The ghost of Christmas past:
Most of my extended family lived pretty close to home, so I grew up with a heavy dose of family for the holidays. The tradition was to spend Christmas Eve with my mom’s side of the family and Christmas night with my dad’s side. My mom’s parents were divorced, so we visited my grandfather and his wife usually on the Saturday after Christmas until he died in 1979.
With my mom’s family on Christmas Eve, we always drew names and the youngest kids would pass out all the presents after dinner. Since I was the youngest of all my cousins, I was pressed into service for for a long time, until my other cousins started spawning their own kids. We usually did all this at my grandmother’s massive house, but the celebration rotated to other houses on occasion.
I remember a few things more than others: devilled eggs, two kinds of stuffing, bizarre cogealed salads, fighting over who got to sit in this one chair which looked like a throne, and sneaking outside to smoke with a few of my my cousins after I was a teenager. And we always drove around town looking at the Christmas lights before going home.
Christmas morning was just for me and my parents. OK, it was pretty much just for me. Later, we started having a late breakfast with my aunt and uncle who lived next door.
On Christmas night, we usually went to Reidsville to see my dad’s people, unless it was our turn to host them. This was a pretty lively gathering, bursting into a collection of Christmas carols and assorted hymns which ran pretty late into the evening. There were always at least two aunts with low-fi tape recorders preserving the whole thing. I wonder if they ever went back and listened to any of those tapes. There were some pretty good singers (my dad can really belt out “Oh Holy Night”) but I can’t imagine that the sound was very good.
With my dad’s family, I learned that people with very bad politics and opinions can still be good people. They had the prejudices of an earlier place and time, but they were generally good, loving, moral people, many of whom devoted their lives to helping other people, even the ones they didn’t particularly care for.
I also had my first experience with “gaydar” at one of these gatherings. When I was about 15, I sneaked out to have a cigarette with my cousin’s new husband. He was sort of cute, and as we talked, I just sort of knew instinctively that he liked boys. And, a few years later, he was indeed one of the first faces I saw in the local queer bar. He and my cousin were amicably divorced by this time. No, I didn’t sleep with him.
At some point we’d always call my aunt and uncle in Florida, everyone taking a turn at the phone. Only one of my aunts ever seemed particularly worried about how high we ran her phone bill. Afterward, we ate a little more for the long journey (20 miles) back to Greensboro. I always hated that drive back because it meant Christmas was pretty much over.
The Saturday celebration with my grandfather and his wife Fleeta was always a little anti-climactic. I never felt quite comfortable at their house in the country with the well water and the black and white TV. I often got the feeling my grandfather had the same reaction. But Fleeta did make an amazing strawberry pie, and I’d kill for her recipe now.
The celebrations are a lot more muted now. There are fewer kids around, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, which hasn’t reproduced well. My grandparents have been gone for years, the last one dying in 1990. I’ve lost one aunt and two uncles in the past few years. The generation which pulled these celebrations together won’t last a lot longer, and I doubt my cousins and I will really keep the traditions alive.