The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Christmas At Papa's Place

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: December, 1988

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

Christmas at Papa's Place was a time of hope bursting out in full bloom. Whatever happened wouldn't stand in the way of celebrating Christmas. Mama's baking of sweet, spicy cakes was her first preparation for the festive season. In 1921, about the middle of December, she started worrying about eggs for the eight cakes she baked every Christmas. The hens were still laying an egg all along, but not an egg a day as each hen was expected to do, like they knew it was a season of merriment, and not much work of any kind going on. Every time a hen lighted in one of the partitioned cubicles of the long wooden box, overlooking Mama's milking stall just outside Brindle's stable, we would watch till she laid an egg. Then she would lift her dusty wings and stare at us with little beads of angry eyes, and fly back to the barnyard.

About that time Papa and the boys quit splitting wood for the fireplace and the wood-burning cook stove. After school and on Saturdays, they would go up to Grandpa's house, and sometimes to one of the community stores, and just hang out there, talking and laughing with other menfolks doing the same thing. One day, right in the middle of cakes rising puffily in the oven, the stove-wood ran out, and Mama went to the wood pile and chopped several armloads of oak sticks for the furnace of the stove, which was gauged by a damper. She called the girl children to tote what she cut to the wood-box back of the stove. "Indians' menfolks do that way," she said. "They leave all the work to the squaws."

Mama had taught us that herself, but now she didn't want her menfolks lined up with Indians, and she said, "Men are out there plowing and planting a sight longer than womenfolk are. They do all the heavy work." She meant it was light work to hoe cotton and corn, and drop corn, stepping wide-legged and measuring from the thumb and index finger three grains of seed corn in each hill, just as picking berries and gathering vegetables and summertime canning was women's work. That set me to thinking about how the squaws taught their girl-children to be squaws. They would say, "You plant the garden. Churn the milk. Get in squash for supper. Put on cornpone." Then I remembered it wasn't in our schoolbooks, except the way the book writer made it sound like the Indian girls were born knowing how to be squaws.

Mama was like the Indians, she didn't have to be told how to do anything. She could break one egg in a mixing bowl, and nobody know the difference when she set a four layer iced cake, baked from a recipe that called for six eggs, in the mahogany safe. That Christmas she had one egg for each of her cakes: Chocolate, coconut, spice, orange-peal, walnut, caramel, frosted white cake, and the pound cake she baked special for Papa. She put the cakes on the shelves of the four-legged safe - the same scalloped-topped safe that had saved her life when she was a bride, setting up housekeeping.

The day Papa's mule ran away, they were coming from Grandma Deaton's house in his spring wagon, and had reached an intersection where they would turn onto the road leading to Papa's first little farm. Mama had been raised around brothers older, and brothers younger than herself, and she had learned from them the ways of farm animals. When she saw the mule had gone wild, she said, "Don't turn! Go straight up the hill!"

But Papa knew a wild mule could run without stopping, foaming at the bit, all the way to the highway, where the hill road dead-ended. He might plunge himself, wagon and all inside the wagon, into buggies, wagons, Model T Fords, or anything in his way when he got to that turn off. He turned at the intersection, hoping the mule would come to his senses. The wagon turned over, and it threw Papa out on the ground. Mama landed under the safe, which was standing upright, making a column of itself to hold the wagon off of her. Papa rushed to cut the leather traces of the mule's harness with his pocket knife. Cutting the mule's harness from the singletree had as much to do with saving Mama's life as the safe had, but when company came to our house and sat down at the kitchen table, somebody always said, "That safe saved Mama's life," and they would stop eating and stare at the squat three-shelf, frog-looking thing in dumfounded amazement.

Out rambling in the woods one day, we came across an Indian graveyard at the top of a rugged bluff. Heavy stones had been set up to mark the graves of their dead. When we went there we would stop talking. The elders in the family knew a lot of Indian customs, handed down to them, stories not in books that had lasted more than eighty years. At Christmas time we acted out a custom that resembled one of their own. In our school reader there was the picture of an Indian chief standing in the country store, gazing at an oil lamp, "I want that," the chief said, and the owner gave it to him. If he had pointed to a gun or a cooking pot, or a barrel of apples, the storekeeper would have been obliged to give it to him. In the same way we would say, "Christmas Gift!" and if we were first to greet kinfolks or neighbors, we were supposed to receive a Christmas gift. Even on Christmas Eve, anybody might receive a gift by getting there first with "Christmas Eve Gift!"

