I don’t recall ever having been sick for Christmas, and I’ve been thinking about it because yesterday I started coming down with what I call the creeping crud. Of course, if you hang around here long enough, you’ll hear my idiosyncratic colloquialisms over and over. I’m loading up on the orange juice and resting, so I have way too much time to think, and one can only tolerate so many Lifetime Christmas movies.
I’m sure we’ve talked about all this before, but it’s what’s on my mind right now–thoughts of Christmases past and those traditions we’ve either carried on or cast aside.
The Captain’s bayou family was so large and the house so small that they never had a Christmas tree. If they had room for any holiday adornment at all, it was a bough from the possum-haw stuck in a bucket in the corner of the room or in a jar on the table. There weren’t many store-bought gifts, either, but one thing they would most certainly receive was an apple and an orange in the sock they placed on the living room floor the night before. The Captain continued this tradition when the kids were small.
Since there were no great Billiot traditions, I was wide open to instill mine upon our household and the kids. But from the time DoVi was born until both my parents passed away in the late nineties, we sojourned up to north Louisiana every Christmas, where they made the holiday extra special. But I think I’ll back up and recall some childhood memories, first, okay?
Up until I was about 14 years old, we spent every Christmas Eve with our two paternal grandmothers, who lived together in a tiny old house. It didn’t matter how many of us there were, we never felt crowded. They had a tiny tree, and we’d exchange gifts and eat the most marvelous food. They always had these little miniature slices of party rye bread spread with pimiento cheese. Remember those?
Of course, the Grandmothers had a manger scene in their living room, too. After they passed away, the manger scene was passed down. Not sure who has it now, but we’ve always had some sort of little manger scene displayed in the house for Christmas, and I’ve kept that tradition. And every year, the child who had just learned to read, read the story of the birth of Christ from the Bible, a tradition we’ve sadly gotten away from. I realize now they did that because we didn’t attend a Christmas Eve service.
After both grandmothers died, we carried on the tradition of getting together on Christmas Eve with Daddy’s brother and his family, alternating going to their house one year, then at Mom and Dad’s the next. We drew names, so gift giving wasn’t a big financial burden, and everyone received a gift. Aunt Joni made the best chocolate chips ever, which Mom could never quite duplicate. And somehow, fireworks became part of the tradition. Some of the kids couldn’t wait to set them off, but me? I pretty much stuck with sparklers.
Daddy insisted on helping Mom make divinity every year, and I think they burned up her mixer each time. I’m not sure why they went to all the effort, because Dad was pretty much the only one who ate the stuff. My favorite was the easy chocolate fudge Mother made with semi-sweet chocolate morsels and marshmallow cream; oh and don’t forget the chopped pecans (not walnuts, as no self-respecting Louisianian would use them!).
Then there were her Martha Washington’s, the non-bake chocolate oatmeal cookies, the butterscotch haystacks, and the Hello Dolly bars I learned to make in later years. Oh, and we still buy a box of chocolate covered cherries in Dad’s honor every year. In Mother’s honor, it’s a tin of those Danish cookies. Gosh, why is it we kill ourselves with all these sweets at Christmas? I don’t know, but it sure was fun!
I’ve also never been able to figure out why in one month’s time we have turkey and dressing for two major meals, and we never have it any other time of the year? Thanksgiving and Christmas should be about six months apart so we can appreciate those special foods more. Then again, what’s stopping us from cooking those things any time we feel like it?
One year after Mother died, it was Daddy’s turn to host his brother and family for Christmas Eve, he told LilSis he wanted to make it really special. Because Mother always did the planning, shopping, and cooking, he was a little at a loss about where to start. For some reason, I don’t have a vivid recollection of this celebration, maybe I was just missing Mother way too much, but it resulted in LilSis following his new tradition each year ever since. You’ll never in a million years guess what it was.
Bugles. He served Bugles. Those bugle-shaped chips, made out of God knows what. She knows the back story better than I, because she was there, but somehow he thought Bugles might make a nice addition to his Christmas Eve spread.
And then there was something that my Great Aunt Dottie made just for Daddy, and the years he didn’t get any from her, I could swear he pouted. Date-nut roll. I bet most of you have not even heard of that, much less eaten any. Or maybe you have?
