Christmas Eve

My mother spoke to me for the last time on Christmas Eve. I suppose for some such a memory might cast a pall on Christmas forever after, but the events of that evening cause me to hold the season closer.

You have to understand that I was Mother’s only child and that she synchronized the beating of her heart with my happiness. You have to understand how much effort she put into selecting the perfect Christmas gift for me each year, and for everyone else on her list, too. You have to understand how special Christmas Eve was to our family –

Julius Caesar wrote, “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” My childhood world was split into only two. Half of the population, maybe less, celebrated the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve, and the other fifty percent, maybe more, on Christmas Day.

My family belonged to the Christmas Eve believers, and like most sectarians, I grew up thinking our way was a little better. The reasons my people held with Christmas Eve have been lost to history. I suspect it had to do with impatience. All I know for sure is that roughly a hundred years ago my maternal grandparents started the tradition of a six o’clock Christmas Eve feast followed by the opening of gifts around the tree. The extended family would gather and celebrate until midnight. My mother continued her parents’ ways. Even Santa co-operated, dropping my toys out in the barn no later than eight p.m. on the 24
th as he hurried on to California before dawn.

Mother was not a theatrical person by nature, but she approached her annual Christmas Eve production like the opening of a Broadway show. A week or two before opening night, we’d begin work on the stage-set with a trek across the hills of our Owen County farm to find the perfect cedar tree to cut and decorate for the living room. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect cedar tree. Nature did not intend for them to be Christmas trees, and they defiantly grew lop-sided, too fat, too skinny, or too tall. Even when one was deemed passable, a cedar tree’s branches were too weak to hold ornaments like the pines we saw in magazine pictures.

Mother was undaunted. With three or four cans of spray snow, hundreds of little white lights, and some plastic icicles, she’d transform our Charlie Brown tree into a Winter Wonder. Then she’d sit and stare at it night after night, whispering like a child, “Isn’t it beautiful!”

The days leading up to Christmas Eve were like a sappy holiday script – except it was for real and Mother had the starring role. Christmas shopping required a rare fifty-mile trip to Lexington where she gushed over the displays of twinkling lights and the singing chipmunks in Stewart’s Department Store window. Then, no matter how cold it was – in my memory it was always near zero—she would tramp up and down Main Street searching for just the right gifts. Mother was an endurance Christmas shopper, not a sprinter. Beginning at Purcell’s, which stood about where Rupp Arena does today, she’d trudge to the far end of Main to Wolf Wiles, located in what is now the Grey Construction Company Building, and then back and forth a time or two until she met her self-imposed standards for the perfect gifts.

She would persuade Daddy to drive us miles over crooked roads to glimpse a live nativity scene at Bethlehem, Kentucky. She would sing holiday songs in her awful voice – the only time of year she would sing – and create singular desserts like dense blackberry-jam cake and melt-in-your-mouth marshmallow fudge.

But the climax of the show was the Christmas Eve feast. Its methodically planned menu required a cross-country jaunt to the largest supermarket around to locate hard to find items. On our return, she would begin cooking. The “old” ham was placed in a lard can and baked to tender perfection overnight. The salads – congealed, frozen, and fruit - could also be put together the day before. Christmas Eve day was spent roasting the turkey, prepping traditional vegetable dishes like mashed potatoes and new-fangled ones like steamed cauliflower with cheese sauce. And our family’s secret recipe for soufflé -like dressing took a lot of attention.

At 5:30 our guests would arrive, the uncles and aunts, the cousins. At exactly 6 o’clock, we’d sit down in a roomful of laughter at the mahogany dining room table spread with the best dishware we owned.

There came a time, though, when the party passed to me and my house. Plagued by glaucoma that narrowed her field of vision, and arthritis that eventually put her in a wheelchair, Mother was no longer able to host it. But she never let go of her excitement about Christmas Eve. She continued to fret over her gifts, especially her gift to me, and ooh and ahh over the tree and outdoor light displays with childlike wonder.

