By Bryant Williams
Editor’s note: Rather than writing a poem, Bryant, our ‘Breeze poet’, shares with Breeze readers his “semi-autobiographical” story of his youth written for his children and grandchildren this holiday season.
Most of us, especially those of us of a more mature age, often reflect on “the good old days” and wish we could recapture some of the fond memories of remembered better times. But in reality, those “better times” might include epidemics of polio, a time when the word “cancer” meant an automatic death sentence, four day trips to cross the country, or a week to cross the ocean, at least one flat tire on a drive of 200 miles to the beach, and for many of us, striving through the great depression.
However, I do recall some better times in the good old days that I wish we could recapture. Those better times occurred about this time of the year as Christmas approaches. I am referring to those days when Christmas wasn’t so frantic and so commercial, when Christmas centered around the family and the church instead of the mall and Wal-Mart’s. Stores didn’t decorate, put out Christmas wares, and play Christmas carols until after Thanksgiving. Now this seems to happen between Labor Day and Halloween. There wasn’t a Santa Clause on every corner or in every store. He would only visit our little town one or two times before Christmas, and it was a big deal for us kids.
I grew up in a small North Carolina town in which most of my immediate family lived. Although I was an only child, I was surrounded by my parents, four grandparents, seven uncles and aunts and their spouses, and fourteen first cousins, all in a little town of about four square miles. In our family, both on my mother’s side and on my father’s side, particularly during the depression and war years, each side of the family got together separately a month or so before Christmas and drew names so that within each family one had to buy only one gift, and that gift had a moderate cap as to how much the gift could cost. So the hustle and bustle associated with today’s Christmas shopping was removed.
My dad and I would go out in the nearby woods of a friendly farmer and cut a red cedar for a Christmas tree. Red cedars grew like weeds in the area and no one cared if you cut one or two. My mother and I would decorate the tree with simple ornaments tied on with red or green strings, a few ropes of glitter, and a few lights.
In the south, even during the depression years, food was usually not a big problem since most families grew a lot of their own food or had connections with nearby farms where food was plentiful. So we could all look forward to great holiday meals. My mother’s side of the family would gather at one of the Thomas family homes and have a scrumptious Christmas Eve covered dish dinner and exchange presents. Since no one knew who had drawn their name, there was great fun in this exchange. Usually the small children received an extra small gift or two from the grandparents or uncles and aunts. The Williams family always gathered at the home of my Grandma and Grandpa Williams on Christmas morning for a huge Christmas breakfast followed by gift exchanges. Grandma Williams was a fantastic cook, and you could smell the great aromas of what was to come when you drove into the driveway. Between these two family events, there was usually a midnight Christmas Eve Service at the churches.
Another tradition that may sound strange to some of you was the shooting of fireworks on Christmas Eve. When we were in our late preteens or early teens most of my friends and I would look forward in November to getting our fireworks catalog from Spencer Fireworks Co. in Polk, Ohio. We would order our various sizes of firecrackers, Roman candles, and small rockets, sometimes as much as two or three dollars worth, and then wait for the shipments to come in by train to the local depot. They were not allowed to ship fireworks by mail.
The town would string colored lights across the downtown streets, and there would be a nativity scene or two on the courthouse or post office lawn or in a church yard. The windows of the school classrooms were decorated for Christmas and we sang all the traditional Christmas carols in school assemblies. This was in the days before the misguided judges forgot that the only reason for celebrating Christmas was the Nativity. Those of other religious beliefs didn’t take offence, and in fact, one of the best decorated homes on our block was that of a Jewish lady across the street.
Yes, I think I would like to go back to those Christmases of simpler times before the merchants took over to make their whole year’s profit in one season, when the season was delightfully compressed into about four weeks of meaningful celebration centered around family, friends, church, school, and great food instead of the present frantic, superficial, sometimes gaudy period of about four months that ends abruptly on the day after Christmas with no more carols on the radio and only a mad rush to the big after-Christmas sales. To me, Christmas Day should be the beginning of the celebrations. What we seem to be celebrating now is the fact that the hustle and bustle of the Christmas Season is over, and we can breathe a sigh of relief. This is not as it should be.