by Fred Pruitt
One way to look at my life, is through the stream of Christmases flowing through my memories. It makes a good anchor point for so many of the other things of family – immediate family and parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, (and then later all their spouses) – that all seemed to find their coalescence always still as “family” at Christmas, even in the midst of all sorts of other things that year by year stretched and tried every fiber of each and every one’s individual family bungee cord, but, miraculously, most never broke. Though there were hurts and fusses and times when some folks took timeouts from each other. Family isn’t for sissies.
Lest I paint too bleak a picture – that is not really where I want to go – I grew up in a time of pure wonder, when Christmas was a national pastime in a much different spirit from how it is now. I didn’t yet know the stuff of life that would insinuate into our Christmases yet to come. Then, I just loved the Christmas trees, the lights and the icicles, angels and carolers, Santa, too, and always couldn’t wait to see the Christmas decorations lit up after Thanksgiving on Broad Street in downtown Rome. We would always drive to see it the first night they turned it on. As I would learn when I lived in different cities later, every city or town had a neighborhood where the residents went all out in Christmas decorations, even having contests (in a much less ostentatious way than Chevy Chase!). Ours was the Garden Lakes neighborhood, and we drove out every year to see everyone’s decorations. It would be almost like a carnival – the streets would be filled with traffic from people coming from all over town.
Nothing to me was more wondrous than our Christmas tree, especially when the presents were abundantly laid under and around it. Yes, there were the presents, but it was so much more than that, even though at the time I’m sure I was pretty expectant. I just loved the wonder of the whole thing, the hustle bustle, Christmas music, everybody out shopping in cold weather gear, freezing cold, red cheeks, taking their packages to the car.
One of my earliest memories was sitting on my dad’s shoulders for the annual lighting of the Great Tree at Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. It was freezing cold, and we waited forever, but I remember when it lit. I was still being held most of the time then. That was Atlanta’s version of the Rockefeller Center Tree and it was a big deal.
Like millions of American households in the 1950s, the Bing Crosby Christmas album was the staple of Christmas music. Bing’s head with a Santa hat on the cover – the best stuff still! I listened to it a million times. My parents had a monaural record player, sort of a box with a lid that lifted, and the spindle and turntable within. I could work it from a young age. I can still sing along with a lot of it, especially the jazzy Andrews Sisters stuff!
“Silent Night”, recorded March 19, 1947 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers.
“Adeste Fideles”, recorded June 8, 1942 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and Max Terr’s Mixed Chorus.
“White Christmas”, recorded March 19, 1947 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, recorded June 8, 1942 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and Max Terr’s Mixed Chorus.
“Faith of Our Fathers”, recorded June 8, 1942 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and Max Terr’s Mixed Chorus.
“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, recorded October 1, 1943 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra.
“Jingle Bells”, recorded September 29, 1943 with the Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen and His Orchestra.
“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”, recorded September 29, 1943 with the Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen and His Orchestra.
“Silver Bells”, recorded September 8, 1950 with Carole Richards and John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra.
“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”, recorded October 1, 1951 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires.
“Christmas in Killarney”, recorded October 1, 1951 with John Scott Trotter and His Orchestra and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires.
“Mele Kalikimaka”, recorded September 7, 1950 with the Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen and His Orchestra.
But it wasn’t just that. (I don’t do this much – look back, get nostalgic. I see no future in doing too much of that. I cry too easily these days and sometimes it’s just too distracting. Got other stuff to put my mind on. But a little bit now and then doesn’t hurt. We are human after all.) I’m certain this can be said of any time period, but it is nigh on to impossible for someone born into the emerging techno-digital world of the 21st Century to understand how it was then. The 1950s were the end of an historic period for the US and the whole world. Much, very much, had changed since the turn of the 20th Century in the South, but much, very much, yet remained of the old ways and the old thinking – thinking that extended back to pioneer days and through to even more ancient roots as well.
When I was a little boy, born the first year of the second half of the 20th Century, it was not unusual to be going very slow down Broad Street in our car, following a man driving a mule wagon. Pretty much all the Civil War veterans had died, but their children had not. The Civil War of the 1860s was still very much in the collective memory of my people in the 1950s. Until the 1970s almost all northerners were called “Yankees.”
“Who’s that?” someone might ask.
“Oh, they’re Yankees,” might be the reply. (No further explanation was necessary.) It might be who I’m hanging out with, but I haven’t heard “Yankees” used like that in decades. At least in my hearing, it seems to have fallen into disuse. Now I am free to wear my NY Yankees hat without derision, which I probably do less because I like the Yankees, but perhaps more for the consternation of my beloved southern brothers!
