The gifts of Christmas are rarely under the lopsided tree

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 24, 2011 

What an unexpected Christmas miracle: At my advanced age, I can remember everything about Christmas through the years -- except the gifts.

The thing we fuss about the most is like background noise when I think of my father's love for Handel's "Messiah" and how we heard the recording by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir so many times we could sit straight up in our dreams of sugar plums and shout, "Wonderful! Counselor! The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

What better gift than to stand in the kitchen on Christmas Eve with family, neighbors and friends and pop singles from the Bluffton Oyster Co. in the microwave and slurp down pure Lowcountry on the half shell?

Sweet pecans picked from the old Georgia home place and run through the marvel of Reed's Rocket Nut Cracker, toasted a minute in butter and a dash of salt, or cayenne pepper if you're kinky. Now that's a gift.

So is a slice of rowdy country ham in a hot buttermilk biscuit with a dab of Hampton County cane syrup, washed down with Starbucks coffee.

Specialties parade like toy soldiers from the kitchen on Christmas, served on inherited china, crystal and silver sparkling in the candlelight.

Grandmother would always serve ambrosia on Christmas, and watching Granddaddy open the coconut was better than a Broadway play. And he would braise the quail he brought home from the fields with the help of his half-breed bird dog that ate leftover grits mixed with Jim Dandy dog ration every day of its excited life. Grandmother wouldn't serve the delicacy of quail to just anyone. If you weren't going to eat down to its tiny bones with your gravy-slick fingers, you had to go straight to the turkey and giblet gravy.

For Christmas, we moved into her dining room, a place we rarely went. It was always cold in there because it wasn't near either of the wood stoves that hissed and popped and left us with a gift that still lives -- a woodsy, smoky aroma as comforting as a heavy quilt.

Mama made potato yeast rolls for Christmas, and she'd put pineapple juice in the ice tea for the special occasion.

Our crooked, wobbly, sometimes anemic, sometimes lopsided Christmas trees were decorated with some antiques, some things we made as children, some things we "recycled" from neighborhood trees tossed to the curb the year before and some newfangled things like lights that flashed. I liked to lie on the sofa late at night, turn off all the other lights and squint at the tree to give it a dazzling special effect. That's easier now. All I have to do is take off my glasses.

As children, we had a contest to see who could count the most Christmas trees when our family drove from Georgia to Virginia, or Virginia to Georgia, to spend the holidays with family. That was when U.S. 29 was called the "Main Street of the South" because it took us through every town, with neon pigs dancing with the angels above barbecue pits and truck stops advertising "Grade A eats." America was falling in love with the brick ranch house and the status symbol of a picture window on the front -- a real gift to the Christmas tree contest.

One year we were on the road on Christmas Eve and stopped for evening worship at a baptist church on a hilltop where, no lie, a live donkey came down the aisle with the children in bathrobes and wings of coat hangers. The folks there treated us strangers as if we were wise men, loading us down with oranges and hard candy for our ride into the holy night.

At a different country church during our childhood, a Sunday school teacher shared insight into "gold, Frankenstein and meer." Another year, a man read to us the Christmas story, about a place called "Edge-why-puh-tee." That would be Egypt.

Merry Christmas.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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