We live in a world where retail is constantly spurring us on to the next holiday or event. Walmart disassembles the Easter aisle in early April and immediately puts out July 4th paraphernalia. On July 5th, practically, they put out Halloween candy and costumes. We barely have time to enjoy one holiday before the next is shoved down our throats.
This phenomenon always makes me remember my late mother saying, “Don’t wish your life away!” My brother, Curtis, and I heard this refrain often when we were wishing for the school year to end, for vacation or our birthday to arrive, or for a dentist appointment to be behind us. The older I get, the more I understand what she was trying to tell us. Each of us only gets our allotted number of days. Hers were far too few. She died of a heart attack a few months shy of her sixty-second birthday. When she was here, she wanted us to focus on getting the most out of our days instead of wishing them away in anticipation of the next big thing on the horizon.
Mom’s words were on my mind when I saw my friends putting up Christmas trees in late October and early November this year. After a rough couple of years going through the Covid-19 pandemic, I guess some folks either needed 2022 to hurry up and be over or they just needed the light that Christmas brings into their lives really badly. Like my mom before me, I never decorate for Christmas until at least the weekend after Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was a big deal for my family growing up. There were only two ways we celebrated it. Most Thanksgivings, like almost every holiday, we spent the day surrounded by our Cartner family at my Grandma Cartner’s house in Harmony, North Carolina. I always loved the name of the town my dad grew up in. ‘Harmony’ …. that’s what I felt there. Our family was large, but close. The other Thanksgivings were spent at South Carolina beaches, having our Thanksgiving dinner at Hoskins Restaurant in Ocean Drive, SC, then walking the beach at Windy Hill as a family, looking for shells and sharks’ teeth.
Since I lost my mother in 2001 I don’t think I have missed a Thanksgiving at the beach. Her birthday was November 24th. Since the beach was her happy place, as it is mine, I love spending that week every year communing with her spirit on the beaches of North and South Carolina or Florida. It’s where I feel closest to her. The waves and sand, the shells and sharks’ teeth, the peace I find there recharges my soul. I savor every Thanksgiving week and try to make it last.
And, THEN, I can focus on Christmas.
Christmas has been a challenge for me since losing Mama. She was like a kid at Christmas. She absolutely loved giving, sharing. She thrived on finding the perfect gift for everyone on her list … and there were a lot of people on her list. She loved decorating the tree. She loved having family over to have a sumptuous meal together and open gifts around the fireplace.
But, most of all, like me, she loved Christmas music! My poor husband, who hates Christmas music, can attest to the fact that nothing makes me happier than eight or nine hours of Elvis, of Bing Crosby, of Marty Robbins, or Kenny G Christmas music. The day after Thanksgiving I dust off my iPod (which features 385 songs in the Christmas playlist). As I decorate the tree and house, listening to those songs, I am flooded with memories of Christmas Past.
As soon as I could walk, I loved “helping” Mama decorate the Christmas tree. We would dance to Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms, Rocking Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee, Santa Claus is Back in Town and Here Comes Santa Claus by Elvis as I hung the blown glass ornaments on the lowest branches of the live Norwegian Pine that the salesman told us was “straight from Norwegie”. Then I would carefully take out the rest of the ornaments Mama had lovingly stored in their original boxes and hand them to her as she decorated the branches I could not reach.
I remember kneeling on a chair at the kitchen table and stirring the thick dough of my Mama’s Fruitcake Cookies, then dropping them by teaspoonfuls onto shiny cookie sheets as she chopped more candied fruit and sang along with Eddy Arnold: “C is for the Christ Child born upon this day. H is for herald angels in the night. R means our Redeemer. I means Israel. S is for the star that shone so bright. T is for the three wise men, they who travelled far. M is for the manger where He lay. A is for all He stands for. S means shepherd’s came. And that’s why there’s a Christmas Day.”
