Inside: Christmas memories from my favorite essayist, Joy Wooderson.
A Truly Southern Christmas
by Joy Wooderson
The chairs in the living room were all occupied, with the overflow squatting on the carpet. In one corner, Mom sat at the organ. In the other, Aunt Hope ran her fingers over the keys of the piano. Aunt Beryl rested on the sofa, trying to stir up a breeze with a songbook, while Uncle Basil pulled out a handkerchief to mop his brow. This was a bit undignified for Dad, so he chose to ignore the beads of perspiration in the creases of his face and neck. The rest of us fit somewhere on the continuum of either pretending it wasn’t hot, or simply allowing ourselves to wilt.
At the signal from Mom, we perked up and began lustily singing, “Winter Wonderland.” Nobody seemed to notice the incongruity between the words and the setting. It didn’t matter—it was Christmas!
Christmas started in our home on December 16, a holiday in sunny South Africa. Devout Afrikaners called it the “Day of the Covenant” and went to church in remembrance of the victory of the early settlers over the impis at the battle of Blood River. The rest of us irreverently called it Dingaan’s Day—the name of the Zulu chief who tried to slaughter the settlers—and used the day to begin holiday preparations.
We were trendsetters in Durban. Having visited the United States and seen the ideal Christmas tree, we had to have one. With no “John’s Tree Sales” on vacant lots around the city—mid summer is not conducive to Christmas trees—this presented quite a challenge. I don’t know whose idea it had been to plant small Norfolk pines along the edge of our property, but in time these grew tall, inspiring hope of being quite presentable Christmas trees. At least this was Mom’s view. She organized Dad and a helper to climb high into a tree each year and lop off the top.
What we then propped in a stand in the corner of the living room was a spiky green thing, with unevenly spaced branches and inconvenient gaps in the tiers. Undeterred, Mom sent Dad out to cut branches to specific sizes, which she then affixed in place with string and picture wire.
The next task was to transform this apparition into a thing of beauty. After considerable effort—lights still get tangled in the southern hemisphere—we had a Christmas tree. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to the one on the White House lawn, but twinkling lights, tinsel, and ornaments magically hid most of its defects. Our tree stood proudly, ready to gather presents at its feet.
The next item on the agenda was a favorite of mine—the annual carol singing program on Christmas Eve. Rehearsals began three weeks before Christmas. To my musician mother, this would be no ordinary sing-a-long group—she wanted a choir! With Mom pounding out notes on the piano, thirty people learned four-part harmony. I sang alto, Dad sang tenor, and Uncle Basil added to the basses. Mom had a difficult time with Uncle Basil as he tended to slur and slide, leading all the other basses astray. I noted many a glare going in his direction—which he blithely ignored. What younger brother pays attention to his sister? Finally, the big night arrived and we set off in cars and on a flat-bed truck.
A gentle breeze stirred the humid night air, carrying the tang of salt from the Indian Ocean nearby. It ruffled strands of Grandma Connie’s neatly coiled hair as she sat, ramrod straight, at the pump organ. There were few lights on in the hospital at 11:00 p.m., and nobody paid attention to the group that formed around the organ.
I stood among the altos in front of choir-leader Mom. With baton raised, she waited expectantly for that single, introductory sound from the organ. Then it happened. The strains of “Joy to the World” sung in four-part harmony burst forth. Soon a figure appeared in an upstairs window. Lights went on, patients in hospital gowns clustered around each other, heads hung out of windows.
Maintaining total silence between items, we worked our way through our repertoire. Then, after a slightly longer pause, Grandma Connie hit her single note, and the African night filled with the unparalleled beauty of Franz Gruber’s timeless “Silent Night.” It was magical.
The designated bearers folded the pump organ, picked up the music stand, and we moved quietly to the next stop. The schedule called for us to finish up around 3:00 a.m., allowing just enough time to go home and catnap before the 8:00 a.m. Christmas Day service.
As the years passed, Grandma Connie was replaced by Aunt Hope at the accordion, I drove my friends in Dad’s car, and anyone with energy left proceeded to the beachfront. There is no ocean in the world to compare with the Indian, and Durban had its share of magnificent beaches. Soon we were bouncing and laughing in the white-tipped waves, until pink and gold streaked the dark sky and the sun peeked over the vast horizon of the sea. Then it was home to shower and change before church. My concentration was never at its peak in that early Christmas morning service.
General Mom was in charge of dinner, with First Lieutenant Aunt Mabel at her side, and James as her helper. We organized tables and chairs for the family and several guests, placing Christmas crackers filled with cheap trinkets at each setting. Dad carried the turkey to a table already overflowing with fresh vegetables and salads. When Grandpa Archie finished his interminable prayer over the food, crackers popped, paper hats were unfurled, and the celebratory meal began.
Our traditional dessert was English plum pudding with almond sauce—brandy was prohibited. I scrubbed tickeys clean so they could be inserted in certain servings. A tickey was a silver coin, smaller than a dime and worth less than a nickel. I never cared much for the pudding, but I took my helping and assiduously poked around in case it was my lucky day.
A somnolent afternoon ended as car doors slammed and the invasion of extended family members and additional friends began. Mom was the eldest of eight siblings, and most of them produced offspring. We had between 30-35 people of all ages over on Christmas evening.
The adults played badminton in the back yard under colored lights while an assortment of children worked up a sweat chasing each other around the tree. Once more, Mom, Aunt Mabel, James, and other elves came through and created a cold buffet that made my eyes sparkle. The evening dessert was always English trifle—my favorite.
When the shrieks from the children reached a certain pitch, Mom summoned everyone inside for the grand finale. The lights from “the Christmas tree” cast a soft glow in the living-room. Each person received a song book, and once the musicians were in place, the performance began. Since most of us had sung the carols in four parts a good portion of the previous night, we found our harmony note one more time.
The first songs were lively and upbeat, including “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Soon, the younger children slipped lower on a parent’s lap or curled up on the carpet and drifted off to sleep. The mood quieted as once again we reflected through song on the reason for celebrating Christmas. As the last notes of “Silent Night” died away, people stirred, gathered children, said their goodbyes, and drifted out into the steamy night. Another Christmas was over.
Many years have passed and Christmas present is vastly different for me. Climate, geography, and the loss of loved ones brought changes in holiday celebrations. Each year I join with some congregation in singing those enduring Christmas carols and valiantly carry the alto note by myself. However, on “The First Noel” I deviate. I sing the bass line in memory of Uncle Basil—and try not to slur and slide! My body is in the U.S., but myriad scenes of long-past Christmases flash onto the screen of my mind, and I can almost smell the salty sea air.
Born in Durban, South Africa, Joy Wooderson emigrated to the U.S. in 1971. She writes creative nonfiction and is the author of Finding Joy: One Woman’s Journey Back to Faith and Like a Hermit Crab in Search of a Home. Both are ebooks available from Amazon Kindle. Her essays have appeared in journals and anthologies.
Do you have a favorite Christmas memory? Tell us about it in the comments.