On the Dickensian vibes of Christmas in the Southern US
“Christmas began in Dixie, far below the Mason-Dixon line.” This is one southern legend that has some basis in fact.
In the United States, Christmas was slow in gaining popularity up north due to the lingering effects of Puritanism. Thanksgiving was deemed a proper holiday, while Christmas, with its revelry and gaudy displays, was viewed as sinful extravagance. “Foolstide,” it was called, full of “Saturnalian jollities” which “dishonors our Lord more in twelve days than in all twelve months of the year,” according to men like Cotton Mather and his progeny.
Not only was yuletide merry-making frowned upon in places like Massachusetts, it was oftentimes illegal. At one time, a man in Boston could be fined five shillings for such crimes as caroling and gift-giving. But in the South, Christmas was welcomed as an old friend. It is not surprising then that Southern states were the first to declare Christmas an official holiday, and did so in rapid succession (Alabama in 1836, Louisiana in 1837, and Arkansas in 1838, etc.), even though the date would not be recognized as a national holiday until 1870. While the South didn’t invent Christmas, we were the first to adopt it, and have long since made it one of our own.
A southern Christmas is at once ordinary and unique. The universal components shared by millions around the world are there: tinsel, trees, elves, pretty paper, the familiar tunes, and all the rest. But thrown into this mix, the South has one addition that other regions lack, making our approach to the season peculiar – southerners.
For this reason, Christmas in Dixie may look like a Norman Rockwell painting, but the characters would come straight out of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Instead of beagles wearing reindeer antlers, ole Norm would have sketched some half-drunk southron dad who had just blown off his finger while trying to wrap Junior’s first shotgun. Christmas is different down here.
Take caroling, for instance. Caroling isn’t southern. In fact, it may get you killed down here.
Please don’t misunderstand. We love our neighbors, but it never dawns on most folks down here to just show up at someone’s front door unannounced and start crooning about lowing cattle or Good King Whatshisface.
Showing up in the dark in packs without an invitation is a good way to get lead poisoning. Because it is known in Arkansas that a sawed-off shotgun usually stands perpendicular to every welcome mat.
Some friends and I took a notion to try caroling once in high school. Dressed in Carhartt coats and furry hunting caps, we loaded up in the rusted-out bed of Deon Darbonne’s 1982 Chevy Silverado. With those old pipes booming like the Hindenburg, it’s a mystery that we were able to surprise anyone.
We decided to start at the home of an old deacon from our church. We thought “Surely he would appreciate a few young men out heralding the birth of our Lord in song.” Not at all. He thought we were coming to roll his yard in toilet paper, so he set his hog dogs on us before we could even dismount.
Next door to the deacon was Miss Ada, a fiery widow woman who ran the lady’s quilting circle. When we piled onto her porch and lit into “Silent Night” she just peered at us through the mini-blinds. So overcome with the spirit of Christmas was she that she threatened to call the law.
I believe we tried five or six more houses that night without a single warm reception. Nobody shot at us, but Jeb Guthrie did get a bad case of the lockjaw from the tetanus when he cut his rear end on Deon’s rusty tailgate.
You might think that given our legendary southern hospitality we would have at least found one blue-haired Baptist lady with a soft spot for carolers. But no, not around here… Then again, it was nearly midnight. In June.
While caroling isn’t something you’re liable to find in the South around Christmastime, compassion certainly is. Even though this isn’t particular to us, we seem to have a unique way of going about it.
After church a few Sundays ago, I made my way over to Little Rock to do a bit of Christmas shopping. As I pulled up to the intersection where Shackleford Road meets I-430, I noticed a man standing in the median between the off-ramp and the Cracker Barrel. He was dressed in jeans, an Elvis t-shirt, and one of those floppy red Santa hats with the fuzzy ball on the end.
This spot has become a regular hangout for homeless folks and panhandlers. Usually older men in tattered camouflage, broken by war and a few tough breaks too many, sitting there with cardboard signs with messages like, “Vietnam 1973. I just want to eat.”
Sometimes there is a scraggly guy with an old mutt in tow who always seems to do well with the passers-by. His makeshift sign always reads something to the effect, “I promise to spend every dime on beer and cigarettes.”
Yet, the guy in the Elvis shirt struck me as a bit different from the rest. He was playing an old flat-top guitar and singing Christmas songs. (When I pulled up he happened to be doing his signature version of the King’s “Blue Christmas.”) But what struck me most was the fact that he was smiling.
