Hopkins County Folk Lore
Our Christmas TraditionBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Christmas has just past and many of our decorations still haven't found their way back into closets and attics where they live for most of the year. This holiday has come and gone too fast and here I sit, on a cold frosty morning, hot coffee steaming from my Santa cup, recalling my grandchildren's antics around the tree this year.
Children never change it seems. I watched them ooh and ahh as gaily wrapped packages were opened, the paper becoming trampled under colorful socks displaying Pokemon and the Magic Mermaid. The squeals of delight were just the same as when I was a child. . . the tearing open of boxes with the same excitement every child has experienced for centuries past. Opening a present post-haste, tossing it aside and seizing a new one continued until all the gifts lay in a heap around them.
Boxes are still torn open hurriedly, this time revealing computers, all manner of attachments that go with the machine, computer games, CD Players, Game Boys and Play Stations among many other electronic gadgets. Not once did I see a baby doll, toy six-shooters, or rocking horse. Where was my grandson's BB gun and cowboy suit? Where were my granddaughters' dolls, strollers, and tea sets? The presents that children receive on Christmas depict present day times and today is a different world than it was when I grew up.
As I watched with fondness and pride my grandchildren ripping away at over-taped boxes only to find endless yards of tissue paper, memories of my own childhood Christmases seeped ever so slowly into the scene.
Our family tradition began when my mother, Glenna Carner, married my father Jewell Buntin in January 1934. The very next Christmas Eve my mother's brothers, Truman, and O.C. Carner came to her house to celebrate the holiday.
In 1936 Mom and Dad were blessed with my oldest sister Hazel, and 18 months later, our sister Shirley made her first appearance at the family gathering. My sisters joined my parents and the rest of the family for the Christmas Eve gatherings which in a few years, included my uncle's wives, Connie Neize and Ruby Davis. I joined the group in 1946.
Some of the oldest pictures show my mother's father sitting near the Christmas tree. Will Carner passed away in 1958. My own father died in 1949 and left the family circle but the Christmas Eve tradition was not broken. Our family had formed a strong and lasting bond and were always there for each other, then and now.
My mother married again in the mid-nineteen fifties and my stepfather Clint Dunbar joined the family. The next year a little brother was playing beneath the tree on Christmas Eve night. My sisters married and moved to Ohio but for many years they made the long trek by car with their own families to join our clan through the holiday season.
In slow motion, the bright scenes from all those past celebrations presented themselves with crystal clarity. As I watched my look-a-like granddaughter open her gifts at Mom's this Christmas Eve, I knew that another generation of our family would grow up keeping the tradition alive.
Somehow, and I don't know the exact moment or just how it happened, but it wasn't my grand daughter Sierra sitting in the floor with mounds of gift paper engulfing her, it was me. . . and it was Christmas Eve, mid 1950's.
Our house set in the midst of snow, sparkling white in the moonlight. I don't know why I remember all those Christmas Eves as White Christmases, but it seemed there was always snow and moonlight on Christmas. Maybe we kids wished for it so hard. . . imagined it there, even if the weather did not cooperate. As a child, one of my earliest memories is of our house when it snowed, especially at night.
The houses in our community of Charleston sat at least two acres apart up and down the road. Christmas Trees stood in the windows of every house, facing the road. Tell me now, what good is a Christmas Tree if the neighbors can't see it. Each house had been constructed differently from all the others, but all were white, all had front porches and nearly all of them had children living in warm cozy rooms.
There were trees everywhere with limbs spread wide and bare, cradling snow in the forks, while drooping icicles captured twinkles of moonlight dancing across them. Even our yards were transformed into magical scenes. In the eyes of the children, we truly lived in a winter wonderland.
Excitement had been building all day long for it was Christmas Eve at last. My mother's brothers and their families had continued to visit our house throughout all the Christmas Eve's of my life. Shortly, all would arrive, including Santa Clause, who made a yearly appearance and left us many gifts to open.
My mother had cooked all day long. Back in those days, she wore an apron and I pranced around in my own little ruffled apron, which she had made for me. I wore it that day and pretended to do my share of cooking, freely admitting however that my time in the kitchen probably lasted an hour or less.
There was ham or turkey, and dressing, only northerners called it stuffing back then. Vegetables, breads, desserts. . . everything was homemade. I can remember my mother preparing coleslaw by hand with a metal shredder. She diligently rubbed a head of cabbage across the device with much vigor, scraping knuckles in the process. A pile of the shredded vegetable soon filled the bowl, ready for the rest of the ingredients. Potato Salad was always on the table too, along with mustard/mayonnaise deviled eggs; sweet potatoes baked warm and soft with maple syrup and brown sugar. By the time she got around to making the cakes and pies, my mouth would be watering from the enticing aromas that filled our house.
