How Each Christmas Ornament Tells Our Southern Story:-Our Christmas tree reads like a vintage Southern romance every year. It’s about our roots, people, and selves. Almost every ornament has a tale.
Let’s start with the tree, which is always real and huge and usually from a choose-and-cut tree farm in picturesque Ashe County, North Carolina’s mountains.
When we moved in 20 years ago, a famous town matriarch stopped me on the street and said, “My deah, you should nevah use colored lights on your historic home. She hit me hard on the shoulder and vanished.
I did it anyway and still do. We put colored lights on every Christmas tree we have, and we have them everywhere—on the front porch, back porch, den, kitchen, and the big one between the dining room and living room, covered in our heritage ornaments.
How Each Christmas Ornament Tells Our Southern Story
- My boyhood in Grundy, Virginia, where my father, Ernest Smith, mined coal, inspired the handmade Appalachian ornaments. He eloped with my lovely mother, Virginia Marshall (nicknamed “Gig”), married her on Christmas Eve 1930, and carried her home to the mountains.
- She loved her partner, but she missed Chincoteague Island, her childhood home on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Mama’s carved Chincoteague pony and measuring spoons depict her as a home economics teacher and famed cook.
A Childhood Memory
- This was the time for sleigh rides down Hoot Owl Holler, cousins visiting from far away, and the annual pageant in our little stone Methodist church, where I was first an animal, then a wise man in a bathrobe, and finally an angel—but never the Virgin Mary because I had curly hair. Virgin Mary reportedly had straight hair.
- Christmas was also my dad’s Ben Franklin dime store on Main Street’s busiest period. I “worked” in the store as a child, caring for dolls. I combed their hair and posed them at Christmas. I adored raising their arms so they could hug any little girl on Christmas morning. Our holiday tree still has a doll or two standing alongside, arms up, hopeful.
- Never have I lived without a Christmas tree. However, life is lengthy and the world will change. Christmas is a minefield, an emotionally charged occasion that is frequently too significant and indicative of an ideal we will never achieve.
- The tree will lean, the cake will collapse, the cousins will fight, and Grandpa will overdrink. Everything will change eventually. Someone will always be absent. I divorced after two boys and a young marriage.
- My lonesome post-divorce Christmases were instructional and meaningful (in their own way), but I misplaced my seashell wind-chime ornament from the nameless motel on the Outer Banks where I spent an alone holiday with a candle and a Big Mac.
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A New Beginning
- But “It’s never over till the fat lady sings!” says an opera-singer ornament given to me by rock and roller and born survivor Marshall Chapman. A happy second marriage to journalist Hal Crowther and a gorgeous stepdaughter, Amity, have brought me joy.
- It also carried several boxes of Scottish, Buffalo, and Boston relatives’ handblown glass decorations. Crowther Christmases were fun with Uncles singing and a massive (rare) meat roast with Yorkshire pudding.
Celebration of Life
- I received the beat-up red-and-white Christmas stocking in a hospital delivery room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 23, 1969, along with my “Christmas baby,” Joshua Seay.
- He was born screaming at 6 pounds 7 ounces. Normal baby boy—miracle. Josh, who died of a heart attack in 2003 after years of brave daily battle with schizophrenia, is gone, but I retain his stocking. Instead of mourning Josh at Christmas, we celebrate his extraordinary life.
Our Life Story
- We always decorate our tree with wonderful treasures. I still make fudge, “sticks and stones,” pound cake, and oyster casserole. Today, we follow the kids. Santa Claus, new bikes, humorous gifts, and big embraces are the highlights of the Christmas season for kids.
- A church pageant with my granddaughter Ellery as Mary—with straight hair—is coming up. My husband and I will stay up late that night admiring our Christmas tree’s protective boughs, its old, gleaming angel, and all those twinkling colorful lights.
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