Southern Fried Christmas by Laura Lucy
11/14/2017 05:56PM ● Published by Nancy Babin
Growing up in the South, we didn’t have all the holiday traditions kids in colder climates enjoy. There was no snow for sledding. The closest ice skating rink was at least a two-hour drive away. Most years it was so hot that a chocolate milkshake sounded better than a mug of hot cocoa. That also meant Christmas sweaters were out of the question. Santa and snowmen are just as cute on a bedazzled t-shirt as on a sweater, right?
That’s not to say we didn’t have any holiday traditions. There are a few things we could always count on at Christmas. Some are uniquely Southern and some are universal.
If you were born after 1965, you are doomed to a childhood of holidays at the kids’ table. My grandparents’ house was always busting at the seams on Christmas Eve with their kids, grandkids, great grandkids, siblings, cousins…you get the idea. Not only would I never make it to the grownups’ table, I never even made it into the same room with the grownups’ table.
No matter your latitude, Christmas cookies are a must-have. Granted, we have to crank the AC to keep from roasting while the oven is doing its work all day. My mom bakes dozens of sweet confections every year. When your Mama is from Georgia and your Daddy is from Alabama, it is necessary for approximately 97% of your Christmas cookies, cakes and pies to contain pecans. Back before we had tablets and smart phones to occupy our every moment, I spent many hours of my youth in the months leading up to the holidays shelling the nuts that would become a key ingredient in chocolate chip cookies, divinity and the frosting of red velvet cake. It was tedious work but always worth it.
Even if you don’t like pecans – hush your mouth – you never leave our table hungry. Back when my grandmother was alive, she hosted 50 or more people for Christmas Eve dinner. She would have my grandfather, a builder, cover the pool table on the enclosed back porch with a piece of plywood and a king-sized sheet to accommodate all the food. There would be turkey and ham, gravy, cranberry sauce, cornbread dressing (NOT stuffing), several kinds of peas and beans, dinner rolls and cornbread, mac and cheese, ambrosia, corn, mashed potatoes, potato salad, sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, even lasagna. My grandmother cooked it all herself and was offended if anyone offered to bring a dish. Even though she was my dad’s mother, my mom somehow inherited this stubborn streak. She cooks every last morsel herself for our holiday meals. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to cook for as many people as my grandmother did. Still, I had to practically wrestle a stick of butter from her hand last Christmas Day when she returned from an emergency room visit and tried to commence cooking.
If you don’t have someone to spend Christmas with, you are always welcome at our table. My grandmother cooked enough to feed an army, so no random new boyfriend a great granddaughter decided to drag along was ever turned away, even if he did have the poor taste to wear an Auburn shirt. My now-husband is lucky he even made it to the table his first year. You could’ve heard a pin drop in our car when he asked my dad about stopping for a six pack of beer on the way to the largely Southern Baptist gathering. Bless his Irish-Italian New York heart. In recent years, my mom has picked up strays in the grocery store and all about town. Our holiday dinner guests have included elderly friends with no family, young military guys stationed far from home, a friend of a friend who moved to the beach to decompress after a painful breakup and anyone who seemed lonely. Giving to charities is nice, and we do that too, but there is something profoundly rewarding and in keeping with the spirit of the season about inviting a stranger into your home and sharing a meal.
Did I almost forget about presents? Those same lost and lonely souls who are welcomed to the table are usually surprised to find a wrapped gift with their name on it under the tree. There is always something tucked away in a back closet and the gesture is appreciated even if the content is a little whacky. Chances are it will have a flamingo or palm tree on it. Back when my grandfather was around, he handed out cash money to everyone there. The largest denominations were reserved for his children, followed by their spouses, then the grandchildren and so forth. He got special envelopes from the bank and made sure there were extras in case someone showed up unannounced. In case you’re wondering, yes, even the new boyfriend in the Auburn shirt got an envelope. My grandfather wasn’t a rich man with tons of cash just lying around. It was his tradition after he retired from construction to sell woodcrafts by the side of the road in the fall. He gauged his success by earning enough to give out those envelopes and buy a large HoneyBaked Ham. He never once missed his goal right up until his last Christmas with us.
I hope that you have your own traditions that make this time of year special to you and memories that warm your heart when the temperature dips into the sixties.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from our family to yours. If you need a place to go, I’ll save you a spot at the kids’ table. I’ll be the one in the light-up “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” t-shirt.