The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Childhood Christmas Memories

By J. Carlton Smith © 1995

Issue: Winter, 1995

When people mention Christmas and say they have to get busy shopping for Christmas gifts, I shudder. A lot of people start by late summer and some work at it all year long. They are so worn out and jaded by the time Christmas gets here, they can't get it over fast enough. It is such a disappointment to many that they look like they had been to a funeral instead of having a happy Christmas.

It is times like that I long for the simple Christmases of my childhood. There was little money to spend and what there was had to go for necessities. In spite of this those Christmases of bygone years will ever remain dear to my heart and memory.

As a child I remember how we looked forward and waited impatiently for Christmas to arrive. It seemed that those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas would never pass, but eventually they did. We seldom had much time to celebrate Thanksgiving as there was so much work to be done on the farm before winter arrived. Fall plowing must be done. Wheat sowed, corn picked by hand as there were no mechanical machines to do the picking. The tobacco crop must be prepared for market. Then there was the never ending chore of cutting wood for heating and cooking. Yes, there was plenty of work to do.

After Thanksgiving our thoughts would turn to Christmas in earnest. We would be thinking about what must be done to get ready. There would be much work to be done on building up a good supply of wood to last through the holidays. Fireplaces consumed a lot, so we must be sure there would be enough to keep them going. As there would be a lot of extra cooking, there would have to be more stove wood split.

One of the most important preparations was the butchering of the hogs. They played such an important part in our Christmas celebration. This was one time of the year when there would be plenty of fresh meat other than chicken and wild game.

We did not have a floral or fruit centerpiece for our dinner table, nor did we want one. A boiled ham, glazed and browned was given this place of honor. This was the one food that we all were in agreement was a must for Christmas. Then there would be backbones, spareribs, pork chops. Then there was the spicy, semi-hot sausage that my mama made. Their memory still haunts me as no one could make them like she then and no one can now. Sousemeat was something I did not like, but a lot of folks did, so it must be prepared.

Turkey was unknown to us in those days, but we raised many chickens. Baked hen with dressing would be part of the Christmas dinner. Also there were plenty of extra roosters that needed to be thinned out. We would kill not the old red rooster, but a young one for chicken and dumplings. This is a favorite among many southerners.

There would have to be many cakes and pies baked to last through the ten days of Christmas. It was the custom of the people living in the hill country along the Mayo River to celebrate through "Old Christmas" which was January 6th. It would take a lot of food to feed family and company this long.

The most important item for baking the many pies and cakes would be eggs. Eggs would be scarce during late fall and early winter months as the hens would have moulted and would not lay. When their feathers had grown out again and their combs turned red, they would start again. Most of the time there would be two or three in a flock to start laying before Christmas. These eggs were carefully hoarded for the Christmas baking. You could not go to the country store and buy eggs at this time as they would not have them because they depended upon the local folk for their eggs to resell and during this time when eggs were scarce, the local people would have none to sell or trade. Lucky for us, our grandmother usually would save us some of her extra eggs.

A few days before Christmas the baking would begin. Oh! What mouthwatering smells would come from the kitchen. This was one time I never fussed about bringing in stove wood or firing the stove. My mama would let us scrape bowls and pans where batter and icing had been made. If a layer of a cake tore up, she would let us eat it. I don't know how she got enough layers baked for all those cakes. Most cakes had four to six layers. There would be fresh coconut cake. I think every southern family had fresh coconut cake for Christmas. This was eaten with cucumber or peach pickles. Then there would be chocolate cake, goodie cake (nut), spice and jam cake. There would have to be at least two of each kind.

When the cakes were baked and stored, it was time to begin on the pies. Sweet potato pie or custard as it was called by local folks was a great favorite. There would be chocolate pies, fruit pies and custard pies. There would be so many pies that there was no room to sit them out separately, so they had to be stacked up four to six in a stack to store until they would be eaten. You ask why bake so many cakes and pies at one time? As there would probably be company for meals each day during the holiday period, there would be no time for extra baking, only fixing the main items for the meal.

