When I was a small child, we spent Christmas Eve night at my Grandmother Blackburn’s: we affectionately called her Mama. She was a jolly person who loved children, music, fun, laughter and especially Christmas. Mama made Christmas. They had a three-story house: actually, two stories and a cellar. All the kids slept upstairs and I have no idea where the adults slept, if they slept. At that time, there were not that many grandkids. We had a couple of cousins that came down from Indianapolis, one from Decatur and the rest were Bailey’s but there were 10 of us at the time. We got awful excited about Santa. Our Aunt Freda would usually come tell us to go to sleep are Santa would not come. She could be pretty firm. The older ones would wake us up at 3:00 am and down the steps we’d go. The first Christmas that I remember, I was 4 and I got a red farmall pedal tractor. I loved that tractor. I know what some of you are thinking: how long did the tractor last? It made it until the next summer. We had side walks at the church [which was next door] and I would ride it as face as I could and jump it off the end of the side-walk. One day when I landed, it broke in half. Daddy couldn’t get it fixed because it was made of cast iron.
Christmas was a big deal in those days. When I was a child, a birthday meant nothing but Christmas always meant at least one toy. I’m so old that I got a train for Christmas that was not electric. It had a key in the engine that you had to turn several times, wind it up, put it back on the track, hook it to the other cars and it might make two laps before you had to wind it up again. Of course we got fruit and candy but the toy is what I always looked forward to. Mother had a brother that always gave us underwear and I would fuss because I wanted another toy. Mother always said, “You need the underwear more than you need a toy.” When I was 5-6, can’t remember which, I got a David Crockett outfit, coonskin cap and all: yes sir, I had that fuzzy tail hanging down from the back of my cap. I was proud as punch. Wore it everywhere but didn’t where it long. Our house burned two weeks after Christmas and the Davie Crockett outfit went up in flames. I don’t remember who it was: but someone bought me a brand new David Crockett outfit. It was not like the old one but close and they also gave me a pair of cowboy boots which Mother eventually took away because I made so much racket going up and down the steps at Mawmaws [where we lived temporarily]. Those were the days.
My sister and I would begin counting days in October. I am not kidding. We could not wait for Christmas. We did not have TV but we had a huge Radio that was like a piece of furniture. It stood four feet high at least. We would listen to Santa on the Radio. In those days, no one put up a tree at Thanksgiving. Most people did not decorate until a couple of weeks before Christmas but we couldn’t wait that long. I would pester mother until she let me go cut a tree. I started getting the trees when I was 8 or 9 years old. I would get a cedar or the top of a cedar which was all we could afford. Aunt Freda had spruce pine with the bubbly lights. They also had carpet and TV: I thought they were rich. I went through a few lean years as a teenager. Christmas just didn’t mean the same as it did when I was little. Perry Como’s song Toyland has always spoken to my heart. One line goes like this…Once you leave its borders you can never return again. That song is filled with truth. Oh the innocence of childhood, living in a world of make-believe.
Christmas at Mama’s ended when I was around 10 or 11: don’t remember the exact year, just what happened. We started staying at home and as I said, there were some not so happy Christmas Days but it was short-lived. Mother talked Mama and Big Daddy into coming to our house on Christmas Eve and the tradition continued. By this time my older siblings were married and had children and that perked Christmas up for me. With Mother being involved with Santa, there were always surprises. You seldom got what you ask for. When I was 14, I got a teddy bear. No, I did not ask for the bear. Mother had caught me gambling at the county fair that fall. She walked right up behind me right about the time I was going to throw a ball at a tiger target and she said, “What are you doing?” I was stunned and all I could get out was, “I’m trying to win a teddy bear.” As soon as I seen that Teddy Bear under my stocking, I knew what had happened, then she eased up behind me and said, “That was what you wanted, right.” Yeah right, every 14-year-old wants a cuddly Teddy Bear. I don’t think there has ever been a more cunning mother than Naola Blackburn Bailey. Guess what I got at age 15, after I had my driving permit: you got it, a bicycle. I had asked for one every year and never got it, then when I am old enough to drive, I get a bike with no motor.
Hey, it got better. My nieces and nephews were growing up and I enjoyed seeing them get their stuff on Christmas morning plus, we always had a football game in the front yard on Christmas Day. I lived at home until I graduated college in 1971 so I had some real fun in those days. That’s when I started decorating the yard. I made my first nativity scene from scratch. It did not look like much up close but from the road, it looked pretty good. I made stick people, wrapped them with rags and put clothes on them: robes and scarfs and etc. Then when I went to work for J.C. Penny in 69, I bought a 3 piece Nativity that had lights on the inside. I thought that was something.
