The spirit of a gift that lives on
By Bill Thompson
Christmas 1944 was not necessarily merry for my family or most Americans. Our country was in the midst of World War II. Most immediate concern to us was the fact that it was raining and cold in southeastern North Carolina. I state this based on my mother’s recollection. I was only a little over a year old at the time, so much of what I know of that particular season was told to me. It was to be my first real Christmas.
Like most families during the war, my family listened carefully to the reports of what was happening in Europe and the South Pacific. They learned the names of faraway places that they had never heard of, looked them up in the big atlas book of maps, and waited eagerly for the infrequent letters from sons, uncles and brothers who may have been in those places.
But tradition runs strong in my family and, war or no war, Christmas was a time of celebration. Somehow or other we would recognize the season in as many ways as we could just as we always did.
One major tradition was finding an appropriate tree to decorate. We didn’t have a lot of fir trees in this part of the country, so we made do with pine. Those scruffy little trees didn’t have the perfect symmetry that we associate with Christmas trees. The one my father found for us had some uneven gaps between the limbs and it wasn’t exactly triangular — it more or less resembled a bush. But it was sufficient for decorating with the limited amount of decorations we had. My mother found some big long-leaf pinecones and covered them with white flour that looked like snow. She picked up several of the little prickly balls that fell from the sweet gum trees and draped their long stems on the limbs of the little pine tree. She had saved some of the “icicles,” thin streams of tinsel left over from previous years, and placed them gingerly on the tree. She tied tiny red and green ribbon bows to the limbs. Of course, the biggest, most important, element of the tree decoration was the lights. They were big bulbs of red and green. I still believe that those are the only true Christmas lights.
The actual celebration of the birth of the Christ child was centered around the service held at the little Baptist church. All the family went to the Christmas Eve service and returned home and went to bed. That was it. I was the only child and Santa was not yet a person of my acquaintance, so there was no great anticipation of reindeer and such nor, for a one-year-old baby, much awareness of any of it. But the Thompson tradition of storytelling has passed down the story of that Christmas morning
My mother and father and I lived in a small renovated tenant house on the family farm in Chadbourn. My grandfather and grandmother lived in the “old house” about 100 yards up the road. We were all gathered there for Christmas Day dinner. (Not lunch. Dinner was the noon meal; supper was the evening meal.) After that, we all gathered around the tree in the living room to exchange gifts. My father was the oldest of the five children and the only one married and, of course, I was the only grandchild. The fact that I didn’t have any idea about what was going on, the significance of the season or even who they were did not deter my family from making me the center of attention.
My Aunt Mary Lee was just a year younger than my father. She lived and worked in Wilmington but, like everybody else, she came home for Christmas. My mother told me that Aunt Mary Lee waited until all the other gifts had been opened to present me with her special present. She let me tear the wrapping off but my mother opened the little box that contained the special gift. She removed a large red glass Christmas ball so light and fragile it was almost weightless. It was a wonderful, caring gift. Anything made from glass was very rare during the war. Aware of the fragility of the ornament and the potential danger from the rowdy group, Mama placed it gently back in the box.
Later that evening after we had gone back to our house, Mama took out the Christmas ball, placed it in my little hands and lifted me up to place the ornament on our shabby tree. Each year since 1944, my mother and I repeated that decoration (minus the lifting me up part). She stored that fragile ornament wrapped in tissue paper and stored away until we ceremoniously placed it on the tree at her house each Christmas. Until last year. Time just caught up with the old ornament as it hung on the tree at Mama’s house. The old hanger just detached itself and the ancient glass fell to the floor and shattered into pieces. An old tradition died but the spirit of the gift still lives.
Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.