Favorite Christmas memories

From snow to pines to Santa, it’s a time to remember

Dashing Pepper

By David Dwyer For Blount Today

I have a confession to make. I am not one of you. I was actually born north of the Mason Dixon line in Massachusetts. Yes, I am a northerner, a product of a Southern Belle and a New England Army Captain. To some, that fact may surprise; to others, it merely explains. It’s relevant because my Christmas memory involves lots of snow, one unfortunate dog and my mother, four years gone.

Christmas in New Hampshire is always white, very white, as it usually has been snowing for going on two and a half months by late December. Everyone who lives off the main roads starts plowing their long driveways as soon as the snow really starts to lay. Jeeps with chains and a snow plow suffice if you keep after it. All that snow usually gets pushed off to the side into a large, long white hill that beckons any youngster with its possibilities: snow caves, forts and castles, etc. The fields by Christmas time are covered with about two to three feet of snow, but in 1960, due to a late thaw, the fields had crusted over enough to walk on with only an occasional breakthrough. One moment you were there and the next you were not.

Our Black Labrador, “Pepper,” was nearly 1 year old and still very much a puppy. He would get into anything and everything. He especially loved running up the snow forts and launching himself into the air only to crash into the deep snow, much as he did off a dock into the lake during the summer. Fearless, or so he thought.

The Christmas of ’60 was deep and cold. The windward side of our two story, nearly 200 year old farm house was drifted with snow to the upper story. Not a problem to us kids as we could go out the upstairs bedroom window and slide down to the driveway and beyond. Mom and dad prudently used the leeward side to exit the house. Christmas morning saw piles of presents, wrapping paper and pajama clad kids in a kaleidescope of colors and activity. The fireplace blazed, and the hot chocolate warmed our insides.

Christmas dinner was always special. Mom, being from Chattanooga and schooled in the culinary arts, knew how to create and present a fine table. Centerpiece, of course, was the largest turkey she could find as it was needed to feed four hungry kids, two adults and still have enough for turkey sandwiches for at least two days. I always laid claim to my favorite part, the drumstick. There is just something primal about meat on a bone held in your hand. And even at 8 years old, I could really do that drumstick justice.

The remainder of Christmas day went as many more before them; ecstatic yet sleepy, sated yet wanting more. We all pitched in to clean up after dinner and soon were gathered around the fireplace for a closer inspection and sense of appreciation for all the gifts received. Dad, as usual, took out the trash that wouldn’t burn in the fire. We all settled in for a comfortable evening.

The next morning revealed a holy mess where the food and trash had been deposited. Some wild animal, we thought, had foraged in the mother load of all debris containers and thought themselves incredibly fortunate. Wrong, as it turned out two days later.

On that morning we were preparing to go out the second story window, yet again, as we noticed Pepper frantically chasing his tail in the field in front of us. He was jumping all around, breaking through the crusted top of snow, disappearing for a moment, only to reappear in a flurry, and continue the frenetic display. We thought it was wonderful. Only when my mother went out to the field to investigate did we truly understand what had happened.

It seems that the wild animal foraging in the trash was actually Pepper. He had taken an unhealthy interest in my discarded turkey leg, swallowed it whole and was painfully trying to pass the rest of it as we observed him in the field. It was definitely not his tail he was chasing. My mother, ever the Southern Belle, but also infused with a sense of Yankee practicality, calmly walked up to Pepper, waited until his tornadic actions brought him within reach, and deftly plucked the offending member from his hinter parts. Pepper’s look of surprise, quickly followed by relief, was evident even from the upstairs window as we howled in laughter and promptly fell out the window into the fresh deep snow.

Daddy in disguise

By Martha Lou McCampbell For Blount Today

When I was a young child, my Dad owned a “filling station,” as they were then called. Because of this, it was not unusual for my Dad to be gone at odd hours helping families with their concerns about their cars. If Daddy was not at home, us kids had no reason to think he was doing anything different than working.

One year before Christmas, Daddy must have been invited to “help” Santa visit children. With all those gatherings and parties, I suppose Santa let Daddy borrow one of his suits. This, of course, was one of the best kept secrets that my Mom and Dad did not reveal.

None of us children were ever told that anyone might have helped Santa, especially our dad. So the excitement was flowing as all eight of us kids were bundled up and dressed in our warmest and best to go to Shannondale Presbyterian Church to visit Santa.

At the last minute, our Dad was called out and could not go with our family. I was assured that he would catch up with us later. At first, I was not too concerned because this was going to be so much fun. At this church, we got to see families of good old friends and cousins and children who I really enjoyed. I was excited.

We ate chocolate covered cream drops, homemade cookies of all sorts and sizes. There was hot cider and hot chocolate. It seemed there were no limits that night. And then, there was Santa.

He had on the reddest, most velvety fur trimmed suit I had ever imagined. He was magical. Each child got to climb up onto Santa’s lap and tell him face-to- face just what we wanted for Christmas.

Then Santa handed each child a stocking full of candies, peppermints and oranges . What great treats!.

I remember climbing up and settling on Santa’s lap. When it came time for me to tell him what I wanted under the tree, I told Santa that I wished my Daddy could be with me at the party.

