Every year on Christmas Eve, my family gathers at my Aunt Jean’s house for a Christmas feast, scripture reading, and gift exchange. The more than 50 members of my extended family cram into the house for the Sexton family’s most cherished tradition.
Before my grandparents passed away, the dinner was held at their house. Daddy lined tables up in the den and kitchen for the adults, and we kids were banished to the laundry room. The formal living room held the Christmas tree and a mountain of presents that took nearly 20 minutes to pass out.
My grandmother hated Christmas. It made her nervous to have that many people for dinner, but she fixed a smile on her face and acted gracious to her guests. Most didn’t even realize she was counting the minutes for them to leave.
My sisters and I knew. Every year, we were in charge of decorating her Christmas tree, and without fail, it was a struggle. Her arguments were the same.
“You are getting those needles all over my floor.”
“Look at the dust on that thing. It’s going to mess up my clean house.”
“I can’t believe, y’all want to drag all of that old junk out of the attic.”
However, when we finished and the mess was cleaned up, she and Granddaddy sat for hours on the sofa in the dark watching the lights.
“I think this is the prettiest one we have ever had,” she said. Of course, every year’s tree was the prettiest tree.
Mother, as everyone called my grandmother, was very stuck in her ways. Loveable and endearing, she was also bossy and the ultimate Type-A. She was where the phrase “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” originated.
During the afternoon on Christmas Eve, Momma sent Rotel dip over to my grandparents for those setting up something to snack on. This began the real Christmas drama.
“You people are going to ruin your appetites and not want to eat any dinner. I have been cooking for a week, and you won’t eat a thing.”
She even called Momma to bless her out for sending over unapproved food.
The real breakdown happened after dinner when Granddaddy and all the grandchildren set off fireworks in the front yard. Bottle rockets, Roman candles, firecrackers, flowers, and other stuff that went boom – my grandfather always stocked up for Christmas Eve.
Of course, my kamikaze cousins used the explosives as weapons – throwing bottle rockets at each other and setting off entire packs of firecrackers at one time.
One year, Momma stepped out on the porch just as my cousin, Lesa, threw a pack of fireworks at her. She tried to swat them away, but they detonated just as they reached her hand. Her thumbnail was blown right off the bed.
Another year, someone put a firecracker in Granddaddy’s back pocket. The old man did a jig across the front yard and walked around all night with a burned place on the back of his pants.
Mother hated the fireworks, and so did I. I hid in the corner of the porch away from the line of fire, but Mother got right out there in the middle of them – hollering and pointing for them to clean the mess up.
After the scripture reading, gifts were handed out, and Mother and Granddaddy retired to their bedroom. Hundreds of gifts were brought to them and laid on their bed. They just sat in chairs by the window and waited for the ceremony to end.
Daddy and my aunts made sure Mother’s house was returned to its original state before they left for the evening, but I will guarantee you Mother spent a week scrubbing and fussing and tidying up. As for the mess in her front yard, my sisters and I were instructed to clean up the firework remains Christmas Day.
For me, Christmas is about tradition. Meals of turkey and dressing. Pecan pies and lime Jello molds. Breakfast with my family on Christmas Day.
However, Christmas Eve will never be the same without Mother’s temper tantrums and Granddaddy’s instigation. The older I get, the more I realize that Mother stressed over the meal and the house and even the Christmas tree because she wanted everything to be perfect for her family.
It’s kind of like that “prettiest tree.” It’s a pain getting it up, and it usually makes a huge mess. But there is nothing like sitting in the dark watching the lights to know it was worth every minute of it.