Most people in those days went to church. (I didn’t know about Jewish people then.) Most mothers stayed home and cooked, cleaned, washed and ironed. Most fathers went to work. (We weren’t allowed to talk about the ones who didn’t.) Television was just cranking up and I am of the first generation of young folks, no doubt still diaper-clad, who were “sat” in front of the new boy in town – Television! My first teachers were Miss Francis Romper Room (I think), Captain Kangaroo, and Howdy Doody. American History and Science and all-around good values came from Walt Disney. I owe a lot to Jiminy Crickett, who taught me the General Theory of Relativity and Light, E=mc2, and I had a Davy Crockett Coonskin Hat, and a faux buckskin jacket. I loved anything that had to do with the pioneers, or those who went west. We wanted to be those guys. (I found out later, as an adult, that even though camping is fun, I learned, through experience, why people eventually gave it up for permanent houses with central heat and air, and why supermarkets are a tremendous time-saver over hunting, fishing, planting and harvesting crops, or hunter-gathering, whatever one’s taste may be. And that the fire of a charcoal, wood, or even some gas grills, can serve the purpose quite well without a necessity to return to our primal, beginnings shivering around a campfire in the bush.)
And television gave us Christmas like no other generation had ever had it! One may think I am getting ready to rant about the evils of television, but actually I believe I am doing the opposite! What a vehicle for this wonderful, joyous, family-oriented, (and also profitable) thing called Christmas!
Ozzie and Harriet – one Christmas episode stand out to me in an almost sacramental way. All of them, Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky, are all abuzz and hustle-bustling, doing Christmas stuff like a happy house on fire. Harriet was out shopping, coming home at the end of the day with dozens of wrapped boxes. Ozzie, David and Ricky were trying to put up Christmas decorations and lights on the house. There’s mishaps, pitfalls, things that don’t work out, maybe a misunderstanding or two, but in the end they’re together, opening presents, having Christmas dinner, singing carols and smiling and loving one another, as we all know families should, or we wish they would.
That is made out by some these days to be a false or fairy-tale view of real families, and probably to some extent I’m certain it was. But at the same time, that was reality TV for the 1950s. And at least for some, it was not that far off. Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky pretty much had sort of an amalgam of much of what America’s true “ideal” values were for that time. They were for each other, bottom line. They were a family.
(Contrast that with today’s “reality tv,” where the contestants are basically the opposites of Ozzie and Harriet, almost making the current American “ideal value,” to beat out the competition by whatever means possible and/or lawful. The goal being to overcome and dominate others, rather than work with others for a common good, such as a “family” might do.)
All my life I’ve seen signs that say, “Put Christ back in Christmas,” and, “Remember the true meaning of Christmas,” etc. As soon as I became of an understanding age, I’ve known about and been reminded ad nauseam about the “commercialism” of Christmas.
But what I remember more, from a young age, was the other aspect of television at Christmas time. The Christmas story. The story of the birth of Jesus.
I don’t know how many years I watched Perry Como’s Christmas special. My mom and dad loved Perry Como, so we watched his show most every week. (Most evening shows we all watched together. Had to, only one television until I was in high school!)
But his Christmas show was special every year, and it went the same way every year, maybe having more and more glitz as the 50s lumbered slowly into the 60s, but still the same.
There would be the same set – the hillsides around Bethlehem – the Star of Bethlehem shining above – the nativity scene – the shepherds in the fields – all from the Gospel according to St. Luke, Chapter 2, verses 1-20.
Perry, off to the side, in his soft, gentle way read these most precious words every time, and I listened intently every time he read them:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.”
That is what I heard, over and over and over, every Christmas while Perry was on until I grew up. I heard it on Television.
Traditions were being formed in the 50s with my family and our Christmas get-togethers. My mother’s sister, Aunt Billie, and her family, lived in Orlando when I was very young, but they moved to Savannah by the time I was around 6. I’m pretty sure they came up from Florida to our grandmother’s house in Rome that year, 1957, the year year my sister, Cathy, was born. It’s the first Christmas I remember with my cousins, Cliff, Lauren and Russell. I was the youngest, 3 years under Russell. I didn’t stand a chance.
After that, it was hit and miss for a few years but by the end of the 60s it was a given. We all got together, when possible (Janis & I spent years in California when we couldn’t make it, and then one or two or three “mad” years when we wouldn’t go because of something someone said etc.), and by the 80s after a couple of upheavals and divorces and remarriages there were new spouses and new siblings and we all even rolled with that, until the last Christmas when all the “old people” (the people in my family who I have now become) were still here, in 2003. Boompa John departed in 2004, and in 2005 both my mother and Aunt Billie also passed into God’s glory. It had really been them and their planning that made it all happen over all those years. It was a good 40 plus well-lived and hard-lived years, all those Christmases. I can look at the pictures today and see how they marked the time. Hair styles. Furniture it the background. People not remembered in years. Some of them were sad years … but, and this is really important, they were resting on a bed of joy known in hope, but yet unfelt, and at the moment, of those of us left now, none of us has taken up the torch since 2005 to renew our 40-years family tradition. My generation, in my family, among my immediate family and my cousins, has been nomadic, some more than others, compared to my parents’ generation. The roots are still there, but they lie in a deeper place, as the branches go this way and that.
