul from two houses, and leftover Perlo exchanged for Ambrosia.
After unloading and a pickup supper, another wonderful small-town family Christmas was over. We were off to bed leaving our parents wondering how they had survived.
STAY WELL TO ENJOY A BETTER 2021.