A week before Christmas, we scouted the woods around our little farm for the perfect pine tree before we decided on one and chopped it down to decorate for our Christmas tree.
We selected the one with the prettiest shape and that had the most limbs. Pine trees were our only choice because there were no cedar trees in our area.
Mama went with me until I got big enough to use the ax by myself. After dragging the tree home, we trimmed it and set it in a large can of dirt to hold it up straight. We placed it in the corner of our living room.
We dragged the box of old decorations from under the bed and began decorating. There was a string of lights that had 14 large bulbs of all different colors. They were not singing, chasing or blinking lights but just burned brightly. When one burned out, they all went out, and the bad bulb had to be found and replaced.
There was a string of red roping, green roping and a string of silver aluminum foil that encircled the tree. Ornaments were large glass balls that easily were broken. Icicles were hung over each limb by the hundreds. A large, red paper bell that had been folded shut was opened and hung on the bottom limb of the tree. It was a very pretty tree to us when it was finished.
Our kitchen was filled with delicious aromas as Mama baked several cakes on Christmas Eve. The stove woodpile had to filled to the top for all the cooking that was done for the holidays.
I loved helping Mama make the fruitcake. This was not the same kind of fruitcake that we know today.
She mixed the batter in the large, beige crockery bowl with the blue and pink line around it by holding the bowl in the crook of her arm and beating it with a large spoon. This took a long time.
I enjoyed turning the eggbeater to beat the eggs and sugar together.
Mama cut up all kinds of fresh fruit and put it into the batter for her fruitcake. She added chopped peeled apples, orange pieces, shredded coconut, raisins and bananas. It looked like a fruit salad cake. We didn’t add nuts because we didn’t have any.
Mama poured the batter into the thin, iron skillet and baked it in the oven of the woodstove one layer at the time. She baked seven layers of the fruitcake and simply stacked them one layer upon the other without any frosting in between. This made a delicious cake.
She also baked chocolate, coconut and jelly layer cakes. We liked the chocolate best of all. All seven kids clamored to lick the chocolate spoon and pan. My brother got mad when all the icing was used on the cake.
While the cake layers were baking, Mama had a large, fresh ham boiling in the huge pot on top of the stove. When it was done, she placed it in the oven and baked it until it was brown and crisp on the outside.
We cooked fresh pork backbone and rice for Christmas as long as I can remember. This dish is a favorite with my family on the holidays.
Fruit salad was a must. When Mama peeled the apples, the peelings never hit the table before one of us grabbed them and ate them. What a treat!
Peppermint candy sticks were as large as a teacup is round. They had to be chopped into pieces with the butcher knife.
Mama ordered boxes of candy from Sears and Roebuck several weeks before Christmas. One box held our favorite pink strawberry, yellow lemon, brown chocolate and white coconut bonbons. The other one was a 7-pound box of the most delicious assorted chocolate.
I knew she always ordered the candy from Sears shortly before Christmas, and I also knew that she hid it in the bottom of the chifforobe.
I began looking for it several days before Christmas. I never dared open the box if it had not been opened and “inspected” by Mama first.
But, if it had been opened, I carefully sneaked the box lid off and tried to choose a piece of candy that had a nut in the middle of it. Cautiously, I closed the box and covered it back up and quickly ran out of the bedroom to eat my candy. (So, go ahead, Mama. Spank me for sneaking the chocolate candy!)
We also bought two bags of chocolate cream drops each year. They were so good.
Sid Burkhalter, the owner of the rolling store that delivered groceries to our home at 11 a.m. each Saturday, gave us a 25-pound bag of oranges, a long 4-pound Claussen pound cake and a round pound cake with pecans on top. Mama bought a lemon cheesecake and a rum cake. All of these still are favorite cakes of ours.
As for the oranges, I do not think anyone could suck one as dry as we could. We rolled the orange between our hands until it was soft, took a knife and cut a small, round hole in the top, stuck the knife in it a few times, then began squeezing and sucking the juice from it.
When we had it drained, we turned the orange inside out and ate all the pulp. We threw the peeling into the burning fire in the fireplace.
We did not stop with one orange. These were rare treats that we got only at Christmas time, and we ate all we wanted before we stopped. A large bag did not last long around seven children.
Aunt Bert lived in Miami and came to visit us each December, usually arriving on Christmas Eve. She brought us oranges, grapefruit and fresh coconuts from her yard. The husks had to be chopped off with an axe.
Mama took the icepick and poked holes in the eyes and mouth of the coconut and drained the clear milk from it. We passed around the glass and shared sips of it.
Then we used the hammer to crack it open, and we each got a piece and picked the snowy white meat off the hull as best we could. We did not know that it would come loose from the brown hull if we put it in the oven for a few minutes.
On Christmas Eve, Daddy brought in a large paper bag full of Brazil nuts. We gathered around the fireplace and took turns with the hammer, cracking open the nuts. They were hard to hull, but we always managed to hull and eat all of them.
Even though Mama is 92 now, she still gets a bag of these nuts at Christmas, even if they just sit in the bowl.
It was not against Georgia law to have fireworks when I was very young. Daddy bought several sparklers, cherry bombs and bottle rockets. We all gathered in the front yard and watched him light them and throw them up into the air or across the yard. We loved to watch the beautiful array of colors as they went off into the night.
We really liked the one that raced across the yard after being lit and turned around and came back toward us. Maybe it was called a boomerang firecracker.
Daddy allowed my brother to light some of the sparklers and throw them. I always was too scared to light them, but I enjoyed standing out of harm’s way and watching.
There were always a few extra guests for Christmas dinner at our house. Our aunt and two of our great uncles usually ate with us. I think they liked the rooster and dumplings.
We enjoyed sharing our holiday dinner. I recall only one time that Mama and Daddy didn’t have Christmas dinner at home when all the children were there. In 1957, we went to Miami to my aunt’s home. It was hot weather. There was not even a fireplace in her house. It was a miserable Christmas for us. We were not used to such weather at Christmas time!
After Christmas, when the tree was stripped of its decorations, we took the pine outside and set it up near the chimney, where we could warm our hands on the bricks. We redecorated it with string and anything else we could find in the fields or woods.
We even had gifts under it for the name we had drawn. I was so proud of the shiny copper penny I had placed in a matchbox and wrapped in a piece of funny paper. I tied a bow around it with a piece of string from the flour sack.
We also listened for airplanes to fly overhead, which was seldom. Mama told us that Santa Claus flew in an airplane. So, we always waved and hollered for him to drop us a bag of candy, but he never did.
As I think back to the Christmases in my childhood, the few wrapped gifts under the tree came from my aunt. She always made sure we received our gifts before Christmas, either delivered by her or sent in the mail. How we appreciated her thoughtfulness.
But the other gifts — candy equally divided among seven children, fresh fruit, Brazil nuts that Daddy always remembered to bring home, the fireworks displays, the many special cakes Mama worked so hard to bake over the wood-burning stove and all of us being together — were things that could not be wrapped in pretty paper-covered packages with bows tied around them. These are gifts from the heart and are the precious things that make Christmas memories.
Merry Christmas and happy new year to all my readers, and may you be a part of someone’s precious memories!