Early in December, I knew the Christmas holidays were drawing near, as events started happening in our rural West Tennessee community. Even as a 6-year-old, I felt the surge of excitement taking place among our parents and relatives. Probably the first hint was the Christmas catalog that arrived from Sears, Roebuck & Company. Page after page of wonderful toys invaded my mind, causing me to dream visions of ownership.
Another event occurred about mid-December. On his way home from work, my father made an unscheduled stop at the A&P Grocery to purchase the traditional fruitcake. We considered this a luxury, as food was prepared from scratch and consisted of home-canned fruits and vegetables from our garden. But this was Christmas, and he splurged – even choosing the one with extra fruit and nuts. Sliced thinly, it lasted until the 25th.
Like many country homes, the kitchen was the only room heated during cold winter days. Being a large space, the table served as a meeting place, not only for meals, which we ate together three times a day, but also for homework or needle craft. During these times, my parents often related family stories passed down from generation to generation. One story I begged for again and again was of my grandfather, Thomas McKnight, hitching up his buggy and a pair of matching black horses, and driving the five miles to the Forked Deer River to purchase a barrel of oysters for Christmas. During the early 1900s, the river was wide enough to accommodate flat boats that made the journey up from New Orleans to Jackson, Tenn. In keeping with tradition, our family continues to serve oyster casserole for Christmas morning breakfast.
Due to the holiday produce, my Aunt Angie’s country store took on a special fragrance. Closing my eyes, I can still recall the citrus aroma of Florida oranges separated with purple tissue and nestled in wooden boxes. Red Delicious apples competed with clusters of dried raisins still attached to the vines. Nearby, chocolate drops smelled of coconut and vanilla, and striped stick candy in flavors of peppermint stood like soldiers at attention.
For some reason, my mother decided to purchase Santa Claus from the Sears Roebuck catalog that year – probably because I circled it for my wish list in the Christmas issue. Ordering before, there was never any problem with merchandise arriving on time. But she began to worry when no package arrived at our community post office by Dec. 22 or 23 … or even Christmas Eve. Relying on her own method of child psychology, she wrote a letter from Santa that said, “I have so many good little girls and boys, I’m going to be a few days late coming to your house.” And as Santa promised, our gifts arrived a few days later. I think the letter was as important as the gifts. Mother always knew how to right a wrong.
In addition to the Christmas break, two feet of snow fell in late December. For 10 days, school buses couldn’t travel the back county gravel roads, so children had an extended vacation. Wrapped in heavy clothing with plastic bags tied around our shoes to keep some of the moisture out, my friends and I played in the snow until our cheeks looked as red as St. Nick’s suit, and our toes felt like wooden pegs. Falling backward in the white drifts, snow angels appeared by waving arms and legs. Breaking giant icicles off the roof’s edge and holding with folded paper towels, we created nature’s winter popsicles. Cups of steaming hot chocolate waited as we peeled off wet clothes and shoes. Later, on that same kitchen table, cards games such as Authors and Monopoly as well as 500-piece puzzles provided entertainment.
Thinking back to my childhood and growing up in a small rural West Tennessee community, I learned lessons of creativity and making-do with what you have – traits that continue for a lifetime.