To find Christmas, just look back

December 24, 1997|By Stebbins Jefferson

THIS TIME of year, I dream of Christmases past.

Lying awake at night, thinking of the tasks yet to be done before the big day, I clear my head of stress by mentally traveling back to the home I grew up in on a street that no longer exists, except in my mind's eye. During these waking dreams, I explore minute-by-minute the magical texture of the days I once knew as a child, when anticipation of Christmas was orchestrated by home and community traditions more than by marketing experts and advertising campaigns.

Going home

To renew the holiday spirit within myself, I retrace the pattern of the days as they were spent in my small community on the west coast of Florida. Typically, I visualize myself as a teen in the little wooden house that was our home.

Before dawn on a chilly morning, lying in the bedroom I shared with my sister, I hear Mama starting breakfast in the adjacent kitchen. It's sure to be a treat: hot oatmeal with brown sugar, biscuits (made from scratch), cocoa. As Mama cooks, she reminds us of our daily chores and assigns others that must be completed by the time she returns from her job as a housekeeper.

From the street, I hear the footsteps of the men, including Daddy, heading for the citrus packinghouse, where they will board trucks for the orange groves. These men are fortified against the cold by their need to make Christmas merry for their families.

As I vicariously relive the past, I turn my head on my pillow to look through the window. I see lights on in the house next door. The elderly lady who lives there alone is already up. She will monitor everything we do while our parents are at work. Upon their return, she will broadcast over the fence a report of any misbehavior.

A laundress who regularly starts her day before dawn, she will have the first bundle of clothes on the line shortly after sunrise. On Christmas morning, the child who has earned her respect will be given an envelope with a dollar or two or a fine lace handkerchief.

In anticipation of Christmas, we teen-agers will wash windows, scrub floors, starch and iron curtains. Only Mama, however, can touch the lace curtains in the living room.

Filled sideboard

Though our holiday decorations are meager, our spotless house and dining-room sideboard filled with a variety of pies and cakes draw relatives and friends returning to our small town for the holidays. Their conversations about life in Atlanta, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere provide a window through which I fantasize a larger world. Though these pseudo-city-folk swear they could never live in our hometown again, their obvious joy at being back among loved ones more than balances their criticisms.

But the best part of my nostalgic reverie is recounting in my mind the rituals of evening Christmas practice at the church. At dusk, I walk out the front door of our home, down the wooden steps to the brick cobbled sidewalk and out the gate. Once on the street, I rush to catch up with friends waiting at the corner, also headed for their churches at the same time.

We all walk together toward our respective destinations, the crowd growing or shrinking as we wend our way through the town. At our churches, we prepare for the program to take place on Christmas Eve. On that occasion, dressed in our finest, we will proclaim our talents to all.

One evening before Christmas, while returning from practice, all the children of the several churches are sure to form a spontaneous mass choir of carolers. People in their homes hearing the voices will call out special requests.

A different time

No such harmony exists today. Youngsters barely know the adults in their own neighborhoods. At times, it seems the only kids who walk together anywhere are members of gangs. In some neighborhoods, the only ones who wait on street corners for friends to catch up are those selling drugs.

So when I'm holiday tired or frustrated, I relive the rituals of the past in my mind. After such a respite, my spirit is renewed.

Stebbins Jefferson is a columnist for the Palm Beach Post.

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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