Actors reenact The Homecoming at The Earl Hamner Theater in Afton, Virginia
A CHRISTMAS MEMORY
When I was growing up in Nelson County, Virginia during the Great Depression, all the seasons seemed to be filled with a sense of wonder. I remember the dogwood spring, the watermelon summer, the russet and golden leaves of autumn, and the frosty mornings that marked the waning year.
With the coming of fall the pace of our lives quickened. The cries of the blue jay and the crow became more strident, a warning that winter was about to descend upon us. The world became alive with intense color as the leaves turned watermelon red, lemon yellow, and pumpkin gold.
After the frost killed the vines in the vegetable garden, we gathered the last of the green tomatoes. The following day my mother’s kitchen would be filled with the pungent aroma of green tomato relish.
Finally, the long silent winter would flow down from the mountains, across the sleeping fields, the frozen lakes and ponds, and into the woods and hollows where only the deer and the beaver, the squirrel and the rabbit, were at large.
The first hint of Christmas came with the arrival of the mail-order catalogue from Sears and Roebuck. We called it “the wish book,” and while the great winter storms raged across the Blue Ridge, we would gaze wistfully at each page and dream our Christmas dreams.
Charlottesville was twenty-four miles away, and a walk down Main Street during the Christmas season was as awesome as a journey through ancient Baghdad. Unlike the muddy country roads of our village, we knew the city had paved streets with stop lights and streetcars and fancy window displays. We were foreign to all that sophistication, and we showed it in our country clothes and country ways. We had little money to spend, but we did a lot of window-shopping while Salvation Army musicians on street corners played a tinny version of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
We had picked out our Christmas tree in July. We found it while picking blackberries up on Witt’s Hill. It was a six-foot tall cedar laden with pine cones and a pungent evergreen scent. A week before Christmas we brought it inside and set it up in a corner of the living room. We strung lights on it, and its fragrant presence permeated the house. It was as if we had captured some wild thing in the woods, brought it home, and tamed it with tinsel and homemade icicles.
Ideally, there was a snowstorm on Christmas Eve. If the flakes were small, my grandfather would predict the storm would continue for days. Sometimes the snow would diminish gradually at dusk, the moon would rise, and from our window we would witness a frozen cathedral of trees with crystal icicles clinging to the branches.
On Christmas Eve, bundled against the cold, we crunched our way down the snow-covered path to the Baptist church. The steepled, white clapboard building beckoned with the warmth of a pot-bellied stove and the sounds of country voices celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The highlight of the evening was The Christmas Pageant. Mothers had worked for weeks to improvise costumes for shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family. Others had rehearsed the actors who would portray Mary and Joseph. A manger had been set up and a doll, the symbol of the Baby Jesus, rested in the crèche. Our minister read the story with such power and drama that it was as if it were taking place right before our eyes:
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.”
As he read, shepherds approached and with the three wise men gathered together to admire the Baby Jesus. All the while the choir hummed, “Silent Night, Holy Night.” We were transported to Bethlehem. No more stirring drama was ever witnessed on the Great White Way itself.
When the service was over, Santa Claus arrived.
We knew he was really Mr. Willie Simpson, who sang so loud in the choir. We recognized his voice from his ho-ho-ho’s. From a burlap sack he distributed a single orange to each of the children.
We then walked home through a frozen landscape, the sounds of our footsteps muted in the snow and the melodies of the old-time carols still resounding in our ears. The crystals of snow sifted down through the crusted overhead branches. In our hearts the spirit of Christmas had awakened. We did not feel the cold. We held oranges in our hands.