Christmas Favorites

-- From Georgia
Per my daughter Georgeann’s request, I am posting a few (of many) Christmas columns I’ve written over the years for a discussion group she is leading. Perhaps these re-runs also will resonate with other readers who drop by this site during the holidays. Know that I share these stories with all good wishes to you and yours for the season and the year ahead.

  • “Shepherds in Bathrobes” is one of my favorite pieces because it walks the thin line between laughter and tears. A little bit funny, and a little bit sad, it’s one of the essays I read most frequently when I speak to groups. First published in my newspaper column, it has been re-printed in Kentucky Monthly Magazine; in my first book You Can Go Anywhere; and in Kentucky’s Twelve Days of Christmas: A Literary Anthology ed James B. Goode. I also have read “Shepherds in Bathrobes” on NPR member station WUKY.
  • “Santa Claus” is included here because it’s one of Georgeann’s favorites. First published in my column, it’s included in my second book, Butter in the Morning.
  • “A Tobacco Kind of Christmas” is quite different from the first two essays. While readers who are familiar with the interconnected history of Lexington and its tobacco markets may best receive this piece, I think it is one of the more important essays I have written. It was first published in this version in Butter in the Morning.
  • “Christmas Eve,” first published in my newspaper column and later read on NPR member station WUKY, became the final chapter of Butter in the Morning. It was a difficult story to write. Even now, I have trouble reading it without tears. Maybe it’s too sentimental. I don’t know. It’s what happened.

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

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 to say good-bye. The old man acknowledged my leaving with only the slightest nod of his head.

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 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.

©Georgia Green Stamper

A Tobacco Kind of Christmas

For a hundred years, maybe two hundred, my Owen County family relied on growing tobacco for their economic health. Of course, they did not know how unhealthy smoking was for their bodies, but even understanding that as I do now, I am stunned that within a handful of years, six-bent barns have come to stand empty. Fertile fields lie fallow. And the mammoth tobacco auction warehouses that once dominated towns like Carrollton, Cynthiana, and Lexington have become, like dinosaurs, extinct overnight.

My childhood memories of Christmastime intertwine with the tobacco market like conjoined twins, making it is difficult for me to separate one from the other. The Sears Wish Catalog would arrive the week after Thanksgiving, and I would sit, then, in a corner of the stripping room with its colored pictures spread on my lap while my parents worked twelve-hour days to make my wishes come true. Preparing the tobacco for market was next to the final step in an economic process that had begun in the early spring.

The final step, of course, was selling the tobacco. My family usually opted to take our crop to Lexington, which claimed to be the largest burley tobacco market in the world. I have no reason to think the Chamber of Commerce was exaggerating. All over town, gigantic auction warehouses came right up to the edge of busy thoroughfares like South Broadway and Fourth Street, a visual statement of the enormous economic impact tobacco held for Lexington businessmen as well as the region’s farmers.

Now, the old warehouses have been torn down or gentrified into loft apartments. Tobacco has become a villain, and few mourn the demise of the auction and government price support system that sustained it. The tobacco warehouses and auctions linger only in footnotes -- like flatboats on the Kentucky River – and in the memories of farm kids like me.

The burley tobacco market (not to be confused with North Carolina’s flue-cured market) opened in early December on a date calculated to be the coldest of the year. The cavernous buildings were walled with cheap sheets of tin that did little more than infuriate the wind, and a damp chill oozed up through the concrete floors until feet went numb and the roots of the hair on the head froze stiff.

Despite the frigid temperatures, excitement electrified us when we heard the auctioneer’s rapid-fire chant echo off the high rafters. He moved up and down the mile-long aisles stacked with dry, brown tobacco, pausing only a few moments at each person’s crop. We held our breath when he finally came to our baskets – which were not exactly baskets but woven pallets that cupped shoulder-high hills of crisp tobacco “hands,” small bundles of leaves neatly tied together. A year’s work hung in the balance of a single minute. Our hearts beat so loud we couldn’t be sure of the agreed on price as the auctioneer, speaking in his rapid, near-foreign language moved on to sell another family’s sweat and tears to the highest bidder.

Only then could we rush forward to see the sale price the buyer had written on the tag.

Only then could we leave the rank smelling place.

The odor of the dried tobacco leaves was so intense in those warehouses that it cannot be described in olfactory terms. It was something more than smell, a strident presence that seemed to take on three-dimensional shape like a beam holding up the roof. Or it could have been a living thing, an aggressive virus that invaded our nostrils, settling deep into our lungs. We ran from it as we left the warehouse, and drank in the crisp outdoors to purge ourselves, as thirsty for clean cold air as we had been for ice water in the August fields.

Euphoria welled within us as we drove downtown where the fine stores lined up along Main Street. We would spend freely for one time during the year, on Christmas gifts and small luxuries, a new electric Mixmaster for my mother, or maybe a transistor radio for me. We would eat at Walgreen’s Drugstore – the “all you can eat” fried fish in a basket was always my choice—or at Purcell’s Department Store’s more genteel cafeteria with its fancy fruit salads and fluffy desserts.

Years later I would learn that the Woolworth’s I thought was so wonderful really was wonderful, a magnificent example of art deco architecture. Ditto for the Kentucky and Ben Ali movie theaters. I would learn that the Phoenix Hotel with its canopy that stretched from door to street, its uniformed doormen, and its thick-carpeted lobby was a pretty good version of a first class hotel anywhere. Lowenthal’s fur-filled windows and Embry’s vestibule heavy with the scent of an expensive perfume were as hoity-toity as shops I’d later see in much larger cities in other parts of the world.

But the burley warehouses that dominated the city’s streetscape were unique to Kentucky, even as the tobacco fields that defined the countryside were unique. Drafty temples of commerce, the warehouses anchored an economic system that was nigh-on a religion, sustaining a tribe of people and the land they loved.

Now Lexington’s old warehouses are gone, and the fields on our Owen County farm have not grown tobacco for close to a decade. Little girls don’t sit and dream with the Sears Wish Book on their lap watching their parents prepare the crop for the December market. A tobacco kind of Christmas lingers only in the memories of people like me.

©Georgia Green Stamper

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.

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.

One thing confused Mother. “I see a wedding going on out in the hallway, but I know that can’t be happening here tonight,” she said. A month later, our thirty-something daughter Shan met the man she would marry within a year’s time. Perhaps it was only a morphine mirage Mother saw in the hospital corridor, but Shan, who was with us that night, does not believe it was.

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.

©Georgia Green Stamper