In October of 2006, Mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It’s a silent disease, often undetected until an advanced stage, and this was Mother’s situation. In November, she had surgery, and the doctor said the cancer was even more invasive than he’d expected. He warned me she had only weeks to live. And so in early December, I took her home as she asked me to do, and tried to make her comfortable.

On December 21, my Mother fell into a deep sleep, and I could not rouse her. I moved her, then, to a Hospice bed in a local hospital, and began praying she would not die on Christmas Eve.

At exactly 6 p.m. on December 24, the hour our family had sat down for Christmas dinner for a century, she woke up for the first time in 3 days.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” she said with her usual authority. “I have to get up.” Euphoric, I rang for nurses to help me lift her. A pitiful-looking, but brave little tree appeared on her dresser in an instant, wrestled from a storage closet by a kind stranger. My husband found Christmas carols on his laptop computer, and turned up the volume. Then, spooning vanilla ice cream from Dixie Cups, we began our Christmas Eve dinner.

For an hour or more, we sat and talked like we always had. Lucid as ever, she asked about each of my children and my grandchildren.

After a while, Mother said she thought she should lie back down. She never woke up again. We buried her on New Year’s Day.

So maybe I believe in prayer and Christmas miracles. Maybe I believe a mother’s love transcends death. I do know this for certain. My mother’s last Christmas gift to me was perfect.

Stolen Christmas

Long before the Grinch stole Christmas, someone snatched my grandparents’ holiday gifts. Like our pioneer trek into Kentucky, the 1937 flood, or the fire that destroyed our house in ‘49 – the robbery of 1908 has become part of our family mythology. The story is repeated around our Yuletide table every year, and my grandparents’ devastation endures in each re-telling.

The details of the story never change, but over a lifetime, I have heard it with different ears. As a child, I was horrified that there had been a Christmas with no gifts. As a young woman, learning about the unexpected ways men can disappoint, I was angry at my grandfather’s carelessness. Later, I felt sorry for him, and I was touched by the tender way he tried to save Christmas for his child-bride.

Now that I’m older than my grandmother ever lived to be, I wonder about her. She is reported to have been a beauty when my grandfather married her -- a stylish, intelligent woman who loved books and pretty things. What pushed her to leave her parsonage family when she was barely seventeen to set up housekeeping in a lonely farmhouse on Eagle Creek with a man twelve years her senior? Was it simply love as I have always thought? My grandfather was certainly persuasive, and they had a long and apparently congenial marriage. Or was early matrimony the only realistic option for a woman without means in 1908? Did she regret that she’d stayed behind when her father, a Methodist preacher, moved her lively siblings on to an Illinois city? But I digress, and you, gentle readers, are waiting to hear this old Christmas tale –

I don’t know why Grandmother did not go shopping with my grandfather. Perhaps, pregnant with their first child, she didn’t feel well. Perhaps, hoping to surprise her with his selections, my grandfather didn’t invite her. Whatever the reason, she stayed home on that cold Christmas Eve while he drove their horse and buggy seven miles into town.

In 1908, nearby Corinth was a small but vigorous commercial center in their rural corner of Kentucky. The railroad ran through it, and passengers and cargo arrived and departed at the tidy depot several times each day. It boasted several banks, a hotel, and an array of stores lined up in a narrow row along a single street. At Christmastime, it was full of farmers like my grandfather flush with the jingle of cash in their pockets after selling their year’s tobacco crop.

Gran was a careful man with his money – some would even say stingy – but at Christmas he could not resist the exotic bounty in the stores. Even when he was an old man, he would go out on Christmas Eve and return with arms loaded with treats: round, hairy coconuts; oranges and bananas; sugar coated gum drops in vivid colors and melt-away pastel bonbons; rainbow striped hard-tack candy and huge slabs of golden peanut brittle; sometimes, even a fresh pineapple. And on this first Christmas with his exquisite bride there would have been something special for her. Perhaps a cameo or a bolt of silk or even a feathered hat.