From the time I can remember, my mother has always made what she calls, egg pie. This is not a custard pie and is served without meringue most of the time. To this day, when there is any kind of occasion at her home, Mom knows that her kids, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and nieces always expect an egg pie.
This Christmas I tried to duplicate her recipe, which is mostly, hands on. Gingerly I tried it out on my daughter and her family. "Well, it's good Mom" she said but with concern for my feelings written all over her face. My daughter finally tells me that it's a good crème pie but "why isn't it as yellow as Mamaw's and it's not as sweet, but it is good Mom, honest." A few days later, after consulting her grandmother, she calls with well thought out words to tell me that Mamaw had used three eggs, not two. I had to suppress a giggle as we talked. My son's reaction was just as measured. "It's good but kind of mushy, you know. Mamaw's is firmer and flatter. It's not yellow like hers either. But it's good Mom, honest." Maybe I'll start my own traditional pies for the holidays, pale and mushy and "not yellow like Mamaw's." It might just catch on, who knows.
Some things like Mom's egg pie, just cannot be duplicated by an amateur like me. Mom has made these pies for sixty-seven years, how could I even come close to her perfection. I didn't, no one ever will. I was glad too.
In those days, bowls of oranges, apples, and grapes were placed all around the living room. Walnuts sat in wooden bowls made to look like wishing wells, with metal "nut crackers" attached to the handles. The tables were so full; there was barely space for the homemade chocolate fudge candy that rested there too.
It was getting dark and I could hardly wait. I would stand on the porch, sometimes breaking off an icicle and licking salt off it while I waited impatiently. It seemed like hours before headlights beamed into our steep little driveway. My aunts and uncles, arms loaded with food and gifts had finally arrived.
When everyone was present, Mom's bed appeared to be a mountain of clothes as all the coats were piled there. . . still are. Our closets could not hold them all so they were put to other uses. . . like hiding places for the younger kids.
One or both of my married sisters were sometimes home with their children and the place was jammed packed with laughing, screeching children, cigar smoking uncles, and aunts with sweet, soft voices stacking gifts beneath the tree.
My brother, Donnie, was just a toddler and I remember the time so well. Blond-haired and blue eyed, he was adorable as he waddled around in colorful holiday clothes, chubby little hands tearing at tree ornaments, into the candy and the presents seemingly non-stop.
We had only one cousin that spent Christmas Eve with us. Her name is Tana Shea. She is five years my junior and I always remember her on those special nights in her attire of jeans and cowboy boots. We were allowed to do unspeakable things just that one night of the year or else our parents were just too busy to pay much attention to us. My older sisters complained that they would have received a spanking in no time flat for jumping on beds, hiding in closets and running mayhem through the house. However, we pretty much got away with it back then, if it was Christmas Eve.
At last, it was time for supper, not dinner, for dinner was eaten at mid-day. My aunts always brought huge bowls of banana pudding, fruit salad, potatoes, baked beans and of course their own pies and cakes which were added to the bulging table, cabinets and even the stove.
The entire family gathered 'round while one of my uncles said the blessing. The prayer, no matter who said it, thanked our Lord for all the food which we were about to receive, asked for blessings upon the ones who had prepared it, implored protection for those who would be traveling home that night and asked to be forgiven of our sins, "in Jesus' name we pray. Amen". I can still hear it in my mind and I shall never forget those words. I hear it each Christmas Eve at Mom's house. . . still.
If you've never been in a traditional southern home, you might be aghast at the attention the men received in those days. They were always encouraged to eat first. They filled their plates first with the women standing by to hand them cups of beverages. Alcohol was never and I mean never served in our house. Our men folk made do with cokes. Usually they proceeded to the living room with heavy plates in hands, balancing them carefully as they tip toed through the children.
I recall the men who dined in the living room were my step-father, Clint Dunbar, always present in his overalls, my mother's brothers, Truman Carner and O.C. Carner and back then one of my brothers in law could be there, either Carl Williams or Howard Coventry.
The children's plates were filled next. There was always space at little tables around the house but we preferred the handiness of our laps mostly. We carried our plates with both hands, walking slowly into the living room. After all, we wanted to be as close to those presents as we could get. Finally, my mother, aunts, and sisters were able to fill plates for themselves and eat around the table.
We children thought "it" would never come. . . the opening of gifts that is. Each person found a spot to sit in the living room. Every available seat was occupied, even when other chairs were brought from different rooms. The children chose places on the floor. By now, the tree was piled past its bottom branches with gifts galore of every size and shape. Each family bought presents for everyone in those days and the packages were stacked endlessly around the tree. Each time the freshly cut tree was brushed against, delicate fragrances of cedar or pine drifted across the room. I remember that smell so well. Even now, once the odor of cedar or pine reaches my nostrils, no matter where I am, I always think of Christmas.