The same custom was practiced by the colored community folks. There had been several marriages between Indians and black people - just as there had been marriages between Indians and white people - and this custom might have come to them from the Indians. That same Christmas in 1921, Papa drove his wagon toward Lott's Store. We passed a house where there was a Christmas tree; standing in front of the big window, showing the tree's colorful trimming. We didn't have a tree in our house, but we went to a Christmas tree every year at the schoolhouse. It wasn't written anywhere in the Bible that Papa and Mama knew of, saying people should bring a tree into the house at Christmas, but we knew the custom started in Germany. In one of our books we read that Prince Albert of Germany, after he married Queen Victoria of England in 1840, brought a Christmas tree from his native country, and started the custom of Christmas trees in England. The custom was passed on down to North America.

Just as we passed the Lott's tenant house on the hill, a two-horse wagon loaded with a visiting family of black kinfolks, dressed in their Sunday finery, stopped at the unpainted house, where several children played in the yard. Their mother came to the porch and shouted, Christmas Eve Gift!" Her mouth twisted with triumph, her white teeth shining, having got something on her kinfolks, even if they didn't give her a present.

That was the way it usually turned out - nothing gained for your trouble. Anyway we tried it on aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and neighbors. It was an exciting game, but not nearly as thrilling as when Papa went to town to pay Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. He waited till Christmas was right upon us before he hitched his mule to the wagon, and left the barnyard, trace chains clanking, the mule's hoofs clip-clopping on the rutted ground. The cold steady rain threatened to turn into sleet, and the wind was blowing strong, coming in from the Blue Ridge Mountains that hovered over the county seat, ten miles away. But that was where he had to go. The big jolly man in the red and white suit wouldn't come down the chimney without pay.

Mama warned him that he might come down with influenza, and die of that dreadful disease the World War I soldiers brought back from France in 1918. The winter before a truck passed our house, rattling rapidly along on the red weather-grooved road. There was a coffin in the trunk bed, and Mama stood in the doorway, grieving for another victim of influenza, a dreadful disease that was so catching that nobody would go inside a house where people were sick, and hungry and cold, if word got around they had influenza.

Now Papa was putting himself in the way of catching the "flu", which people started calling it after a while. He would be out on the road, going to town and coming back, most of the day. While he was in the foothill town, swept by mountain winds, he would first trade out what money he had, except a dime for a hot bowl of tomato soup and a nickel for a cup of coffee at a little cafe just off the square. It was where farmers and mule traders went for a bite to eat. There was a pool room in the back which drew all sorts of men. A woman passing a pool room wasn't supposed to look, just keep her head high as though she hadn't even seen the place, and the same way when she passed a barber shop.

Along about middle of the day, Mama ordered, "Get the papers picked up off the floor before Papa gets here, out in all that rain and sleet; didn't even have an umbrella to send him off with. He needs a long heavy overcoat, he's bad to have sore throat and headaches." Blue denim overalls and a matching blue jacket and a striped hickory shirt and a knitted undershirt was what farmers wore. They wore a wool hat in wintertime, (a strew hat in the summer) and socks fastened to drilling under-drawers, and high-topped leather brogans. Papa wouldn't have thought about wearing his navy blue wool serge suit he bought in 1909 when him and Mama got married. That was hung on a back room nail, covered with a sheet, kept nice for church and funerals.

We hid every scrap of paper, keeping it to use at another time. Sometimes we would fight over the backs of used envelopes and wallpaper samples we brought from school. I hid in my dress pocket something I had written, while sitting by the fire: "I sit with Naomi. Carl sits with Jay, Naomi's brother. Carl is my brother. Naomi made a valentine out of wallpaper with roses for Carl. Mine had poppies on it for Jay. Mama taught me how to spell Mississippi. Just say "Big M, i, crooked s, crooked s, i, crooked s, crooked s, i, little p, little p, i."

It was late in the day when Papa got back from town. Mama stood in the doorway and herded us back of her till he went to the barn. He walked hunkered over, loaded down with bulging paper sacks. The icy north wind blew him this way and that while he unhitched the mule and put him in the stable.

