My Perfect Christmas
I told you so. I suspect a few of my regular listeners didn’t believe me when I said I’d be back to Funny Messy Life after a brief hiatus, but here I am. I’ve been gone for a few weeks because it’s hard to find the time to write out full episodes of this podcast when there are other things that I have to do in place of it, like editing the final draft of a novel, which is what has been going on with this last break. But every break has to come to an end at some point, and while I’m not done with editing Mr. Long Said Nothing because my life is too full with obligations, I’ve been thinking it’s time to get back in the podcast saddle. The question was this: Should I jump on back in now, or give myself the rest of the year and jump back in at the beginning of 2022? I mean, it’s only about a week now, right? Then something happened. I received a Christmas card from my friends, the ________, in Minnesota and my heart soared. By the way, _________, I wanted to send you an email to thank you, but I got a fancy pants new iPhone and in the data transfer, I lost your info, so drop me your email address if you don’t mind. Anyway, I decided that if someone who knows me through this podcast feels strongly enough to send me a card, then maybe others of you do too … just maybe not as much as the __________’s because they put that they were my biggest fans right there on the envelope, so ……
SO! - without further ado, I’m Michael Blackston and Merry Christmas! Here is the first episode back after my hiatus, and now I present to you, for your holiday pleasure, a few words that describe what I think would be the perfect Christmas in my Funny Messy Life.
Let us start by jingling all the way back to my childhood in the 1970’s and 80’s to get the family Christmas tree. In. my extended family, we had a tradition. We always met at my grandma’s house on Sunday afternoons for lunch and a few hours of fellowship. The grownups gathered around the kitchen table after the meal, while the kids were expected to go outside and frolick merrily around the property, regardless of whether or not it was 20 degrees, or 150. If it was 150, we came back in at the end of the day with sweaty, gritty dirt lines circling the perimeters of our necks. I may have mentioned before that we called these rings of grime and funk, Granny Beads. If it was twenty degrees outside, we’d still have them, but they’d be frozen into magical frozen filth beads. Either way, the adults would inevitably tell us at the end of the day, after being the very ones to banish us to the hours long whimsy of nature, Y’all smell like the outside!
But every year a couple of weeks before Christmas, it was the entire family who got to smell like the outside. Why? Because it was our tradition for everybody to march into the woods together and pick out our Christmas trees from the wild cedars that grew behind Grandma’s house. The men took up their saws, we kids ran untethered through the forest like we didn’t have no good raisin’, and the women kept a keen eye out for the perfect tree when they weren’t yelling at us kids.
“Quit runnin’ around like y’all ain’t got no good raisin’!”
Every once in a while, one of the young ones would find a tree we wanted to take home.
“Let’s git thissun, Deddie!”
But it was never the right one. It usually had a huge bare spot in the middle, or the top looked like the Jolly Green Giant had used it to scrape the granny beads out of the creases on his jolly green neck.
Eventually, the angels would descent, shining a holy light on the perfect tree, and the man who claimed it would begin the arduous task of cussing it down. Did I say cussing it down? Ha ha, no. Of course not. I meant cutting it down with interesting, and quite colorful words as a way to encourage the saw to stop getting stuck in the sap midway through.
Once we got the tree home and decorated, the house smelled delightfully of cedar and burning cedar needles as back in those days we thought nothing of stringing a dead tree with huge glass bulbs that got hotter than Satan’s armpit. In effect, our house smelt like th’outside!
And that’s number one on my list of things that would make a perfect Christmas - going outback of Grandma’s house with the family just one more time to pick out the Christmas tree.
Next, I think I would want the family to gather again a couple of weeks before Christmas at an old southern restaurant that no longer exists, except in our fond memories. I’m not sure who first came up with the idea of everybody going to Swamp Guinea (prounounced SWOMP’ - ginny), but they are responsible for some wonderful memories. It became another extended family tradition, and I suspect maybe my Grandpa started it all. Swamp Guinea was an wood cabin sort of place that smelled of fried everything and sweet tea. It was an all-you-can-eat family style gorge-fest where our family met to tear into chicken, shrimp, catfish, hush puppies, cole slaw, and stew like we didn’t have no good raisin’. The place is closed now, and this year we tried to re-imagine the tradition with a trip to another similar place called Booty’s. I didn’t care for it, but we were all together and that’s what was important. Well, Grandma wasn’t with us for the first time, so I guess that might have had something to do with it not being the same.