The youngest child was given the privilege of opening his/her gifts first. . . then down the line to the next oldest person until all had exhausted their mound of presents. The room was awash with holiday paper, ribbons, and opened gifts piled knee high. While children eventually scattered into other rooms with new toys, grownups renewed their plates and conversation once again.
I always received a doll of the latest fashion. A Betsey Wetsey who drank from a bottle and wet in her own little diaper, a gorgeous ballerina with flowing hair, flexible legs and wearing a shimmering pink tutu. . . a pre-runner to the Barbie's of today I think. Sometimes a baby doll was to be had, complete with cap, booties, sweater, bottle, and her own suitcase, which also converted into a crib. Along with those things, there was usually a stroller or doll bed, miniature household appliances, clothes (which I detested), books, games, paper dolls, and toys of every description.
My most prized Christmas gift of all time was a black and white cowgirl outfit. It was dazzling to my eyes and I thought it the most beautiful outfit in the whole world. White plastic fringe hung from the skirt hem and the cowgirl hat; my holster held two shiny pistols and I even received a real pair of cowgirl boots. There was even a gold sheriff's badge pinned to the vest. I was in seventh heaven being the rough and tumble tomboy that I was. Annie Oakley, move aside!
Several years later I received my first phonograph, with records of Pat Boone, Elvis Presley, and Conway Twitty back when he was still a rock and roll star. I was quite sure that I was almost grown and longed with a passion for my sixteenth birthday, but the cowgirl lived on inside me and the suit was still safely packed away in my closet just to remind me.
The men talked of farming and the coming spring crops, business in the stores, garages and mines while cracking walnuts with precision on the first try. The women spoke of neighbors, kinfolk, who had moved away, who was moving back and what lucky twosome was getting married. It was "extra special nice" if a couple was getting divorced. That little morsel of information would provide much entertainment for the rest of the night.
Things would settle down after awhile, it was then that I took my "back door run" as my stepfather called it. It was my yearly habit and never did a Christmas Eve pass without taking my most treasured present to show my friends and next door neighbors, Jean and Barbara Brown. So out the back door I ran. I passed the smokehouse with it's rain barrel sitting beneath the eaves, down the narrow path through the field that separated our houses, the snow crunching beneath my feet. Arriving moments later, panting at their back door, I waited for the usual "come on in" to be issued. Jean Brown was my age and both of us were born in the houses we lived in then. Her sister Barbara Anne, was just a few years older. I viewed the presents they had just opened too. Their living room would only be lit with just the Christmas tree lights. Maybe that's not the way it actually was, or perhaps it was only lit that way on a few occasions, but in my memories, that's the way I always see it.
I tarried with them as long as I dared but I had Mother's present to deliver to the old lady who lived across the road. I always sang Christmas Carols when outside and at the top of my voice at that. Looking back, I am quite sure all the neighbors knew when I was approaching their homes. Could that be the reason I never had to knock?
The woman was somewhat of a surrogate mother to my mom and each year it was my job to take her the little gift. Melvie and Delbert Sisk lived across the road from us for as long as I could remember. She was a tiny little woman, with tight extra-short squiggles of permed black hair fitting her scalp like a second skin. She expressed her opinion for every occasion and could "tell a person off" without blinking an eye. I cringed when circumstances placed me alone with her. It was always a drill and I felt as if I was the criminal she was interrogating. She and Delbert would take me to Sunday movies with them at my mom's request and never a word was spoken between us the entire time. Maybe Delbert kept her busy with conversation, if so, I was grateful. While at their house on Christmas Eve night, I usually became caught up in conversations with her grand daughters. Not wanting to press my luck and be submitted to further questioning about what had been taking place at our house today and what we all had to eat, I usually departed in haste as soon as the gift was handed over. As an adult, I regret that I didn't try to understand her better. After all, she was responsible for my self-proclaimed role as the only movie critic in the neighborhood.
If I had time and made my other visits in double time, I could run on down the road, past where my best friend Mary Pike lived with five brothers and sisters. Tommy Eli lived across the road from them. Older than I by several years, he was a great friend to the Pike boys. Soon I skipped across the railroad bridge and visited with my cousins, the Calverts. Doug was a year older and his sister and brothers were just about grown. . . the same age as my sisters. I always collected a piece of candy from their mom those times I made it to their house.
I will never forget the night I met Santa. Santa had been very elusive and never came to my house on Christmas morning, he preferred coming to my neighborhood on Christmas Eve. I continually missed his visits as he came every year when I was making my "back door run".
Arriving home, I would find a wonderful "big" gift waiting for me and the message that Santa had just left. He couldn't wait, being so busy and all, but had eaten the cookies and milk I had left for him. The disappointment at missing his visit again didn't last long however and poor old Santa was soon forgotten as I examined the new gift.
