Of Bubble Lights, Pointy Plastic Icicles, and Ghost Stories-A Christmas Memory

If you are lucky enough to have had a “normal” childhood, I’m sure you have warm memories of Christmas, Hanukkah, or any of the other dozen or so celebrations that occur this time of the year. I’m not sure what normal means, I just know the Christmas of my childhood was wonderous. I’ve decided to list some of my memories and hope they might trigger some for you. Most are from the Fifties and Sixties before I realized Peter Pan was a myth and I was forced to grow up.

Trapsing through the fields with my father looking for the perfect wild growing cedar tree to chop down and then dragging it home. I remember asking why there were so many cedar trees growing along the fence line and being told birds eat cedar berries and sit on barbed wire fences and poop. The seed that made it through their digestive system germinates and a tree grows. Science and Christmas memories.

Bubble lights strung on a cedar tree that had to warm up before they bubbled.  I remember waiting for them to bubble with anxious anticipation and I can still hear their gurgle in my head. Later they were strung on a fake ‘metal’ Christmas tree waiting to electrocute us all.

Pointy plastic icicles hanging from a tree so sharp they could have stood in for a dagger during a home invasion and silver tinsel hung “oh so” precisely and used Christmas after Christmas…even on the silver, metal Christmas tree.

Helping, you should read, “being in the way.” Helping to hang ornaments and dropping one of my mother’s oldest and most favorite. Seeing the pain in her eyes despite assurances it was okay.

The year Santa brought a full-sized bicycle and a three-day rainstorm that kept me wondering if I would ever get to ride it. It didn’t stop me from riding it back and forth in our small living room until strong orders to do otherwise.

Strange one: Sitting in a dark closet telling ghost stories to my brother and cousins on Christmas Eve as we waited for the family festivities to begin. That may explain a great deal of adult dysfunction on their part…and mine. They always requested my renditions of Thriller’s “Pigeons from Hell.” As our family grew, so did my audience and suddenly a Christmas tradition was born.

A windup metal robot gifted by my Uncle Olin, that walked, sparked, flashed, and smoked. It also reversed when it ran into something. Not very impressive by today’s standards but innovative in 1957 and a glorious gift for a seven-year-old boy.

Billy Vaughn, Andy Williams, and Perry Como singing from the huge cabinet stereo…ad nauseum. How many versions of “Silent Night” are too many versions? Where my mother was concerned, you cannot have too many versions of “Silent Night.”

It wasn’t Christmas until I heard Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….”

My church’s Christmas play with shepherds dressed in plaid bathrobes with towels wrapped around their heads tied with bailing twine. Shepherd’s hooks wired to make the hook.

An angel dressed in cheese cloth with wings made with coat hangers for structure and wrapped in tinsel presided over a ‘Betsy Wetsy” doll standing in for Baby Jesus.

Being “promoted” from shepherd to one of the Three Kings. I used the same bathrobe but had a gold scarf wrapped around my head like a turban and carried a foil wrapped cigar box to present to the “Betsy Wetsy’ baby Jesus instead of a shepherd’s hook.

The cookies and mulled cider after the play as we sat around the Christmas tree decorated with construction paper in Sunday school, waiting for Santa to make an appearance to give every child in the church a gift. We were a small church, the gifts inexpensive, and Santa looked and sounded like my Uncle James.  Fun was had by all and appreciated.

My first “date”, an early teen Christmas affair. A “goob” the size Mt. Everest appeared in the middle of my forehead, but it didn’t matter. I was so nervous with anticipation I threw up and wasn’t allowed to go. Later I was so embarrassed I tried to hide every time I saw the young lady.

Playing my drum solo when the school choir sang “Little Drummer Boy” on the last day of school before Christmas break. I was scared to the point of nausea…a recurring theme? It was the last offering, and I had the entire Christmas concert to think about it. I survived it but have always wondered why Mary allowed the Little Drummer Boy to wake up Baby Jesus by pounding on a drum.

