It was just a 53 acre cattle farm. Probably nothing special to any stranger passing by. It was certainly a beautiful setting, nestled in a little valley in the mountains of East Tennessee, but there are thousands of little farms very much like it sprinkled throughout Southern Appalachia. It was just another lovely little cattle farm–except this one was big enough and special enough to hold the lion’s share of my favorite Christmas recollections. This was my Grandpa and Grandma’s farm, the place of my father’s birth, the old home place of my heart and soul. Growing up, I wouldn’t have traded that little slice of Hawkins County, Tennessee for anywhere else on God’s green earth. Many of my most cherished childhood memories are anchored in that place and, when December rolls around, my mind always wanders back there. Christmases at Grandma and Grandpa’s were magical to me. I spent precious time there every Christmas from my first one to my grandfather’s last one (Grandma passed in 1996 and Grandpa in 2011). The farm is no longer ours to physically visit–a tough fact of life, made even tougher when Christmas time comes around–but my mind still treks back and my soul spends many warm hours there each year.
Since my parents were both educators, they shared the same holiday schedules as my little brother and me. This was a blessing for our family that allowed us to travel together often and, most often, that meant heading to the farm in Tennessee. I’d circle the calendar weeks in advance of any trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s farm and mark off the days before we’d depart. The anticipation before our annual Christmas trip was always nearly unbearable. Finally, zero hour would arrive. I’d eagerly pile into the back seat with my brother and off our little family would go, heading south from our central Indiana flatland home to the hills and hollers of my dad’s birth. We’d leave in the afternoon and the 8-hour drive ahead of us meant that we wouldn’t arrive at the farm until sometime after midnight. A smarter child might have taken the opportunity to sleep, but not me. I was always too keyed up to sleep. I can still remember gazing out the frosty car window and watching the Christmas light displays go by. I’d marked in my memory from prior years the homes along the route that tended to go all out with their decorations each year . Those festive landmarks helped pass the time and marked the miles we’d put behind us. When we reached highway 25E in Corbin, Kentucky, we got off the interstate and the trip slowed down but got more visually interesting. I remember eagerly looking out at the little towns we’d drive through and admiring their Yuletide adornments. One little community in southeastern Kentucky went so far as to place a dozen elaborate light displays, one for each of the 12 Days of Christmas, welcoming motorists as they approached the town. These sights were always delightful for this young boy’s eyes and left an indelible imprint on my warm and fuzzy Christmas memories.
Eventually, we’d reach Goshen Valley Road. This was Grandpa and Grandma’s road. Everyone in the car would be at full attention at this point, partly because we were only minutes away from our destination and partly because, on this serpentine, roller coaster-like road, you’d best pay attention or you’d arrive at the farm with a bad case of motion sickness. After winding our way for the last few miles of the trip, I’d see them up ahead; the blue lights that shown from Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They always had a few outdoor Christmas lights and each window along the front of the house had little Christmas candle lights, each with a blue light bulb shining. To this day, whenever I see a display of blue Christmas lights I feel a flush of nostalgic warmth as I am whisked back to the Tennessee farm.
We’d pull the car up the driveway and park behind the house by the detached garage. Nobody ever came into my grandparents’ home through the front door. The design of the house and its juxtaposition with the parking area made the back door the logical point of entry. That meant that the first room you entered was the back porch. This was a real sensory delight during the Christmas season. Since the room wasn’t heated, the back porch served as a perfect walk-in cooler. This little room was where all the Christmas deserts and treats were kept. Pies, tins of homemade fudges of every description, homemade candies, peanut brittle (or “brickle” as my grandmother pronounced it), fruits, nuts, cakes…
Ah, cakes! One of the first things I looked for when I would go to my grandparents was a cake–not just any cake, but my cake–the red velvet cake. Red velvet cakes have enjoyed a nation wide renaissance in the last decade or so. Nowadays, they are everywhere you look–red velvet this and red velvet that. But when I was a child, I never saw or heard of a red velvet cake at home in Indiana. Most of my friends had never even heard of them. So, to me, red velvet cakes were synonymous with Tennessee and grandma’s house. There was always one awaiting me and, at Christmas, it would be one of the first things I’d see out there on that porch. The delectable sensations of walking into that back porch room are some of my most vivid Christmas memories.
After entering the porch, there was one more door to open to get into the house. That door opened into the small kitchen. It’s fitting that you entered my grandma’s house through the kitchen. It was truly the heart and soul of the home. So much great cooking took place and so many wonderful family meals were consumed in that room. I can close my eyes right now and find my place in the tight little circle of beloved family crammed around that kitchen table. I can still see and smell the spread of country cooked food somehow squeezed into an arrangement that still left just enough room for our plates and silverware. I can still hear my Grandpa’s raspy southern mountain drawl delivering the table grace–I never saw a meal eaten at that table before thanks was given to God. Grandpa always saw to that.
Passing through the kitchen you’d turn right and pass through a glass panelled swinging door into the living room. At Christmas time, the tree would be to your left. My memories of that tree are dominated by the dozens of little red birds that were perched on its branches. Those birds fascinated me as a youngster, particularly since one of them was electronic and could audibly chirp. As a small child, I remember trying to figure out which one it was. All around the base of the tree was always an impressive stack of Christmas gifts–a stack which was about to become much larger by the gifts that we’d brought along in the trunk of our car.
The morning offered a chance to get outside and explore. The Christmas season weather in eastern Tennessee could be a mixed bag from one year to the next. Some years could be pretty mild and some years might be snowy and cold. The snowy years are the ones that cling most to my memory.