One year, I had asked for a new bicycle, my first one ever. I had learned to ride on my sister's old bike, which was a sore sight for the eyes. Too big for me, I rode around the yard knowing I could never reach the rusty seat to sit upon. I had made my little visits in extra quick time and was walking slowly up the driveway when what to my wondering eye did appear. . . my uncle pushing a little bicycle.
Quiet as a mouse, I watched as he wheeled it onto the front porch, parked it, and after a backward glance, went inside. Excitement ran through me. I thought I might by chance catch Santa before he left our yard. Like a little hunting dog, I followed the bicycle tracks and footprints from our porch to our wash house across the driveway. Bursting through the door, I was ready to greet Santa with a big hug and kiss and a hearty thank you for all my goodies.
Hark, where was Santa? In the dim light, I could see no one was there. I stood on snow caked tiptoes and flipped on the light switch. Sure enough, the old rascal had evaded me once again. I did notice however, a big box that hadn't been there before. It had a picture of a girl's bicycle on it. Wouldn't you know it, there stood my uncle O.C.'s tool box and instructions for putting a bike together lay on top of it. Santa Clause, my foot!!!
Back to the house I ran, stopping on the porch to examine my new bike. It was all shiny and blue, just my size too with a little basket on the front and fringe on the handle bar grips. I loved fringe, can you tell? Just then the door opened and the entire family proceeded to tell me how I had just missed Santa. . . the whiskered old elf having hauled my new bike right up on the front porch hoping to give it to me personally.
Now I can tell you I wasn't a mean spirited child, and I certainly didn't want to get into trouble, especially with all those gifts waiting for me on the other side of the door. Something came over me however and there was no turning back. I looked at them all full in the face without smiling one little iota I can tell you. My glance held the eyes of my uncle O.C. for a second longer than anyone else. Then I looked back at my mother. I must have felt her betrayal the most because I blurted out, in front of God and all the other little kids, "There ain't no Santa Clause! It was O.C. and I saw him pushing my bike up here. All these years, I been lied to"!
The children were rushed off with assurances that Santa Clause certainly was real as I found out later. There was no one on the porch now except my mom and me. I looked at her with defiance in my stance and arrogance in my demeanor. Mom looked down at me, her mouth open in disbelief. Slowly and with exact precision, the mouth clamped shut with the corners turning down. Her eyes turned mean and narrowed into a slit. "Uh oh" I thought, "I'm in deep doo doo now"! And I wasn't wrong.
Christmas was for us, many things, not just a time of getting and receiving presents. While certainly part of that was so, especially for the children, it was much, much more. The older I became, the more I appreciated the fine family tradition that my mom and dad had started all those years ago.
My sisters no longer come for Christmas Eve. They have their own families in other states now. Each one calls home without fail on Christmas Eve. Their calls have now become very much a part of our tradition for it wouldn't be complete without them. My cherished stepfather passed away almost ten years ago. Next, my beloved uncle, O.C. Carner, departed this world a few years ago leaving a gap impossible to fill. My brother in law, who filled my ears and heart with laughter, Howard Coventry, joined our family on the other side two years ago.
Our tradition still continues and to this day, it wouldn't be Christmas without it. My brother Donnie and wife Karla, and their children, my daughter Tamara Stephens and children still honor our custom. My uncle and aunt, Truman and Connie, my other aunt and O.C.'s widow, Ruby, her daughter, my cowboy loving cousin of younger days, Tana Aldridge, and her own daughter Rani still gather at Mom's house. My best friend and husband Ted is with me every year to brighten that special night and Rani's fiancee has joined us for the second time.
We never sit in that living room on a Christmas Eve night when our loved ones, both living and deceased, are not with us. They are present in our conversation, in our thoughts and in our hearts. It seems as if it was just last Christmas we were all there together, the circle undivided.
Christmas Eve at Mom's house has been a family custom kept alive now for sixty-seven years. My uncle and Mom's only remaining brother, Truman, still leads our group in the traditional Christian prayer before our meal. The youngest grandchildren still open their gifts first and the beat goes on. There are only about 15 of us present these days. Nevertheless, that's enough to keep us together and keep us close as a family.
Our numbers are few if we count the human forms in that room. However, loving recollections from the past keep our loved ones close, and time stands still. My own children as youngsters are there, their laughter and yes, even their childish fights still echo throughout the rooms that one night of the year. We speak of dad's pranks, my stepfather's pride in his grandchildren, and my sisters, each sporting huge colorful bows placed on top of their heads way back when.
In the midst of all the hubbub, I still catch the pungent scent of O.C.'s cigar, and my stepfather, sitting on the couch, dressed in blue denim coveralls.
Copyright © 2001 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2000