Well, I don’t know if I broke his heart or not, but I got a really warm hug from Santa that night. I never knew that it was my father whose lap I had crawled up on until later in my life.

‘Soapy’ Virginia pines

By Vandy Kemp For Blount Today

My strongest Christmas memories all seem to involve my senses: the smell of holiday cooking, icy December air, sweet strains of familiar carols, brilliant stars in a clear winter sky lighting up a meadow full of snow. And, of course, the scent of a fresh-cut Virginia white pine in all of its holiday glory, standing in the corner of my parents’ living room.

Finding and cutting the family Christmas tree in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia was a cherished family event for me. It usually happened on a cold Sunday afternoon after church. We would pile in the family car and drive to my grandmother’s farm, about a mile away. From the car we walked through the cleared fields into the woods and began to search for the perfect tree.

There ensued an annual family debate on the virtues of white pines, with their long, lovely needles and pungent fragrance, versus bull pines, with shorter needles making for easier ornament hanging. I favored white pines because they also had the better cone-shaped Christmas tree form.

Daddy would cut the tree, and we would pitch in to help carry it back up the ridge to the car. When I was really little, I would worry about the others pines left rejected in the woods, but I convinced myself that they were there for the woods creatures to enjoy, and we were lucky to have one for ourselves.

As soon as Daddy had the tree trunk trimmed and in the living room, Mama would take over. She concocted a whipped mixture of laundry detergent and water, which looked just like foamy snow, and she spread this by handfuls on the branches of the tree. Instantly our entire house began to smell like pine and soap, and that scent permeated throughout the holidays.

Once the “snow” was on the tree and dried, Daddy put the lights on, and, as my sister and I grew, we assumed more and more responsibility for the decorations. We made wonderful homemade treasures out of ribbon and Styrofoam, velvet and glue, and, always, lots of glitter. One year we turned cut-up egg cartons into beautiful hanging creations, which we painted silver and gold.

As the decorated tree took shape each year, it became the focal point of the holiday season in our home. There were other decorations — the Nativity figurines, homemade candles, and a homemade star for the front door — but the tree was the most splendid reminder of the season, our mountain roots, and our creative spirits.

As my parents aged, they eventually replaced the Virginia pines with a small artificial tree. I remember the first time I went home at Christmas and discovered the new plastic tree. I was horrified. Mama helped by passing along to me a box of some of the old homemade ornaments, and they still find their way onto my family tree.

I miss Virginia pines, the sweet, spicy scent of them and their silky needles. When I see and touch one on a tree lot here in Tennessee, I am immediately transported to that wintry, blue-misty ridge top and the sound of my father sawing down that particular year’s selection. And as I stand there remembering, all of the other sensory memories come flooding back, in a vision of light and warmth.

Different kind of holiday

By Steve Musick For Blount Today

If I don’t say that my favorite Christmas is any Christmas memory that involves my daughters I will be in big trouble. And the truth is, those are my favorites for sentimental and special reasons. But there is one other special Christmas memory that I would like to share.

It was in 1987 or 1988, I don’t remember which, when I was the chaplain at Rhodes College in Memphis. For some reason, all our relatives in Texas had made other plans, and Lynne and I decided not to travel, but to stay at home and have a different kind of holiday. And it certainly was.

Christmas day we slept in and had coffee and kolaches in the living room while we opened gifts. Around noon our friend Wink, the construction supervisor for the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate, arrived to start making the dinner. He did most of the cooking that day. The menu was Beef Wellington for seven with wild rice and Yorkshire Pudding. We (read Lynne) had baked so we had pies to die for. I think we also cooked green beans to give the plates some color. Not sure anyone ate them.

Later, our recently-divorced neighbor and her 13-year-old daughter came over. Then Hazem, a Kuwaiti exchange student studying remote imaging at Boise State, found through the Christmas International Open House program, arrived. Lastly, our friend Ross, a true free spirit, showed up. Ross was convinced he was a pilot in Atlantis and attributes his green thumb to the honoring of each plant’s “deva”, or spirit with gifts and conversation.

Did I mention that it rained? Oh, it rained. This was a rain of biblical proportions - a rain that pummeled Memphis for about 48 hours straight. It rained so much that, having been sent by the cooks to the cellar to fetch a jar of molasses, I found about three feet of water at the bottom of the stairs. The flashlight given to me by my in-laws, a really powerful one that could illuminate the entire back yard, came in really handy for subsequent trips down there. Too bad they didn’t give me a sump pump to go with it.

Growing up, I had always been at some relatives’ home, or they at mine. Christmas was always a time for our small family to regroup and reconnect. But this Christmas, this kind of Christmas, was a new experience for me. It was a new kind of family: a home-builder/master chef; a gay man; a Muslim; a mother and daughter whose blood kin, like ours, were far away; and Lynne and me. Yet it was, if only for that day, a nexus of affection and sharing, a family.

Anyway, we ate, we toasted (Hazem drank cranberry juice), we sang, we laughed. It was strange not being with mothers, fathers, sisters, and cousins. But it was definitely still Christmas. The spirit of that day does not disappear dependent on who shows up. It shows through what is shared by all who gather to honor it.

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