I pulled over on the shoulder so I could get a better look at his placard. His handwritten sign said, “All proceeds go to Tyson. 9 years old. Leukemia patient. Sweet boy.”
I rolled my window down. “Excuse me,” I said. “Is Tyson your boy?”
The man stopped strumming and walked over to my truck.
“Naw. He’s the son of one of the members at my church. They are having a tough go of it. I have some time on Sunday afternoons, so I’ve been coming over and pickin’ and singin’ to raise a few bucks to help them out. Sometimes a few ladies from the choir come out with me and back me up. Name’s Martin, by the way.”
He stuck his hand through my passenger’s side window and I shook it.
“Are you having any luck?”, I asked.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “We’ve been coming here for about three weeks and we’ve already raised nearly $4,000 dollars. I give everybody a card from the church so they can call and make sure I am legit. Amy, our secretary, has been hanging around the office on Sunday afternoons in between services to field the calls that come through. But she said the phone has only rung once. People have been so generous.”
You may not always find a man in an Elvis t-shirt hammering out “Blue Christmas,” but down here you will always find some selfless man or woman giving what they do not have to help those who have even less.
I know that seems rather Dickensian, what with all the hard times and ailing children and ragamuffins banging on about goodwill, but Christmas does seem to bring out the best in us around here.
Even my little town looks like something out of A Christmas Carol this time of year. Twinkling strands of lights crisscrossing the square. Plastic reindeer prancing along the power lines. Wreaths on storefront doors. Old men standing on the corner in fake beards ringing bells for the Salvation Army.
I imagine that much of the Christmas cheer is feigned, but I don’t care. There’s something comforting and inviting about it. Even manufactured joy is better than the organic hostility budding in so many places. At least folks are trying to get into the spirit of things.
A few days ago, they held the Christmas parade in the square. Some friends entered a float this year, so I decided to go. I even took my dog, Peanut, along so that he could get in on the festivities.
While we were waiting for the parade to begin, my family and I stood around drinking hot cocoa in 70-degree weather. (Down here we work up a sweat getting into the Christmas spirit since Winter doesn’t arrive until close to Valentine’s Day.) I bought Peanut one of those giant smoked turkey legs and he was positively awash with seasonal mirth.
Herds of little children gathered to pet my dog. One little girl, all of three years old, decided that she was also partial to turkey legs. She shared several bites of his meal before her mother caught her and pulled her away. But not before she gave Peanut a big wet kiss right on the nose.
An older lady with ear muffs and fuzzy mittens sidled up next to me. “Does he bite?” she said. “Only if you bite him first,” I replied. Thankfully, she didn’t. But she did spend a few minutes patting him on the head.
My grandmother brought a few Walmart bags in which to put her haul of candy she was expecting from the floats. After convincing her that she could probably get by with one bag, I managed to get the second sack for Peanut’s well-stripped turkey bone.
Since we still had several minutes before the parade began, I decided to walk over to the gazebo and listen to the carolers. They weren’t bad for Baptists who had never properly been wassailing with mulled wine.
While I listened to redneck renditions of “Up on the rooftop reindeer pause,” and “We heard three ships on Christmas Day,” Peanut found the Nativity scene. Next thing I know, I hear a boy saying, “Eww,” as my dog left his own offering for the Baby Jesus right there between oxen and ass and the Mother of our Lord.
Then we heard the sirens. The parade was underway. I walked back over to where my family was standing, settling Peanut in a patch of grass just in case he had any more notions.
Grandmother had situated herself nearly in the middle of the street. She wasn’t going to miss a single float or one flying Tootsie Pop. Then came the dignitaries leading the procession. The high sheriff and the fire marshall, beauty queens ranging in age from six months to sixteen years, men on clydesdales with elf hats and little girls on shetland ponies pulling makeshift sleighs full of siblings.
The Methodists threw the most candy, but the Pentecostals threw the best candy. Big ladies with even bigger hair tossed out small bags of pecan divinity and flying discs of peanut brittle. All the while, Grandmother was saying “I shoulda’ brought another sack.”
But my favorite float was the one from the paper mill. They flung dozens of rolls of triple-ply into the crowds and grown men jumped to catch them like lonely bridesmaids scrambling for bouquets. I managed to get three rolls of Angel Soft myself.
As we were leaving, I noticed several police officers chasing some school-age boys who had decided to roll the gazebo with the toilet tissue. I heard my grandpa tell one of the cops, “Let those boys be. This is as close as we get to a White Christmas around here.”
Christmas in Dixie. I love it here.