He shopped for an hour or more, and then carefully packed all his purchases into the back of the buggy and concealed them with a tarp. Time then, he thought, for the best part of the day. Time for a lunch of cheese and crackers at one of the general stores. Time to talk.

My grandfather was a highly principled man, but his weakness in life was talking. He was lured by the hum of loafers’ voices the way other men are drawn to drink or gambling. To be fair, Gran was an engaging storyteller. Already an up and coming landowner, the tall, genial redhead was welcome in any social gathering. As he moved through the holiday crowd, he was hailed by first one and then another crony.

The Corinth of 1908 was a loafers’ paradise. To encourage folks to stay in town and spend, long wooden church pews were stuck everywhere – inside near the hot heating stoves and outside in front of the store windows. The isolated farmers, hungry for conversation, assembled on the hard benches to share their views about tobacco markets and politics.

Gran enjoyed their camaraderie so much that he lingered until near dark. With a start, he realized he’d stayed too long. He made his farewells and headed to the parked buggy.

Thieves, of course, had stolen every package from his carriage. My grandfather was shocked into uncommon speechlessness. There was no money left in his pockets to buy more gifts.

The novelist Ferrol Sams writes that southern women never get mad at their men – they only get “hurt.” Certainly, that describes Grandmother’s reaction to Gran’s contrite homecoming. She didn’t get angry. She just sat down and began to cry.

She cried for hours. Maybe she glimpsed the future – her mother’s sudden, soon-to-come death in another state, the deprivation of the Great Depression, her own massive stroke at the age of 49. Maybe she was only homesick and childish. Whatever - with night settled heavily over the countryside, Gran walked to the tiny grocery store up the creek and brought back two precious Baby Ruth candy bars for a Christmas morning surprise.

Christmas was never bought more dearly.

©Copyright Georgia Green Stampe
Excerpt from YOU CAN GO ANYWHERE (Wind, 2008.)

Santa Claus

I spotted Santa Claus sitting in a large easy chair as soon as I entered our church’s back foyer. It doubles as a fellowship hall on Sundays between services, and it’s a popular spot where talk flows along with the hot coffee.

Although he was disguised in a white shirt and tie and a khaki windbreaker, I knew who he was. His long white beard gave him away.

“Santa Claus!” I called out, making my way toward him through the crowd of Methodists wolfing down doughnuts. He was chatting with one of the homeless men who attend services at our downtown Lexington church. Interrupting them, I blurted out,
“Do you remember me? Georgia Stamper? We knew each other in Ashland when I lived there. How wonderful to run into you here!”

He has family in Lexington, he said, as he looked up at me with his blue eyes, a little milky now with age. Then he took my outstretched hand in both of his. I was startled that his felt so boney. Didn’t he used to be fleshier?

“I brought my daughters to visit you every year at Hills Department Store. That would have been in the late 1970s. I never bothered taking them to any of those imposters from central casting. They only talked to you.”

He smiled and nodded as though he did recall my little girls, mothers now themselves.

I burbled on as people will do with the very old so that Santa wouldn’t have to talk if he didn’t want to, if he were too tired, if he didn’t remember me.

“My oldest grandson is in boy scouts, now, for almost a year, and it’s been a life changing experience for him.” Not many people know that Santa has been in scouting almost as long as it has existed. Once, on Scout Sunday back in Ashland, I heard him talk about meeting Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement, at one of the early World Scout Jamborees.

“That’s fine news about your grandson,” he said in a quiet voice. I believed he meant it, as if he were as concerned about the boy’s well-being as I am.

Then, abruptly returning to our earlier subject, he said, “Those years at Hills were good ones. I’d just retired from forty years on the railroad and was looking for a way to be useful. I went to every store in Ashland and Russell, all the big places like Sears and J. C. Penney and Parsons, but the only one that would give me the time of day was Hills. One incident -- I’ve never forgotten.”

He paused and stroked his beard as if considering how best to tell me this story. I wondered what could be so unusual that it would hang in Santa’s memory for decades. Remembering the bizarre incidents in David Sedaris’ “SantaLand Diaries,” I prepared myself for something funny.

