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Favorite Christmas Memory

Dan Dodge
Lighting Christmas Candles

The smells of spruce and bayberry, the sounds of logs crackling in the fireplace, the sight of an antique nativity set filled with well-worn figurines and the taste of decorated sugar cookies trigger my memory of Christmas 1947 when our family gathered together for the first time since the United States entered World War II. The reunion took place at my grandparents’ farm, described by my grandfather, a veteran of World War I, as “an oasis of sanity in a world gone mad.”

Festivities began officially with the quest to find and retrieve the perfect tannenbaum. My grandfather, father and I drove through the woods in my father’s war surplus Willys Jeep to a clearing where my grandparents had planted Fraser fir seedlings now over eight-feet tall. The tree was selected, cut and tied down on the Jeep’s roof. We returned to the house, where teams of relatives were draping garlands of Virginia creeper and sprigs of sumac heavy with clusters of red berries around stair railings and above the fireplace mantle. The tree was carried inside where its fragrance permeated the house, mixing with the aromas of molasses and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen. It was mounted firmly in an 85-pound wrought iron tree stand manufactured in an 1820 Atlanta foundry. Christmas lights were unfurled from rolls of last year’s newspapers and tested, ornaments were unboxed and the white silk angel tree topper that belonged to my great grandparents was readied. Now the tree trimming could commence.

Christmas Eve arrived and we spent the morning helping my grandmother “test” various cookie recipes. The traditional afternoon football game was decided by a last minute touchdown catch made by my Uncle Harry who’d lost his left leg in Sicily. That evening, the adults drove to Midnight Mass and my Aunt Gladys, who’d served overseas in the Army Nurse Corps, read The Night Before Christmas to the younger children who remained at the house. After a restless night, I was awakened by Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song on the radio and my cousins’ shouts.  The magic day of December 25th finally arrived.

The usually tidy living room floor was converted to a construction site for Lincoln Log neighborhoods and Erector set bridges scattered among piles of discarded ribbon and wrapping paper; ugly sweaters and terrible ties were stuffed under the tree’s lower branches out of sight. The radio stations played Christmas music without interruption. Later in the day, the kitchen was declared off-limits to “unauthorized personnel” by my grandmother after my Chesapeake Bay retrievers made off with the carcass of our Christmas goose and one of Aunt Ellen’s famous walnut-encrusted cheese balls. The cooking ended in the early afternoon and folks changed into their Christmas dinner finery. Then the punch bowl was filled with a 3:1 ratio of thick, yellow eggnog and bourbon with a dusting of nutmeg, and the crystal cups were charged. Many of those present released the emotions they’d locked away during the terrible times of World War II, and now they celebrated life and toasted the future. My grandmother sat at the piano surrounded by family members, my grandfather grabbed his fiddle and the caroling commenced. The concert ended when the punch bowl ran dry and the platters of roasted turkey, baked ham and suckling pig arrived on the dining table. Side dishes and desserts were the next arrivals, and gallons of coffee finished the day.

A few years later, during the last extended family gathering, my grandfather surprised us with a private showing of Frank Capra’s Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Today, it may be time for Clarence and the better angels of our nature to visit us again and reinforce those values Capra laid out for us; empathy, honor and truth. Merry Christmas to all!

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About the Contributor
David Hume III
David Hume III, Contributing Writer
David Hume is a contributing writer for Cape Fear Voices