He came to the house empty-handed, except he brought peppermint candy, a stick around. He had the same look he got every Christmas after his trip to the county seat. Now it was guaranteed Santa Claus would light his sled and reindeer on our roof that night. I wondered how he could slide down our chimney, black with soot and so narrow it backed off the smoke when the wood on the firedogs was green, or wet. He would cave in the chimney, standing like a rock heap in the Indian graveyard on the bluff. Nobody thought to ask, "Well, why can't you all leave the front door unlatched? Just not turn the wooden latch, like Papa does a bedtime. Just leave the latchstring outside so Santa Claus can pull the string, like Grandpa and Grandma does and come on in, and surprise us."

After a round of questions, Papa was glad to tell us what he paid him to bring us. It had been a bad crop year and this Christmas there wasn't enough money for whistles (for the boys) and combs or tiny celluloid dolls (for the girls). In each shoebox there would be an orange, an apple, some English walnuts and Brazil nuts, and a stick of peppermint candy.

At four o'clock the next morning the boys bounded from bed, and woke everybody up, as they rushed to the fireplace. The girls got out of bed, and ran to the hearth, where a few red coals showed their red sides in the ashes. We were in our sheeting nightgowns, no time to dress till we saw what was in our boxes. The little ones ran to Papa's and Mama's bed, holding high their boxes for them to see, and they smiled and acted surprised. Papa got up and started a fire in the fireplace, and a fire in the cook stove. We dressed for breakfast, the same clothes we wore to school: Cotton print dresses over underwear made of bleached flour sacks. We put on long black corded stockings, held up with elastic garters, which Mama made just as she made all of our clothes. We then put on black high topped leather shoes that buttoned on the side. A big sister would take the buttonhook down from a nail on the wall, and sit a lesser child on her lap and button her shoes.

Mama went to the kitchen, warmed by the fire Papa had lighted in the four-cap stove. She baked biscuits and fried sausage to make up for the hens laying down on their job. She set cold boiled ham and a chicken boiled whole in the center of the table. She sliced the cakes we had pinched on when Mama wasn't looking, and she saved back the others for company. The eleven-pie stack of thin apple pies came form the safe along with the potato custards. Papa ground coffee beans in the grinder nailed to the window panel, and made a pot of coffee that outdid even the spice smells in the kitchen. Even the children would be given a cup of coffee for Christmas breakfast!

After breakfast, Papa brought in two coconuts from the barn, got when he went to the county seat. He got the claw hammer from his tool box and knocked out the eyes of the grizzly coconuts with the same force he used when he was making Mama a chicken coop. Then she poured an equal amount of coconut milk in small glasses, used in summertime for canning blackberry jelly. We saved our coconut milk, clutching our glasses with short sticky peppermint fingers, till both coconuts ran dry. Then everybody drank at the same time, no words said, just a pair of blue eyeballs staring at other pairs of blue eyeballs, amazed that South America had such a velvety smooth drink, better than Brindle's milk, better than Christmas coffee!

Hacking the coconut meat, lining the head-size nuts, brought Papa's hammer again into even more forceful use. The meat fell out, showing an inside covering like old weathered wood, which we whittled off before eating the meat. The pieces fell under the hammer's pounding into unequal portions, shaped like Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia and Florida and so on.

Christmas at Papa's Place wasn't much different from the way it was written down in St. Luke. Mary and Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem - which we guessed was about the same as our own county seat - to pay their tax, just like Papa had to do every November. He understood how Joseph would dread the tax-part, and Mama had a special feeling for Mary, a young mother with her first baby, and not too much to wrap Him in, just long swaddling clothes, and nothing like the tiny white cotton garments she stitched, and laid sway in the dresser drawer during the months of waiting till her own children were born.

All of us knew what a cattle stall looked like. We thought the Bethlehem manger looked something like the wooden trough where Papa put our corn and oats for his mule. The cattle would behave like Brindle, chewing her cud in the dark stable, and the mule standing and sometimes stamping the manure-flooring of his stable, wanting to be out in the pasture. Christmas was Bethlehem, and the Baby Jesus, and Mary and Joseph, and the stars shining over all the earth with a special Light, and brand new Hope. That was what we celebrated with feasting and gladness a whole week of days.