Loading up in cars and traveling over our rural area singing Christmas Carols to the “sick and shet in” and shedding tears because we stopped at my home to sing to my mother. “Shet” is how the minister said shut…or it was Lester “Roadhog” Moran.1

Pink coconut caused by my fathers “barked up”, bloody knuckles from grating fresh coconut for Mother’s ambrosia or coconut cake.

Going to the Belk Brothers and Woolworth in Monroe, NC with my father early on Christmas Eve. I remember the press of people and the Christmas scenes in the Belk Brothers’ windows.

The man with no legs sitting in front of Belk’s selling pencils and my father’s tears as he dropped money in the man’s tin cup.

Eating Woolworth’s warm cashew nuts as we drove home, the bags of fruit and nuts he always bought to fill our Christmas stockings lining the backseat. The aroma of tangerines still takes me to Christmas.

The Christmas Eve reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” My vision was not of “sugar plums” but included a Sgt. Sauders “Combat” Thompson machine gun or a “Rifleman” Winchester and a lifetime’s supply of caps to shoot in them.

The annual drive through the community looking at everyone’s Christmas decorations.

Photographs from Christmases past. The family, still intact, sitting around a dining table in my grandmother’s small dining room. A faded one of my grandmother standing behind my seated grandfather. A picture of my brother, little “Stevie Reno”, opening a gift and presenting it to the camera lens along with a broad smile.  

“Little” Donnie dressed like Fred Kirby, a local TV cowboy and Roy Rogers want-to-be. My cowboy hat at a jaunty angle, a western vest over my pajamas, and two silver cap pistols “tied down”, gunslinger style. “Take that Black Bart! Bam, bam, bam.”

I find as I get older my memories have become snatches of events and I hate to admit it, some of those memories are dimming. I’m sure this is a normal occurrence. I hope it is a normal occurrence. I’m writing memories for that reason.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. I hope your Christmas memories are, well, memorable.

1Lester “Roadhog” Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys’ “Alive at the Johnny Mack Brown High School” was a comedic LP by the Statler Brothers that made fun of early country music and radio. It has nothing to do with Christmas except that I was introduced to it and a comely young brunette during a Christmas break somewhere in the dimness of my past. Christmas “spirits” may have been involved and would account for the dimness.

The Old Roadhog and his Cowboys

Don Miller’s newest release is “Pig Trails and Rabbit Holes” and may be downloaded or purchased in paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Pig-Trails-Rabbit-Holes-Southerner/dp/B09GQSNYL2/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1NL4KPTB0R4EY&keywords=pig+trails+and+rabbit+holes&qid=1639579530&sprefix=pig+trails+and+rabbit+holes%2Caps%2C224&sr=8-1

Pink Coconut and a Hard Candy Christmas

The Christmas holidays are full of traditions for many, Christians, non-Christians, and those who are unsure. People of different religions and cultures raise and decorate trees, drape their homes in blinking lights, hang stockings, bake gingerbread cookies, and exchange gifts even though they aren’t Christian in their beliefs.  It is a crossover holiday celebrated all over the world by diverse cultures.  Families with diverse backgrounds gather during the holiday seasons to celebrate not only the birth of the Christian Jesus, but also themselves and their own traditions. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to traditions, I have reached an age when it is easier to look back on Christmas than look ahead.  Ahead shows a much shorter road to travel. I find myself emotional…but in a good way, I guess.

As I gathered nature’s Christmas decorations for my bride; grape vine, evergreen garlands, pinecones, birch limbs with golden leaves, and holly berries, I ‘barked’ up a finger.  I cut it and it is barking like a bit dog.  Watching the blood ooze, I was transported down an old dirt road, a pathway home to my past.

My mother was a child who failed to fall into the adult trap when it came to Christmas. Activity swirled for what seemed like weeks as she prepared for our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day family celebration. Baking was one of my mother’s chores despite working eight hour shifts at the local textile mill.

Fruitcake, fruitcake cookies, yule candy logs, Missouri “no-bake” cookies, pies, and cakes galore, and her very favorite, ambrosia, a dish loaded with pineapple, canned mandarin orange slices or fresh orange sections, miniature marshmallows, and coconut…fresh coconut.

