My brother and I had a great childhood; so great in fact that I had no idea I was poor until I went to college.
Christmas was particularly wonderful. Our family is very close as my mother’s sister married my daddy’s brother. Two siblings married two siblings. Each couple had a boy and a girl, so Keith and I have double cousins. The four of us all have names beginning with the letter K. When we were kids, it seemed like we were brothers and sisters instead of cousins.
Our house is directly between each set of my grandparents. We all went to church together and we traded Sunday about going to eat dinner at a grandparents’ house after church. We did this each Sunday without fail. Many of our great grandparents lived long into our adulthood, and at Christmas we had standing celebrations all over the place.
The church where I was saved and a baptized member is made of rock gathered from the knoll where it sets. When I was a little girl, the only heat was a wood stove. The building had the large room where Brother Anderson preached, three class rooms and the “kitchen.” The building had no running water and no restrooms. There was an outhouse. In the winter, members of my family went to the church long before services to build a fire and warm the building. Looking back, there were lots of times when it wasn’t very warm. Of course it was much warmer than the outhouse. The name of the church is Elmwood – but that is not pronounced “elm,” it is pronounced “el – um.” My daddy’s family from his mother’s side all went to church there together when I was growing up and many still do.
My church celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve because that was when Jesus was born. There was a giant cedar tree cut from the woods around the church. It was decorated with things made in “primary” class. This was the Sunday School class with the smallest kids. It was taught by my Granny’s sister Helen and she was a master at it. With glitter, glue, construction paper, macaroni, and paper plates, she and her class made decorations for the tree.
We always had a “program” Christmas Eve presented by the kids. Sometimes it was a play of the Christmas story. Sometimes it was the Christmas story read from the Bible by different kids. Sometimes the kids memorized Bible verses. We always sang. “Away In A Manger” is the first song I remember singing in front of the church. Daddy accompanied me on his guitar because I had not yet learned to play. I think I was six years old. It remains my favorite religious Christmas song to this day.
After the program, Santa would come with a big sack and all the kids would get a present. Usually it was a small paper bag with candy and an apple or orange. Sometimes Santa was a rotund member of the congregation and sometimes it was another member of the community, but when we were small we never doubted it was indeed the jolly old elf himself.
My Granny Elma Parker’s mother lived down the hill from the church on the site where she and her husband ran a store, mill and blacksmith shop in years gone by. She walked to church three times a week for services until she was well into her 80s in all kinds of weather. Members of the family brought her sometimes, but usually she left too early for them to catch her at home. We all called her Mama. Daddy said that’s because when he and his cousins got old enough to call her something they just called her what their mothers did, so no matter what generation you were she was Mama.
My great grandfather O’Daniel died when I was too small to remember, but Mama lived long into my adulthood. She was beautiful. She and her husband Frank had three girls. My grandparents had two boys and granny’s sisters had five more boys. Those seven boys had anywhere from one to three kids each. All of these members of my family would be at the “Christmas tree,” as we called it, at church. I list all these people so you can get an idea of how many of us attended. This is important, because after the to-do at church, we all went to Mama’s house to have family Christmas supper.
Mama’s house had three rooms and the kitchen. It had a closed-in back porch, but it wasn’t heated. The front room was mostly taken up by the wood stove. She had running water in the kitchen and a wood cook stove, but no bathroom. There was an outhouse.
All of us, by my count 39 or 40 people, crammed in that little house. Everyone brought food – not store bought, out of the box, made with cake mix food, but homemade rolls, baked ham, three kinds of beans, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn, chicken and dressing – you get the idea – and desserts! A half dozen kinds of pie, a cake or two and most important, my Mama’s molasses cookies which no one inside the family or out has ever been able to duplicate. Someone said a prayer or we all said the Lord’s prayer before we ate. Mama would never consider starting a meal without saying the blessing first.
There were no tables set up because there was no room. We sat on all the furniture in the house, including the beds and footstools and the kids on the floor to eat. We did not use paper plates. We ate on real plates with real silverware and we drank out of glasses. There was sweet tea, koolaid or milk – buttermilk if that’s what you wanted. We had the greatest time. We laughed, joked and played music. Granny Elma told the story about how she and Granddad Sib got married after the same Christmas program, at the same church and everyone kidded them about staying with Granny’s parents that night.
After the meal, the women washed all those dishes in the kitchen sink, dried them and returned them to the cabinets and old pie safe. The men kept the fire built so high we often had to open the doors. No one felt crowded. No one felt self-conscious and for sure no one felt poor. All of us looked forward to it every year, because it was the one time when that whole side of the family was together.
Late into the night we laughed and joked and enjoyed being together. We kids speculated about what Santa was going to bring. Finally we all bundled up and made our way to our various homes. We took the feeling with us. I wish everyone could have this experience, because for sure it’s what Christmas is all about. Christmas was best when we were kids.