“A little girl came to see me one day. She could have been as old as nine, a tall child on the chunky side, but I suspect she was large for her age because she had the manner of a child about six.” Santa shuffled the cane propped against his knee and looked away from me as though he were clarifying her image in his mind. After a few moments he looked back at me and went on.

“One half of her face was the most beautiful chocolate color I’ve ever seen. The rich brown color ran on a diagonal line from her upper left hairline, across her nose, and ended on her lower right jaw line.” Santa sliced his face into two imaginary triangles with his hand so that I would understand.

“But the opposite half of her face, following the same diagonal slant, was splotched with many colors, white, purple, blue, and it was bumpy with growths.” In a quiet way, Santa also swept his hand over this triangle of his face to help me visualize what he had seen.

“We chatted a few minutes about what she wanted for Christmas. And then, as I did for every child who came to talk with me, I kissed her on the cheek and gave her a peppermint candy cane. Then I lifted her off my lap, and she took off running.

I was stationed in the rear of the store in a wide center aisle that allowed me to see all the way to the front entrance. And so I could see her running down that long aisle, nearly the length of a football field, to where her family stood near the front of the store, and I could hear her shouting to them as she ran --
‘Santa Claus kissed me on the cheek! He kissed me on the cheek!’ she yelled out to them, over and over and over.”

Santa stopped speaking, and stared at something I could not see. We sat in silence as others bustled past us, in a hurry now to finish their coffee and settle themselves in the large sanctuary of our church for the eleven o’clock service. Minutes passed. I reached for his hand and squeezed it gently to say good-bye. The old man acknowledged my leaving with only the slightest nod of his head.

I confess that I didn’t hear the choir sing that morning or anything the minister said. I sat in my padded pew thinking about the little girl with the Joker face and wondering who she might be now, over thirty years later.

This then is my Christmas message to you, by way of Santa Claus and with words borrowed from the poet Emily Dickinson:

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.

In Memory of George Hendricks 1916 – 2012

excerpt from Butter in the Morning

World Peace Grits

The Dalai Lama loves cheese grits casserole. I read this in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution so it must be true. The reporter goes on to conclude that the Dalai Lama’s fondness for this old potluck favorite may have been a factor in his establishing the Drepung Loseling Institute in Atlanta, an inter-cultural learning center affiliated with Emory University. Apparently the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was first introduced to cheese grits in 1995 at Atlanta’s Mary Mac’s tearoom and couldn’t get over them (so to speak.)

Marian Mims waited on him back in ’95, but admits that his flowing colorful robes confused her.

“ ‘I thought he was a lady Dalai Lama at first. Because somebody said the name Dolly, you know? I didn’t know he was a big-time church man,’ ” the waitress recalled in a recent newspaper account of the encounter.

“`He loved it [cheese grits]’ Mims remembered. `He blessed us and everything.’”

Personally, I’m not surprised that cheese grits casserole has played a significant role in breaching the cultural barriers that separate us. Our son-in-law, Tim, is a Yankee, a native flat-lander from northern Indiana. Smitten with our daughter, he made the obligatory holiday visit to our home during the early phase of their courtship. But when I pressed a heaping ladle of the hot concoction onto his plate, he politely balked.

“GRITS?” he shrieked. “You’ve got to be kidding! No one actually eats grits, do they? They’re a myth, right?”

I gave him a look that said if you expect us to pay for your wedding you’d better stop talking and start eating.

To make a long story short, Tim now loves cheese grits casserole as much as the Dalai Lama does. It just goes to show how a little open mindedness can bridge the divisions between us (although I’m still struggling with Tim’s Midwestern enthusiasm for piling noodles on top of mashed potatoes.)