The thing is, the stew I just mentioned would also always make an appearance at our Christmas Eve gathering. Someone would order a pot of Swamp Guinea stew and bring a loaf of bread to the table. Lately the stew was from a different place, and it’s good, but it’s not Swamp Guinea. At least we were all together at Grandma’s.
So for number two, I think just one more meal with the family at Swamp Guinea would help make the perfect Christmas.
Stepping back to the tree situation, one of my favorite memories of Christmas was always the family decorating the tree in the middle of Grandma and Grandpa’s living room. The box with all the ornaments would be brought in and everyone would be invited to find the ball with their name on it. I think my sister might have started this event years ago because she’d seen them doing on Days Of Our Lives, but it stuck and it became ours as well. The kids hung theirs as high up as they could go, while the teens fought for position at the topmost point of the tree. One of my cousins would never be outdone and to this day, the tree’s topmost ornament bears the name, Chuck. It’s there again this year, except the tree was brought to my aunt’s house because the house we’ve always known as Grandma’s has been sold. New places, new traditions. Never quite the same.
Grandma and Grandpa would sit back and watch the crowd laughing and being jolly as we decorated the tree, sometimes so loud it seemed we didn’t have no good raisin’, and they said few words. They just took it all in.
And that’s number three for me in my ideal description of the perfect Christmas.
Then there’s Christmas Eve. After the meal that included all the trimmings, including the stew, we would all retire to the living room to open presents. The kids would have been begging to get to this part for a while now, and having digested, the adults would relent. At that point, a couple of people would be appointed to pass them out from the enormous pile under the tree and the fun would start with everyone ripping up paper and throwing bows into the air with reckless abandon, as if they didn’t have no good raisin’. Someone always ended up with a bow on their head, showing it off to everyone like it was the first time anyone had ever thought of it. A lot of time that person has been me. There are a couple of gag gifts that have made their rounds over the years: an old coat that no one wants, and two plastic guitar-shaped popcorn … things with Elvis on the label. These gifts must be kept and regifted the next year. Every year, someone dares someone else to eat the popcorn and we laugh. Once again, the Grandparents, ,and for several years, only Grandma, sat and watched and got showered with gifts, but said little. This was their gift - to see the family they created share a wonderful time. I suspect this description matches a lot of others around the world in cultures that celebrate Christmas, but each one will have their special little things that make it unique to that family.
Ours will be different this year. Grandma passed this year and like I said, the house was sold. It’s funny, I always call it Grandma’s house, but there was Grandpa, too, until he passed. That was his way, though. To quietly sit in the background and enjoy watching the rest of us. When I think back on it, I can still see the look on his face, the slightest upward curl the edges of his mouth, and the twinkle in his eye as his family lived their lives in front of him. That’s what he always worked toward. It was his greatest mission - to provide those moments for the rest of us.
In the end, it became Grandma’s mantle to sit back and watch. The older she got, the less she would say as she sat at the side table in Sundays in the kitchen while the rest of us talked and laughed, and on a rare occasions, argued. I felt bad for her sometimes and didn’t want her to feel left out, so I’d ask her …
“You okay over there, Grandma?”
She would smile and say, “I’m just listening to y’all.”
Coming in at number four, one more Christmas with Grandma and Grandpa at their house on the Washington Highway. I want to pull in one more time and see the lone tree out front lit with bright, multicolored lights. I want my headlights to shine just one more time on a sign out front by the road that read, Joseph Mills Photograghy. I want to walk inside and immediately hear gales of laughter and smell the stew. And I want my hug. God, I miss my hug.
It’s all different now, and I’m settled that the only choice we have is to continue to love, laugh, and live. In those moments, we will usher in new traditions and the world will, as it always has, move on.
There are a bunch of other things that would help put the perfect season pin to the season, but this year, these feel like they rank at the top for me. Maybe I’ll revisit this list and add to it another time, but for now, it’s where it ought to be. As for my Christian brothers and sisters who might ask, Where was Christ in all of this? You never mentioned Christ.
I didn’t have to. He was always there. He was there when Grandpa and Grandma eloped to be married at 16. He was there at the birth of each of their three daughters, and subsequently every grandchild as the family grew. And Christ was at the very center of every celebration, every tradition, and every memory we made. And now, I guess he’s with them in Heaven, three of them holding hands together and smiling, watching with maybe few words, as we continue to live our lives in front of them.
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