One of my memories from childhood Christmas Eves clearly does not fit the “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” theme and I can probably say for most black people in my generation and before, we do not share that nostalgic memory. What it was for some of us was quite a different experience.
Mama would always start cooking the day of Christmas Eve. She would be at the sink cleaning usually 10-20 pounds of chitlins. When my sister and I got old enough, we had to join in this horrifying process. For those of you who know, it meant pulling the fat and debris off the stomach lining of pigs simply put, and washing them over and over in clean water. If that wasn’t bad enough, the smell alone would drop you at 10 feet away. The smell intensified with cooking, which was a process of hours and hours in a slow boiling pot. The house would reek with the smell which to a child was putrid, at best.
Before we started the ritual, mama and daddy would go out shopping and return with bags and bags of things which we knew would end up wrapped under the tree for Christmas. We did not have the childhood fantasy of Santa coming for long. We quickly grew into realizing that it was mama and daddy who were our Santa. We often said they shopped at “The Loser’s Store”, no disrespect, just an observation because nothing we got was ever conventional. One Christmas my sister and I got dolls. Hers had blue hair with a blue dress and mine had pink hair and a pink dress. Where did they get these things? I just wanted a Barbie doll because that was my last name. Didn’t happen for a long time. My brothers would get trucks and guns and we always got clothes. Nothing was wrapped in a box. We called them mystery gifts. When you picked up a gift to open, you always knew which ones were items of clothes, so we saved them for last. I know my parents did the best they could, because we were quite poor and I know they struggled, so I did have a grateful heart. As an adult now, I fully understand their sacrifice to provide and make things special.
Anyway getting back to the cooking, when the chitlins were on mama would put on a ham or a turkey and a huge pot of greens. So those smells would cut through the others. She would save the rest of the cooking for the next day. Grandma always made a roast duck with cornbread dressing. So the house was full of wonderful and not so wonderful smells. Every window would be covered with steam so you couldn’t see out. We would draw pictures on the steamed windows with our fingers. Mama would put out a huge bowl of apples and oranges, a bowl of nuts with a nutcracker right next to it and bowls of ribbon candy. The ribbon candy was so pretty to look at, but it was not my favorite candy to eat, so it often stayed in the bowl.
I loved the evergreen smell of a live tree and could look at the lights forever. I also loved spreading the tinsel over the branches until it glistened. One year we had bubble lights on it and they were absolutely mesmerizing. But the worst years were in the 60’s when we got the aluminum tree with the revolving color wheel. As the wheel turned from red to orange to yellow and green, it hummed loudly. I hated that tree. When we put it together we would pull each silver branch out of a paper sleeve and stick them into a silver pole. It was just hideous. And I am sure a lot of my age group remember this tree.
Daddy was usually not home early on Christmas Eve because he would go to the bars and drive the drunk folks home for 50 cents or a dollar a ride. That is one way he made extra money in those days. And of course, in the spirit of celebration, he would have some drinks at the end of the evening with his last riders and come home right before we kids went to bed. For you see that was the one night of the year that as kids, we couldn’t wait to go to bed because we were usually up at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. tearing open those presents. When we would get up early and open our gifts daddy would yell at us to go back to bed and we would sleep until the smell of cooking woke us up on Christmas morning.