Once you get north of the Ohio River, however, the secret ingredient in cheese grits casserole becomes as elusive as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. My cousin, Pam, who lives in northern Cincinnati, was determined to add a touch of her native Kentucky to her Christmas menu last year. Armed with our family recipe, she whizzed down to her local Kroger to pick up what she needed for the dish. Sixteen supermarkets later, she still had not found the essential pasteurized processed garlic cheese rolls. Finally, wandering in one of those upscale, gourmet markets with the fancy deli cases and exotic breads, she spotted fifteen of the cellophane wrapped cheese logs in another shopper’s cart. When she asked him where he’d found them, his face took on the look of a spy caught in the act of espionage.

In a whisper, he confided that he was a South Carolina transplant. Since he could not find the garlic cheese rolls needed to make his grits casserole anywhere in Cincinnati, his mother had been mailing the cheese product to him from “back home” for the past five years. It was rumored, he said, that the cheese product was processed only by cousins of the Keebler elves, the southern branch of the family who could survive only in magnolia trees. Now, happening upon the cheese rolls in this unlikely place, he had seized his opportunity to corner the Cincinnati market.

Slyly, he asked, “What would one roll be worth to you?”

So here’s my plan (which could go a ways towards solving the trade imbalance as well as promoting world peace.) First, in each quadrant of the United States, we set up large factories devoted only to the manufacture of pasteurized processed garlic cheese rolls. We solve the shortage by producing more. This may have the undesired effect of driving the price down in the cheese roll market, but world peace should be affordable in my opinion (as opposed to war which costs trillions.)

Then we whip up huge cheese grits casseroles and airdrop them all over the earth. If the Dalai Lama’s reaction is an indicator, I predict that when everyone has had a chance to sample the grits, it should be a simple matter to set up inter-cultural learning centers all over the place. The divisions between us could become as easy to bridge as the Ohio River.

Addendum: Since I wrote “World Peace Grits” a decade ago, Kraft Foods has inexplicably stopped manufacturing pasteurized processed garlic cheese rolls. Any fool can see what the result has been – we’re on the brink of WWIII. So I have adapted the old recipe and share it here with you. One grits casserole at a time, multiplied by millions -- and I think it’s possible for the likes of you and me to turn this situation around.

Recipe for World Peace Grits

6 cups chicken broth 1 – 2 teaspoons of salt (depending on whether you use salted or unsalted butter)
¼ teaspoon pepper (optional) OR a dash of Cayenne pepper (also optional)
¼ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
2 cups regular grits
(however, I often use the Quick-Cook Grits in a box and they work fine too. You just can’t use “instant” grits.)
1 – 3 cloves garlic, minced ( I use the minced garlic in a jar --follow your own taste buds here.)
16 ounces/about 4 cups/of sharp cheddar cheese. (I use packaged shredded cheese because it melts quickly and saves time.)
½ cup milk
4 large eggs, beaten until frothy
(I whisk them with a fork)
1 stick butter
(I recommend using real butter and not margarine)
Crushed corn flakes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease casserole dish (s). This makes a lot, enough for two mid-sized Pyrex dishes (no I don’t know the size :-) or one of those great big 13 x 11 inch casseroles. I also often cook this in the deep/large pyrex dish that fits into my chafing dish (cook longer is using a deep dish.)

Bring the broth, salt, pepper and garlic powder to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in the grits and whisk until completely combined. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the grits are thick, about 8 – 10 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove from heat.

Stir in butter bit by bit until melted. Carefully add the cheddar cheese, garlic and milk. Stir until combined and the cheese has melted.

Then FOLD IN the frothy beaten eggs. I think this step is key to getting a lighter, fluffier consistency to the casserole. Pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. It cooks better if not deep. Sprinkle the top of the mixture until covered with crushed corn flake crumbs. Bake until set. In my oven it takes about an hour + for the middle to be “set” i.e. firm, not runny.

Shepherds in Bathrobes

When I was a child, I thought the Three Wise Men and the Shepherds really had worn bathrobes and black socks when they came to adore the Christ Child. This was the way they were always dressed in the Christmas pageant at our church, and I assumed the costuming was historically accurate. I wasn’t sure why biblical men had wrapped terrycloth towels around their heads, but since Christmas is often cold in Kentucky, I figured they probably wanted to keep their bald heads warm.

