Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Nostalgia on Christmas Eve

It's hard for my grandkids and even my kids to understand the Christmases before technology grew so insidious. But back home in Tennessee, Christmas almost always went down the same way for my younger brother and me. Seems only fitting to share those Tennessee traditions with those who've never had to experience them. 

Christmas Eve was an important day in our house. For one thing, my parents owned a farm store and that store was always open on Christmas Eve. Hand in hand with that, though, came the party. The Christmas party began when my mother, who was born in France and chock full of those traditions, decided to have some food as a thank you to our customers. Her father, a chef, had owned a restaurant before the Nazis killed him on their way out of occupied Paris, and he'd always celebrated Christmas Eve the same way in predominantly Catholic France. He put on an all-day party in his cafe, displaying his skills as a chef in gratitude for the people who patronized his business. During the years of occupation, he used that party--and the Nazis who attended it--as a way to smuggle both food and information to the French Underground, feeding hundreds of people who were desperately fighting against the Germans or fleeing them. 

In Tennessee, of course, we weren't fighting anyone. But starting in the late 1970s, the farming communities in the northwestern part of central Tennessee and southern Kentucky were struggling to survive under worsening economic conditions. So my mom came up with the idea of having some food available on the half-day we worked on Christmas Eve. She and I spent the night before baking and cooking. The spread we put out was unexpected--pate' and French salads, slow roasted prime rib and hams for sandwiches, crusty French breads, eclairs and croissants and creme du caramel and a sheet cake for those less adventurous in their dessert choices. And after that first year, the party blew up beyond our expectations. The spread got bigger every year. So did the crowd. Instead of taking one night to get everything ready, my mom and I would work for a week. Some of the farmers from the near-by Mennonite community would bring ducks or geese in the days before the party, and hundreds of people would show up every year. They'd talk about the party all year long too. There's a large number of farming families around Clarksville for whom chicken liver pate' is now an annual homemade tradition, because my mom was generous with the recipe. And even now, after my parents were divorced and ten years after my mom passed away, today in Clarksville, my dad threw his fortieth Christmas Eve party for his customers--a tradition for our family as well as theirs. 

But unlike every other day of the year, Christmas Eve we closed the store early. It'd be three o'clock by the time we got home after cleaning away the remains of the feast. Night would already have fallen as we drove from our house in St. Bethlehem to my grandmother's house in Oakwood. Highway 79 was two lanes from the bridge over the Red River all the way to Land Between the Lakes. Oakwood was the last bump in the road before you could leave Montgomery County for Stewart County. 

My grandparents lived in a modest ranch house on the family farm, a mile away from the small convenience store my grandfather had owned. My dad had eight brothers and sisters, six of whom lived in the area. On Christmas Eve, my grandparents' house was stuffed to the gills with Harrisons. All my aunts and uncles, all my cousins, and as I grew older all my cousins' spouses and kids crowded into the house. There were so many of us that we only got token gifts. But we weren't there to get presents. We were there to give presents to our grandparents, who'd slaved as small tobacco farmers during the Depression, who'd moved to the steel mills in Gary, Indiana during the war years, who'd come back and started over on the tobacco farm after that. In my dad's words, they were "poor as snakes" when he was growing up--no money to educate their kids beyond their high school graduations. But all of my aunts and uncles grew into successful, affluent adults and they loved to give back to their parents. 

As a little kid, of course, this felt like a punishment. Watching old people open presents on Christmas Eve? Man, give me Santa Claus instead! But as I grew older, those two hours in my grandparents' house every Christmas Eve gave me the deepest sense of family, of roots and ties and obligations to the grand old family whose name I bore. Even after I got married, I continued the Christmas Eve trip to Grandma's house and took my own kids who were the hit of the evening from their first Christmas on. 

But then, we'd drive back home. 

The world is still dark in that part of Tennessee at night. The rural area of western Montgomery County wasn't broken up by anything other than Christmas lights and the headlights of oncoming cars. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car, watching each new decorated house come up and pass by. The radio was always on the same local station that played the same pre-recorded Christmas special every year for decades. I could recite the stories they told and knew which song was next. And while the frosty night made the December lawns glistened like sugar and there was rarely any snow, the quiet winter's peace of Christmas Eve would enter my soul. When we got home, only Midnight Mass was left to do, when my mother and I would go to the tiny old cathedral and worship in the oldest Catholic chapel west of the Appalachians. The candlelit service made the old church even more beautiful than it already was, and Father Bob's Irish-accented Massachusetts voice which always sounded so incongruous in Tennessee became an integral part of my Christmas experience, enough so that even now I don't feel like the priest is doing Mass right if he doesn't have that peculiar blend of heritages infusing the beauty of the loveliest service of the year with that resonant tone. 

In my family, Christmas Eve was the real holiday. Christmas Day, once my brother was old enough to have outgrown Santa, was a day to sleep late, a day where eating leftover sheet cake for breakfast was an acceptable meal (none of the French dishes ever had leftovers), a day where my parents actually got to rest from the rigors of running a business six days a week, a day where a girl who was more interested in books than clothes got to stay in her room and dream. 

Now my family is scattered, my mom is gone and my dad is still plugging along, running his store at 81 much the same way he did at 41. My brother and I both are grandparents, and our kids live apart from us and juggle the traditions of their spouses' families with their own. My husband and I this year are spending Christmas with his parents, which we're devoutly grateful to do after the scare we had with my mother-in-law's health just a few weeks ago.  But as I sit here on this Christmas Eve, I remember the quiet beauty of those long-ago nights where I sat with my face against the car window in the back seat watching as the glow of decorated houses first grew then slipped away out of sight. I can see the clarity with which the stars sparkled overhead, and while listening to "What Child is This?" or Bing and Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy" on the radio, wondering which star was THE star. 

I'm not a nostalgic person for the most part. But some part of me will always be nostalgic for the Christmas Eves of my youths, when my mother shared her French heritage with a group of men who looked forward to her annual gift to them every year, and my father changed from the gruff disciplinarian of the rest of the year into a man both proud and fond of his kids as we all moved through the unspoken schedule of our holiday that reaffirmed our heritage as part of an old, large Tennessee family. All the hurts and anger drains away, and for this one night I think of my family and what makes them such an overwhelming influence over who I am today. Both French and Tennesseean, country-bred and city savvy, dreaming away a Christmas Eve while reality clustered cold and dark and yet somehow gilded on the other side of a frosty window.

Merry Christmas...and Joyeux Noel.