Stepping outside the house in the light of day I’d stand and drink in the views up and down the valley. About a mile down the road could be seen the Goshen Valley Church of God. That tiny country church played a large role in my family story. It was that church’s denominational affiliation that had helped send my father to college in Anderson, Indiana where he met my mother.
Most of the little farms between that church and my grandparents’ home were occupied by my extended family. Nearly everywhere my eyes could land in the beautiful pastoral scenery spread out before me connected me to family. I knew that, even as a young boy, although I couldn’t fully appreciate how special that was until I was older.
I’d scan the lofty ridges that surrounded me in all directions. This landscape was so different from central Indiana. I loved these mountains–I always did and still do. There is something unseen in the topography that I have always sensed. There are ancient voices that haunt those hills, you can hear them in the breeze—just as those little farms connected me to my family, those voices connected me to all of history. I could always hear them–still do.
One special feature of the farm was a beautiful holly tree that grew on a hillside behind the house that overlooked the back pasture field. No trip to the farm at Christmas time would be complete without visiting the holly tree and snipping off a small bough to add a natural touch to the trimmings in the house.
Grandpa always raised a few cattle, usually a couple dozen or so. In the winter, they needed feeding. That was a special treat for my brother and I because we’d get to ride on the hay-laden carry-all behind the tractor as Grandpa would drive us over the hills. We’d cut open the bales of hay and spread out sections of it along the ground for the cattle to eat. We were real farmers for all you knew!
The snow and hills also offered the perfect scenario for sledding. Many a thrilling hour was spent careening down the slopes on makeshift sleds of plastic, cardboard, or whatever material we could find. While mom and grandma worried about us injuring ourselves, little brother and I were usually more worried about dodging snow covered cow patties.
Christmas Eve was our night to open presents. My memories are full of the warmth of those special nights. There were the presents, of course, but my fondest and most vivid memories are not of gifts.
A strong memory is actually centered in that little bathroom at the end of the hall. At Christmas time, the toilet seat cover featured Santa Claus. When the lid was down, old Saint Nick was smiling and waving at you, when the lid was open, he bashfully covered his eyes with his bemittened hands–that little gag never failed to amuse and, if my wife would let me, I’d have one in our home at Christmas.
While secular imagery was in the mix, the reason for the season was always prominent in my grandparents’ home at Christmas time. I have fond recollections of the little nativity scene that sat on the coffee table in the living room. I used to love to play with those figures. Next to that sat a brass candle fixture that had dangling angels which, when the candles were lit, would spin around due to the heat energy–a merger of religious imagery and science that I found endlessly fascinating.
Some traditions were followed each year without fail. My little brother and I would always have to pose for a picture in front of the Christmas tree–whether we wanted to or not. Eventually, this tradition, which continued into our adulthoods, evolved to include Teddy bears.
Another annual Tennessee family Christmas ritual involved my saintly grandmother. No gifts were opened until Grandma held court. It was a time honored tradition that Grandma would read aloud the second chapter of Luke from the family Bible. I’m happy to report that Grandma’s example rubbed off as my mother has kept this tradition going. Grandma’s been gone more than 20 years now, but her legacy is alive and vibrant. I never knew anyone more dedicated to fervent prayer. Her motto was prayer changes things. If Grandma knew you, she was praying for you. Oh, how I adored that sweet lady.
Gift opening time is a blur in my memory. The recollections come in bits and pieces.
There was the year that the only gift I truly wanted was a BB gun. I wanted one so badly I could taste it. All the presents were opened and there was no BB gun. I can actually remember consciously trying to hide my severe disappointment–I doubt I really pulled that off. As the piles of discarded wrapping paper were being gathered up, I remember Grandpa finding a slip of paper with a note scribbled on it. The note said for me to go down into the basement and look behind the freezer. When I did so, I found my brand new BB gun. To this day, that is the most memorable single present I ever received. And no, I didn’t shoot my eye out.
Other memories involve my grandma getting tickled about something. Grandma loved to laugh and she had an infectious kind of chuckle. But once in a while, she’d get tickled to the point where she couldn’t even be heard. I don’t have a specific memory of any one instance of this happening, but more of a conglomeration of many instances that have merged into one. She’d start off with her routine chuckle and before you knew what happened, she’d go right over the edge. No sound would come out and you’d just see her shoulders bouncing up and down. Whenever this happened, everyone would just lose it and we’d laugh until our sides hurt.
Another fond memory of my Tennessee Christmases is watching others open their presents. This is where I learned what the old saying, it’s better to give than to receive, actually means. Somewhere along the path of turning from young child to young man, I began to truly enjoy watching others open their presents nearly as much as opening my own. I particularly liked to watch my grandpa open his gifts. Grandpa did so methodically. He used his ubiquitous pocket knife to open his gifts delicately. I never saw Grandpa tear open a present. After he’d open his package with great precision and care, he’d study the gift thoughtfully, then carefully look at the tag. He’d then grab a little pad of paper and make a notation in it. It wasn’t until I was an older child that I figured out what he was doing. He was making notes so that he would remember who’d given him each and every gift. I am still impressed by that ritual to this day.
My grandparents are gone from this earth. The family farm is now a part of some other family’s Christmas traditions. I haven’t had a Tennessee Christmas in the physical sense for several years now. Not a Christmas goes by that I don’t miss it. But, my heart and soul go back each year.
I wish for you a Christmas season in which you make family memories with your kids and grandkids that their hearts and souls can return to long after you’ve gone on.