He was a sucker for those little two-inch square fruit cakes that come from the grocery store. That’s the item that screams CHRISTMAS TRADITION to me when I’m shopping this time of year. Granted, nobody really likes all those candied fruits, but I buy one every year and have a little chunk with my coffee in Daddy’s honor and memory. I must be having an off year, because I never saw any at Rouse’s this year. I’ll have to look after Christmas when I buy the cabbage for New Year’s Day.
The one new food tradition that I instituted with our kids, and we will be doing again this year, is sausage-cheese balls, cinnamon rolls, and spiced tea or coffee for a casual Christmas morning breakfast after we’ve opened gifts. When my kids were smaller and the budget tight, of course, we made our own wrapping paper from the endroll of the newsprint, which we scavenged from behind the Houma Courier building. We rolled the paper from the kitchen and then all the way down the hall, and we lined up along the paper on our knees, Then, using a few basic paint colors, paper plates, and sponges in holiday shapes, we decorated while Christmas cassette tapes played.
Ever since Thanksgiving, 101.9 FM has been playing Christmas music, and I absolutely love it. I’ve listened to nothing else since then until now while driving. When I hear Bing singing so smoothly about how he’s dreaming of a white Christmas or how he’ll be home for Christmas, I hear Daddy’s crooning voice instead. It’s the old Gene Autry songs that make me happy, though, and I sing every word; because when I was little, someone gave me a little record player, and then someone gave me a Gene Autry Christmas album, and y’all, I think the needle wore grooves in that album from playing it so much.
As far as gifts for my kids, I was always very conservative, and I did homemade things when possible. I never wanted them to come to think of Christmas as the “gimme holiday”. And they took turns opening a gift one person at a time, knowing who it came from and thanking them if they were present at the time. When we lived in town, weeks before Christmas, I’d have them each gather up at least two toys that they wanted to give away to another child. Then, we’d load them all up, drive around the neighborhoods until we found kids outside. They’d then decide where we would stop, and we would share the toys with them. They came to know that the only way they would get new toys for Christmas is if they shared their old ones.
As a child, the one gift I received that made a lasting impression on me was a bright red Schwinn Spitfire bike that I received when I was about six. I still remember running out and riding it down the sidewalk in my pajamas. (Or maybe I just remember them telling me that’s what I did?) Isn’t it odd how we don’t really recall all the gifts that were so painstakingly purchased for us through the years?
Once my parents were gone, I did my best to carry over some of our family traditions and make Christmas special for my five children, because they loved Christmas at my parents’ house as much, if not more, than I did. I fear, though, that no matter how hard I try, Christmas has never been the same without the joy my father brought to the holiday. His presence is sorely missed, even now.
Lastly, one of my favorite things about Christmas is the end of the Eve service, when the church lights dim, while candles cast a glow on reverent faces, singing “Silent Night, Holy Night”. In recent years, I can’t hold back the tears as I gaze down the pew at my two youngest sons who never got to know my parents and Christmas at their house . . . . and fear I have fallen way, way short of recreating their joy.
Although missing our loved ones can make the holidays seem sad and lonely, we have to try to keep them with us through our memories. Maybe I will start a new family tradition of asking each of my older children to share one special Christmas memory from when my parents were alive, and the two younger ones a memory of Christmas with us. That way, I can cherish their memories, and help them keep their memories alive, passing them down to their own children one day. So, I think I finally understand the full meaning of the words, which I’ve sung hundreds of times, always hearing Daddy’s Bing-like voice in our old house, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Grandmother Owsley? Grandmother Vi? Uncle Tommy and Aunt Joni and all the cousins? Aunt Betty and Uncle Whoopie and the girls? Butch? Mother? Daddy? I’m dreaming of you this Christmas.
So, be of good cheer and after you’re up to your eyeballs in eggnog and fruitcake, take a break, sit down here, and share with us some of your traditions–old, new, remembered, forgotten, loved, hated, hilarious, and so on.
I love reading about your lives and look forward to a cozy Christmas evening reading your comments, after all is quiet on the home front.
Wishing y’all a warm bayou Christmas,