By Wayne Allensworth
With our people so scattered and atomized by family dissolution, technology, and the personal isolation that comes with obsessive individualism, it would do us all some good to remember a time when that was not so. If we are to reclaim anything for our posterity—or to even have one—we should back up and recall that family and the celebrations that marked our lives were at, one time, not a matter of choice, but something more than a duty. They were occasions for joy.
Christmas at our family home was a very special occasion. My mother especially loved Christmas, and December would find my carpenter father building Christmas scenes for the front yard from scraps of wood and whatever other materials he had at hand. I particularly recall a “Christmas train” he built of plywood with coffee cans serving as wheels for the “train,” a jolly Santa as engineer.
Inside, our house was a myriad of lights and decorations that filled the small home my brothers and I were raised in, one built by my father. He and my mother lived there for nearly sixty years.
With Christmas approaching, a drive to look at Christmas lights in the surrounding neighborhoods was always on the agenda.
Christmas eve was a time for a church service, and the children of the Sunday School class would duly perform the perennial nativity play that evening. We dressed for the occasion in our Christmas best, and I rather enjoyed wearing a coat. Living in Texas, we always hoped for cold weather at Christmas time—it set the mood.
After the Christmas eve service, the church elders would hand out goody bags to the children. I remember some oranges especially as a treat in winter. The founding families of our congregation were rural and working class. They had moved to Houston for jobs during the Depression, and my father, raised in the 1930s and 40s, fondly remembered getting such small tokens of Christmas cheer as a tremendous boyhood treat.
Afterwards, my family, including both sets of grandparents, gathered at our home for more Christmas cheer—maybe a drink of wine, maybe something stronger, for the adults, and treats lovingly prepared by my mother for everyone. We kept the living room dark save for the lights on the tree—and there would be hundreds of them, my mother was meticulous in decorating our Christmas tree—and the presents beneath were the object of much speculation by the children.
Christmas morning, we boys would awaken earlier than usual, already eager to get to the presents under the tree. My father and mother would decide when the moment had come, and it was off to unwrap them. My mother took pictures of everything—we have hundreds of photos to remember this all by—and she snapped photos as we opened our presents. We had home movies of more than one Christmas morning, as well. During my childhood, we would watch them projected onto a screen set up by my father in our living room.
Music was an important part of the celebration. Starting in December, our RCA phonograph filled that little house with Christmas songs, and we memorized every line, singing along with gusto.
There were Christmas movies, and I read the TV Guide carefully to pinpoint the time of showings of movies like White Christmas, as well as the ever-present TV Christmas specials from stars like Bing Crosby and Andy Williams.
My mother was an Elvis fan (I have one claim to fame—myself and the entire family saw Elvis live at the Houston Astrodome in 1970), and she was especially fond of his Gospel and Christmas recordings.
Here’s one favorite from his The Wonderful World of Christmas album:
No one could get away with not liking Elvis in our house, but my mother never let us forget that Jesus was the reason for the season, and religious songs like Silent Night and Joy to the World rang in the narrow halls and low ceilings of our home. I’ve always loved this one:
We live in an increasingly dystopian world, one that is also increasingly hostile to the traditional Christmas celebration. We have it in our power to perform one act of defiance and of love that can push back against the dismal tide. Celebrate Christmas.
Wayne Allensworth is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.