Mama had a much better voice than I do and she often sang while she cleaned or prepared food. Her mood dictated the song. If she was feeling playful she might start Silver Bells with “Shitty sidewalks, busy sidewalks” just to make me laugh. She’d sing Winter Wonderland while cleaning a bathroom and make it seem like a joyous job. Her favorite Christmas song was Willie Nelson’s Pretty Paper, and it is my favorite to this day. I can’t hear it without remembering our marathon wrapping sessions with pretty paper, ribbons, pens and scissors spread out on the bedspread of my parents queen-sized bed as she sang that song to me.
Daddy would take out his Gibson guitar and play Buck Owens’ Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy or Merle Haggard’s Going Home for Christmas for me. I’d make requests and he would sing and play, spending time with me that I have never forgotten and cherish as some of my best memories of him. To this day, I see him there on the sofa by the fireplace whenever I hear a good country Christmas song.
A Marshmallow World by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra will always be a favorite because it reminds me of my brother, Curtis. When he was in the sixth grade holiday play, he had to walk across the stage in front of the whole school singing, “Oh, it’s a yum yummy world made for sweethearts, take a walk with your favorite girl …” while hand-in-hand with the homeliest girl in his class. Of course, I teased him about it for years.
Frosty the Snowman by Jimmy Durante and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by Burl Ives bring back memories of those beloved Christmas shows I HAD to watch every year before it really felt like Christmas. Back in 2012, Cee Lo Green did a remake of You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch that rivaled the original 1966 version by Thurl Ravenscroft and reminded me how much I LOVED the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas television show. I know I watched it no less than a dozen times during my childhood.
In our home Christmas morning present unwrapping was always accompanied by scratchy vinyl records played on a console record player that was no less than six feet long, two feet deep, and three feet high. It was a beautiful piece of furniture that got displaced each year from its spot of honor under the living room window by the Christmas tree. Shoved into a corner, it still managed to deliver the soothing tones of Elvis’ Christmas Album. I especially loved (and still love) the gospel songs he included on it, like There’ll Be Peace in the Valley, I Believe, and Take My Hand, Precious Lord.
When presents were unwrapped, the living room returned to some kind of order, and we were bathed and dressed, we headed to Harmony for Christmas with the Cartner Clan. There were twenty aunts and uncles and an equal number of first cousins, so the house that (after Grandpa’s death in 1970) usually only accommodated my Grandma would swell to fit in about forty-five or fifty people. On the way, we listened to WBT radio playing Christmas tunes. Jingle Bells was a favorite of mine. Something about it reminded me of Over The River and Through the Woods, a Thanksgiving song I loved because it talked about going to Grandmother’s house, which was my favorite place on Earth.
Christmas 1985 was my first as a newly married woman. That year, Alabama released the song Christmas in Dixie. I loved it! “In Jackson, Mississippi to Charlotte, Caroline, and all across the nation, it’s the peaceful Christmas time,” I found myself singing as I decorated my first Christmas tree in our new home together.
That was Darryl’s first glimpse into how much I love Christmas music. I think he was rethinking his vows about five hours into my decorating. Through the years he’s grown to tolerate my obsession or just given up in the war of attrition. When he tires of hearing the old standards, I hit him with newer favorites like Kelly Clarkson’s My Grown Up Christmas List, Brad Paisley and Sara Evans’ New Again or Michael English’s Mary, Did You Know? Those songs help me refocus on what the holiday is really about and put the CHRIST back in Christmas for me.
When I’m missing my Grandma Cartner, who passed July 5, 1999 or my Mama, who passed August 12, 2001, I listen to It Won’t Be Christmas Without You by Brooks and Dunn or It Won’t Be The Same This Year by Vince Gill. Listening to their words about their loss of a loved one makes me feel less alone in my grief. I try to focus on the love both of them had for Christmas and shared with family and friends that time of year. I try to channel their Christmas joy and listening to the music they loved and shared with me makes the memories flow and Christmas Present seem a little brighter.
Last year, my Daddy gave me his old Gibson guitar. After several mishaps with circular saws that took the tips of two fingers, he can no longer play it. I display it proudly, year-round, in my living room. As I decorated with the hundred or so Santa Clauses I have collected in honor of my mother, the world’s best Santa, I looked over at that guitar and thought, ‘What I wouldn’t give to hear Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy played and sang by my Dad again!’