Our tiny Methodist church thought big, and we staged an elaborate re-enactment of the Christmas story every year (although the director made an annual announcement that she would never do this again.) To pull this off, everyone in the congregation was drafted into service. Even the youngest served as stable animals and the most elderly turned the light switches on and off at critical moments. Were it not for the kindness of the Baptists across the road, we would have played to empty pews. We cast them as the audience, and they obliged by dismissing their Sunday night service to help us out.

I can still recall the angels’ wings. They were shaped out of baling wire from the hayfield, and then were covered from span to span with multiple layers of ivory crepe paper. A creative, genial woman, who died much too young, tediously shaped the overlapping layers of fragile paper into thousands of feather-like ruffles. The wings were magnificent, and I’m pretty sure God added Margaret Carr’s design to his pattern book.

Our choir of angels who sang on high was small, but their voices were fine and pure and covered every part. Mr. and Mrs. Bell could not be equaled at bass and alto, Cousin May hit the soprano notes with the skill of a trained opera singer, Bill (who later became a Baptist but got his start in the Methodist choir) sang a fine tenor, and his future wife Faye handled the keyboard with skill. There were a few other angels, too, like me, but mostly we only hummed.

Mrs. Prather was the perennial director and in real life, she was a fifth grade schoolteacher accustomed to being obeyed. Every year, about halfway through the month of rehearsals, she would have a mild nervous breakdown, alternately crying and yelling, because no one was listening to her. Once she spoke sharply to a Wise Man who’d been hastily recruited to fill a bathrobe from the ranks of loitering boyfriends hanging around the Methodist Youth Fellowship. Admittedly, he was flirting when he should have been following yonder star, but he was so taken aback at being reprimanded that he vowed never to darken the door of a church again. I hope he didn’t keep that vow – I’d hate to think our Christmas pageant sent him straight to Hell.

Years later, though, whenever I found myself standing in the midst of pandemonium trying to lead people who did not want to be led (have you ever tried to build gingerbread houses with twenty Brownie Girl Scouts in a teensy room?) I would think about Mrs. Prather and carry on for her sake. I wish I’d told her when I could how much the pageants meant to me. One memory, in particular, remains vivid.

Our Shepherds were no nonsense farmers, recruited from the Adult Men’s Sunday School Class. I can only imagine how their Christian faith was tested when they were asked to don ridiculous looking bathrobes in public, wrap towels around their heads, and come to play practice every Sunday afternoon. To compound their stage misery, one year Mrs. P. surprised the Shepherds at our first rehearsal by altering their perennial silent tableau. This Christmas the Shepherds would have lines to recite, she said. Then, she instructed the Shepherds to move forward one by one and read their assigned paragraphs.

When Shepherd Number Two was called upon, he gamely stepped up. He read the first word “the” but then stopped. He looked at the floor. He cleared his throat. In an instant, I understood. Shepherd Number Two could not read, at least not well. He was one of the most honorable, pleasant men I’ve ever met, hardworking and capable, too. I’m sure that in today’s schools he would have been diagnosed with dyslexia or some other synapse glitch that made reading more difficult for him than for others. But in that awful moment, he stood mute on the altar of the church.

That’s when the good thing happened. Without a look passing between them, the other Shepherds began to read the lines for him, their tongues turned to silver, and then they seamlessly moved on to their own. The Wise Men joined in too. I’ve never heard a choral reading more deftly executed. The powerful rhythm of their conjoined voices erased all embarrassment, and we went on to have the best rehearsal we ever had. By the next Sunday, Shepherd Number Two had memorized his lines, and the incident was never spoken of.

So it came to pass that I learned the true meaning of Christmas from farmers wearing bathrobes and towels on their heads. Whenever I find myself uncertain of my performance in life, I think about those good men – unsure of themselves, too, but unafraid to look ridiculous in the trying.

©Georgia Green Stamper