Some of my warmest family memories center on Christmas traditions. Christmas celebrations and traditions help to define what it means to be family. The repetition of these traditions becomes a shared memory that helps cement the ties that bind us together as grandparents, parents, and children and as siblings and cousins. Conversations in adulthood often revisit, rehash, and embellish favorite times from years past, and often, those memories are about Christmas traditions and shared celebrations.
Those were simpler times — at least for us children. We always walked to the local Methodist Church for Christmas Eve services and afterwards walked across the street to Mama and Daddy Shaw’s house for their Christmas celebration. They always opened gifts on Christmas Eve with a big family party. Mama Shaw was the personification of the iron-willed lady and Christmas was her holiday; no excuse was sufficient for any of my grandmother’s 5 sons and their families to miss the annual gathering. As was the tradition in small Southern towns, Mama Shaw baked 6-8 cakes and stored them in her china closet to bring out for guests to sample a bit of each, with her strong, hot coffee. Her house was always decorated with whatever new style was the fad that year –– blue lights one season, silver aluminum tree another. The whole house was transformed into a child’s wonderland of lights and motorized displays: laughing Santas, graceful ice-skaters, an electric train circling the Christmas tree. There were so many things to make children’s dreams come true.
Most important of all to me as a young child was the conviviality of the “Shaw Boys” — as they were known all over Rockdale County, Georgia. My dad was the oldest of the 5 brothers and they were all great fun. My grandfather was a terrific story-teller who could keep us kids enthralled by talking about his experiences and his sons were constantly up to mischief –– my grandmother blamed her husband for encouraging them to match their dad’s shenanigans. Their hearty laughter and good natured teasing made Christmas a child’s delight and turned family gatherings into memorable times.
Growing up in such a home, it is not surprising that my father was an exuberant lover of Christmas! We were a very devout family all year long and we definitely kept Christ in Christmas, with an Advent Wreath, live nativity scenes, Christmas caroling, giving to the poor and numerous Church services. But — like the rest of our family life — these serious elements were balanced by fun. We decorated the tree, shopped for surprises for each other and, most-of-all, wanted to see what Santa would bring. Santa was a big deal — all year long whenever we wanted something we were told to wait for Santa. We were told to behave or Santa wouldn’t be good to us. On Christmas Eve we went to bed so excited we could hardly sleep because we knew that the next morning our special chair would be loaded with gifts from Santa — long after we knew Santa was the “spirit of giving.”
Our Christmas stockings always contained a small bottle of Welch’s grape juice, which used to be bottled in 4 or 5 ounce glass containers that slipped easily into the toe of a Christmas stocking. In my childhood oranges and nuts were not as readily available then as now so our stockings always contained an orange and uncracked nuts as well as hard candies – all special treats. Christmas always meant small boxes of chocolate covered cherries, too. The coffee table in the living room always boasted a round bowl of pecans with a nut cracker and as the family sat and talked in the evenings, different ones would crack a nut and pick out the wonderful meat
Our maternal grandmother, Mama Baird, was a widow and Aunt Mary lived with her. They always had candy for us kids in Aunt Mary’s cedar chest – where we headed as soon as we came in the door. Christmas at Mama Baird’s home was quieter and more relaxed, with an enveloping warmth and such love that we kids felt cherished and reveled in the adoration that we were given by both Mama Baird and Aunt Mary. When we were there, we were the center of attention with Mama Baird often asking us to recite a poem, making sure we enunciated clearly and stood up straight. When we did, she praised us extravagantly and rewarded us with a simple prize, a dime or a piece of candy. We often helped her make her special “tea cakes” – a sugar cookie made in her wooden dough bowl and rolled out on waxed paper on the counter, then cut out with cookie cutters in the shape of Christmas objects and then decorated with red or green icing.
My siblings and their families – more than 60 of us now -- still gather at Mother’s house on the day after Christmas for a precious time together and, at 90, Mother still cooks a wonderful meal, though everybody brings dishes to make it easier on her. We talk non-stop catching up on current happenings in each family and listen as the family story tellers — we have several who put on quite a show — recount special times from long ago, enjoying each other’s company, and laughing together at the antics of Mother’s newest great-grandchildren. Today, the children in our family stand in the live Nativity Scene (complete with goats, sheep, and a donkey) at Trinity Church in Rome, Georgia.
Our children, and then our grandchildren, grew up waking up the “Growling Bear” (their grandfather would pretend to be too sleepy to get up) before hurrying downstairs to see what Santa brought! Santa still “has a chair” for each child’s gifts and he still gets a piece of cake and glass of milk from the little ones. We still love to gather around to gaze at the lights on the first night that we light the Christmas tree. We listen to carols “being sung by a choir” while exclaiming that this year’s tree is the most beautiful one ever. Such simple but priceless traditions renew and strengthen the bonds that bind us together; they are part of the heart of what we are as family.