Dec. 25, 1968 // Ft. Payne, Alabama
Grandma Elvie’s table drowns in food. Platters of chicken and sliced ham and fried livers. China bowls of green beans and okra and baby limas—vegetables she grabbed from the pantry where summer is preserved in Mason jars. Three kinds of potatoes. More rolls than we can possibly eat. A red-and-green runner spans the length of the table, but it’s buried in dishes. We’re starving. My cousins and I have been down the hill playing football all afternoon, and we smell like grass. My grandfather asks Uncle Greg from Texas to say grace. Uncle Greg is not a religious man, but he doesn’t refuse the request. Instead, he launches into a prayer that lasts a solid five minutes. He blesses everything he can think of. He blesses each of my grandfather’s fox hounds by name. He blesses my grandmother’s Ford Fairlane. He blesses Hydrox cookies and homemade ice cream. He blesses Democrats. He blesses each of us cousins, each of his shotguns, all of his cowboy boots. He blesses Bear Bryant. Our eyes are open by now, so we see my grandfather finally hold up his hand. Uncle Greg smiles and stops, but he is never again asked to pray. And the food somehow stays warm through the long grace. (continued on page 80)
Dec. 25, 1982 // I-75, outside Atlanta
I am heading somewhere in my dinged-up, white, ’68 Mustang with the bad suspension, squeaking my way across Georgia. I am trying to catch up with family or a girlfriend or both. I stayed behind to grade essays because I’m in graduate school, and graduate school can make you do silly things on holidays. I stop at the Waffle House near the Ringgold exit. It is the only place I can find open. One waitress and one cook inside, a bored pair exiled to work on Christmas Day. Without saying so, we feel sorry for each other. I can tell that we wonder who’s the most pitiful—the ones who work on Christmas or the ones who drive right through it. I put all my quarters in the juke box and order a patty melt and hash browns, smothered and covered. The waitress calls me “honey” a lot, and she asks if Santa has been good to me. I mop the last of the potatoes with a crust of bread. When she hands me the check, I see that she hasn’t charged me for the sweet tea. She’s written Merry Xmas on the tab in a big loopy, eighth-grade handwriting. Three exclamation points, one for each of us.
Dec. 25, 1993 // Morningdale Dr, Greenville, SC
My daughter doesn’t understand the concept of brunch. She is six years old, and the idea that you can combine two words—or combine two meals—is alien to her. She occupies the literal age, where the world is still black and white, and brunch lives in some gray area she can’t yet see. Her younger sister doesn’t seem to care. She just wants to eat, no matter what it’s called. They have both worked up an appetite ripping paper off presents and chasing a couple of new kittens around the house. This brunch is mobile, meant to be carried to other rooms. It begins on the kitchen counter: two sausage-and-egg casseroles still bubbling in Pyrex dishes. A deep bowl of fruit that looks a little lean in the winter. Pitchers of orange juice and iced tea. The six-year-old says this isn’t any big deal. This is just breakfast. I try to explain that it’s all about when you eat, not what. She snarls at me, balancing a square of casserole on a paper plate, waddling among the Christmas debris, looking for a place where she can sit and eat breakfast or lunch or brunch.
Dec. 24, 2004 // Main St, Greenville, SC
I make a decision not to cook on Christmas Eve. That’s when I’m with my daughters this year, just Christmas Eve. I’ve been divorced long enough to know that you shouldn’t try to duplicate the holiday meals you used to eat as a family. That’s impossible. Recipe for disaster. Plus, my culinary repertoire is somewhat limited, especially during the holidays, so I take a hint from A Christmas Story (the one on the TBS marathon, not the one in the Bible) and head downtown looking for an open restaurant. Just like in A Christmas Story, the Chinese place on Main Street is lit up with its usual neon. We are the only people eating Chinese tonight. We point out the best of the grammatical errors on the menu. We decide to order several things and share. Sesame chicken, beef with broccoli, lo mein. I put too much hot mustard on my egg roll, and what hair I have left starts to sweat, which makes both of my daughters laugh, especially when I mop my head with a cloth napkin. When he sees us laughing, the waiter decides to become an impromptu stand-up comic. He tells us Chinese knock-knock jokes with punch lines we can’t understand, but we laugh anyway. We laugh a lot that night. Because it feels good. Because it’s Christmas.
Dec. 25, 2012 // Lake Murray, SC
The first Christmas since my mother died. My sister and I pack my father’s house with grandkids and animals, trying to make enough noise to distract him from his new loneliness. She cooks in the kitchen that belonged to our mother—basting a turkey, checking the potatoes, pushing a finger onto a pie crust. She wants to tent the rolls with aluminum foil, but she can’t find any. Dad has to show her which drawer. I slide the extra leaf into the table because there are seven of us for dinner tonight. Dad offers to set the table. Good sign, we think. He’s pitching in. He’s helping. My sister deals out trivets like playing cards and fills the table with hot dishes. My daughters pour the tea. Not until we sit do we notice my father has laid out eight place settings. There’s an empty plate with its knife and fork and spoon where my mother used to sit. Suddenly, the noise in the house ceases—no talking, no dogs scurrying on the hardwoods. Just a heavy silence for a moment. Then, without a word, we begin to eat Christmas dinner.