In the days before shredded coconut could be purchased at your local supermarket, it was my father’s responsibility to break open and shred the coconut Momma would use for her ambrosia and coconut cake. He would use a small ball peen hammer to punch a hole in one of the coconut’s eyes so the milk could be drained. The milk would be used in the coconut cake to insure its moistness. 

A larger hammer would break the coconut open, and a sharp knife would separate the meat from the husk. If my father were not bleeding by this time he soon would be as his knuckles contacted the hand grater. My Christmas memories always include pink shredded coconut and I smile with the memory.  I am not a lover of coconut but will eat one coconut containing dessert in memory of him. Hopefully, if it is pink, it is due to a maraschino cherry.

As the blood on my finger finally coagulates, I continued to be triggered.  Memories of my mother stringing bubble lights over the tree.  Old timey bubble lights that had to warm up before they began to gurgle.  Billy Vaughn’s saxophones or Percy Faith’s singers are playing in the background.  She hums as someone sings “Oh Little Town in Bethlehem” on the radio.

Watching a fuzzy, black, and white TV’s many Christmas specials. There were many but Perry Como and Andy Williams were mandatory. A Christmas Carol and What a Wonderful Life were too. It was a wonderful life….

Hand-made patchwork quilt stockings made by my grandmother, Nannie, adorn the fireplace.  They will eventually be filled with oranges, apples, and nuts…and peppermint swirls.  Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” is now playing in my head.  I am a bit sad, but I am hopeful too…just like the song.

Christmas is a celebration loaded with emotion and I feel mine ramping out of control despite it being several days in the future. 

Chills chase themselves up my back as I am reminded of a trip to nearby Monroe on a Christmas Eve morning.  It is only my father and me.  I remember the crush of people.  A small town of sixty or so years ago, its entire population must have crowded onto the main street.  People scurry to do last-minute shopping, dressed in Christmas finery.

The red and green lights strung from light poles. Being lifted into my father’s arms to see more clearly the Christmas scenes in the original Belk Brothers store window. The man with no legs who sat nearby, a tin cup full of pencils and a small American flag sitting in front of his splayed stumps. The tears in my father’s eyes as he put a five-dollar bill in the tin cup and offered a salute.  Things you remember that bring tears to your own eyes.

Finally, a short stop at Woolworths and a small bag of warm salted cashews for the trip home from their nut and candy counter.  The cashews were a secret we shared. I can almost taste them….

Something has triggered a memory of splitting wood on a Christmas Eve morning and delivering it with my cousin…a cousin who has now transitioned to his heavenly rewards. It is because I am standing in a corpse of hemlocks with the sharp aroma of evergreens.

We delivered our pickup load to an old former plantation house, the old Nesbitt place, a bit rundown at the time but decorated with greens and reds with candles twinkling in every window. The lady of the house took us on an impromptu tour of the downstairs, decorated for the Christmas season, a tree in every room.

Later, I remember sitting in his pickup after unloading the wood, drinking a PBR, counting half of the money and thinking how adult I was. Adultism is a disease to be avoided at all costs…especially at Christmastime. Now instead of the money, or beer, I think of him and the old plantation home. I think of Christmas trees, their star tipped tops pressing near ceilings in every room.

We gather now at my daughters.  A new generation, a new tradition.  It is one I’m not comfortable with. Ten of us will gather this year, Covid-19 protocols will be observed but so will the wonder of a four-year-old and a seven-year-old as they open their gifts from their Popi and Grandmommy and uncle and aunt.   It will be different, and I hope face coverings are not to become a tradition like the pink coconut became.

Whatever your culture, however you celebrate the holidays, I wish you a Happy Holiday and a Merry Christmas.  I hope your Christmas Season will be loaded with wonderful memories as will the coming year…memories of Christmas past and of Christmas future. Take the time to enjoy your Christmas present while you enjoy Dolly and the ladies from the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

From the movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”

Don Miller writes on various subjects “that bother him so.” https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0iqIBEnIxXiIoowO7bX6UV-1RY03y2ts7HHF-RYE46dSMt-hvZ_5AsCHs