That’s ok. Traditions change. Each generation finds its own. Life goes on, and it is always toward more life.
Stuff is what you make of it. The other day on Facebook I saw someone post that he had proof (where do you get “proof” for something like this?) that Santa Claus was actually really the Norse god, Odin.
If I actually posted a lot of the replies I think about posting, I’m not sure if people would think I’m a very nice guy. When I read that post, I wanted to comment, “So who cares?” But I don’t like people quipping me, so I went on to other pastures.
I don’t really care that the Roman church used an already functioning holiday of gift giving, Saturnalia, which probably included a bit of debauchery I imagine, to make it into Christmas, i.e., “Christ’s Mass,” meaning the day they set aside specially to honor through a holy communion, the Eucharist, the birth of Christ. Did it make the pagan holiday Christian, or the Christian holiday pagan? You choose for you! “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. (Titus 1:15).
I learned many years ago, also while still a child, that December 25th is not Jesus’ actual birthday. Since we didn’t know for sure when it was, I’m glad we picked one to celebrate His birth!!! And what better time to celebrate the birth of the Son of God into a world of darkness, than right around the winter solstice, when the light in the northern hemisphere is at its least, and everything seems to be tending toward death in the encroaching cold? The death of winter brings on the resurrection of spring!
Christmas, probably more than anything else, has taken the name of Jesus Christ around the world from culture to culture to culture. While Christians may consider, for good reasons, the greater meaning of Easter, really folks, where would Easter be without Christmas?
Sure there’s commercialism! The Lord rides around on every wave there is. Is commercialism going His Way? It must, it goes to the people! So we’ll use commercialism; we’ll use whatever vehicle carries the message! It does not matter if it is the best way, or the most perfectly presented way, clearest of error, more lucid or less lucid.
Paul said that even if Jesus Christ is being preached for contention or spite, he praised God that Jesus’ name was lifted up! One cannot lightly say the name of Jesus. It will touch the tongue in a different way one day. Commercialism is one thing. It’s just a word without meaning except in the most tentative of ways – it is only an idea. The Name of Jesus is Above all names, takes precedence over all, bows to none, upholds the fabric of creation both of the heavens and the earth as the Mighty Word of Power, the Outraying of the Divine. It is not an idea whatsoever, but rather the Name of Jesus is the definition, the limit and the power of everything.
I really can’t see that celebrating Him on a former pagan holiday could possibly be offensive to one Who says, “All power is given unto Me in both heaven and earth.” Is that not a very “demonstration” of His power, instead? Reconciliation? Changing hell into heaven?
There is nothing in Jesus’ message about changing your holidays. Just your heart, which the Holy Spirit does. But we find, when we realize the change in an inward way, it permeates the outward, too.
There’s a reserve in me about saying I “believe in” Christmas. I really did as a little kid. Oh boy howdy did I believe. I tried so HARD to get to sleep on Christmas Eve, because I knew once I fell asleep, it would be morning!
I skated right through the news Santa wasn’t real, since I had pretty much figured it out already anyway. I never once thought my parents had “lied” to me about the existence of Santa Claus. It was a childhood thing, and as soon as I saw that at about 7, I gave it up and went on, because, after all, THE PRESENTS WERE STILL COMING! (Which basically meant, “I don’t care one way or the other if Santa exists, but I am greatly appreciative of the fact we play this game that some things are from Santa, and some things are from my parents and all the others, etc., and we all know we know the things from Santa are not really from him but from our parents, but we keep it that way still to this day when we get together. Why spoil the mystique?)
I just don’t really have anything bad, ultimately, to say about Christmas. No matter how wonderful it has been, or how tough it has been, and we have seen both those extremes as most have also, it has always ended up, with the light of the world shining through.
It may not be in tinsel and decorations. It may not be in a dinner that had no problems in its preparations, and it may not be that everyone got along with each other. It is purely in our hearts. We find it there; we find it everywhere.
If we look for it in the “outer” Christmas, it may not be there. I have never found it there.
The only place I ever found it was in my own heart, and in the hearts of everyone I loved and love, and who loved and love me.
I cannot have any other kind of Christmas. And it really is true, that when we discover the true eternal Christmas fixed in our hearts, that is the only kind of Christmas we can ever have!