It was during those days that mother [who always had a soft spot for the underdog but she never considered one of us as an underdog] adopted a neighbor’s child. The little boy didn’t have a father if you know what I mean and his mother was mentally challenged. One of my brother’s would drive by the house slowly and I would hop off the back of the truck and run that kids stuff up to the front porch and place in by the door while my brother drove to the end of the road and turned around [this was always done after mid-night]. I guarantee you that kid believed in Santa. Mother spent more on him than she did us. Mother kept up with this child after he was grown but I have no idea where he is now. I would love to talk to him.
We spent Christmas Eve at Mother’s until Daddy was promoted. My kids were grown and had children and the family was so huge. I think we had as many as 56 spend the night on Christmas Eve at mothers and it was getting crowded. Daddy was our Ebenezer Scrooge but he made Christmas. He was not stingy or miserly like Scrooge but he felt like we were invaded his domain. He worried about us drinking all his coffee or eating all his cheese. There was no way we could have used all his toilet paper or eaten all his crackers. Everytime he went to Winn-Dixie, he bought crackers and toilet paper. Hey, he went to Winn-Dixie every day and sometime twice in a day. Christmas has never been the same without Daddy, he was a riot. I would love to tell you some stories but if I soften the language, they will not be as funny.
I hated to break with tradition but I had a family of my own and I wanted to start a tradition here in Danville. We did start one but it was short-lived. We had about 6 good years on Craze Road but then we sold the big house to please Big Mama and Christmas has never been the same. We never know where we are going to be from one Christmas till the next. She says our house is too small. A couple of years ago we were here alone on Christmas Eve, something I never imagined would happen. We can’t hold on to our childhood, we can’t bring back grand parents or parents: Christmas has to change and it has. I just want some traditions to hang my hat on but when you have to depend on others, your goals and dreams can be blocked so I started my own tradition that does not involve anyone cooperating with me. I do it by myself with the exception of the cakes. I do know how many years that I done the Christmas Eve visitation but I would guess at least 20 years. I think Seth went with me a time or two and Big L once but I am usually alone. I spend Christmas Eve on the road. I visit people who have meant a lot to me and some family. I carry them small gifts, usually cakes, fruits, nuts or apple butter–not much, just a token of love. I have made up to 20 visits on Christmas Eve. Sometimes it is as simple as dropping off a card which only takes a minute.
Of course my last stop was at Mothers but the LORD took her home in 2010. The last two years have been different: I miss my mother. Holly would get us a movie that both of us would enjoy and we would sit there and watch a movie on Christmas Eve. I also visited my Father in the ministry Calvin C. Inman. I cherish my Christmas Eve visits with Bro. and Mrs. Inman. She usually had some warm cookies and we would just sit and enjoy each other’s company. As I was en route to the Inman’s last year, Bro. Inman had a heart attack. Needless to say, my visit with him was in the hospital and he was not doing well. For some years I have had three poinsettia stops: Mother, Mrs. Martha and Mrs. Inman. Now, Mother is gone, Bro. Inman is gone and Mr. James is gone. I’m telling folks, my Christmas is changing. I will still have the three poinsettia stops: I substitue my oldest sister for Mother, and I have Mrs. Innman and Mrs. Martha Newby and I may add Mrs. Elizabeth Crawford to the list this year. I still have a couple of Aunts and an Uncle that I try to visit. My Christmas Eve visits are mostly in Athens but I try to visit every church field during the holidays and visit with old friends. I am still in contact with a woman who helped June and I when we were in Seminary. She attended a small church that I tried to pastor for 6 months. Her name is Wanda and I sent her a card today. She is in New Orleans with her granddaughter so I will not get to visit her this year but I usually make a run to Ashville, Alabama and see Wanda. I went back to Mississippi for years but it looks like we may not make it this year. I also go to Cherokee, Alabama but all my friends are getting old like me and I don’t know how many more years I have to do this sort of thing but I want to go as long as I can.
Christmas has changed for me but I still love it. Being a grandparent at Christmas is better than being a parent and being a parent is better than being a teenager. Whereas Christmas once meant Santa and Toys, it now means a celebration of the incarnation. Christmas means Christ came and that means He cares. I love this time of year, I love the music, the lights and even the social events. It is to me the most wonderful time of the year. I even like to go to Kroger during this season. It just does me good to see the store full and everyone moving about excitedly.