To add to the excitement in those last days before Christmas, the churches would have their Christmas program and "Christmas Tree." There might even be a red suited Santa! This would cause great excitement among the younger children. Everyone waited for the Christmas treat the church gave. For some it would be all they got for Christmas. Many of those who worked year after year to prepare these be forever blessed, for it brought such joy to so many. It was truly the spirit of giving. If we take Christ out of Christmas, there is nothing left.

Our custom was to put our tree up a day or two before Christmas and leave it up until New Year's eve. To leave it up longer was considered bad luck. For weeks we had been looking for a pretty cedar tree. The day we went to cut the tree we would go around and look at the best ones and cut the one we liked best. It would be set up in a corner of the living room and decorated under the supervision of my oldest sister. Not much on our tree was bought. We saved everything that could make a decoration.

Our first Christmas tree angel was a doll on a wand surrounded by colorful feathers. She had been a prize won at a fair. She was taken off the wand, the feathers removed and foil covered wings wired on. She became "Sweet Angie, the Christmas Tree Angel." To us she was the prettiest angel we ever saw. Even today she makes an appearance on my Christmas tree. She has grown old in service, but brings back such happy memories of those bygone Christmases when we were such a happy family.

After much waiting, Christmas Eve arrived. The last preparations must be made. Cleaning, scrubbing and dusting is part of it. Finally it is evening. Supper has been eaten and cleared away. It is time for a Christmas ritual that will always remain dear to me. My mama takes off the old oil cloth and a bright new one is put on our eating table. The smell of new oil cloth will always be one of the scents I associate with Christmas. The oil lamps have been filled with oil and their globes washed sparkling clean. How bright the lamp looks as it is placed in the middle of the table.

Now we excitedly get ready for Santa Claus. We never hung stockings by the fireplace or received gifts under the tree. Our custom was to place the box our new winter shoes came in on the table. We always tried to trade boxes with someone who had a larger box, but to no avail. Yet, wise old Santa always brought each of us the same amount of apples, oranges, nuts, candy and a cluster of dried Muscat raisins called sugar plums. There would be one gift for each of us.

Some say the 21st or 22nd of December is the longest night in the year. All kids know it is the 24th. It seems morning will never come. Finally about four o'clock we can stand it no longer and we get up. A big fire is built and we sit around it and enjoy the goodies Santa has brought us.

When it starts to get light, we go up the road about one-half mile to our grandfather's house to show him what Santa brought us. Our greatest wish is to surprise him and get "Christmas gift" on him, but he is always ready and opens the door and yells "Christmas gift" before we can knock. He will have more candy and fruit to give us.

About eleven o'clock the relatives would begin to arrive for Christmas dinner. My daddy's people always came on Christmas day and my mama's people came the day after Christmas day. Sometimes my mama would feed 30 or more people each day. Now you can see why so many pies and cakes were needed as well as large quantities of other foods. Most of the time during Christmas many would pay a repeat visit and eat a meal. We were happy to have so many playmates but now can see that the cooks got no rest during Christmas.

What is so strange is I can never remember going to anyone's home to eat a meal during Christmas when I was a child. There was a large family of us and my mama always said there were too many of us to go to anyone's house for a meal.

There would be much visiting between relatives and neighbors. If you did not eat a meal, they always served refreshments or treats. If you visited someone and they did not offer you something to eat, they were considered rude. If they offered you something to eat and you turned it down, you were considered rude. I am sure most people gained weight during the Christmas holidays. If this was a time of feasting, we came back down to earth on New Years Day when we were served black eyed peas, hog jowl and turnip greens as most people in my area did not grow or like collard greens.

I would like to see Christmas have the special meaning as it did in those depression years. We took time to celebrate and to enjoy it. No one had much but shared what they had. We worked together as family, friends and neighbors. We shared our joys and hardships. We could depend on each other. Christmas was a time of joy to be shared. We have found that we had something money doesn't buy - faith that tomorrow would be a better day, faith in God and our fellow man.