Stephen F. Austin State University

Making memories at Christmastime (December 2019)

Making memories at Christmastime

By Van Craddock

Want to make some history this Christmas?

Generations of families will gather all around East Texas this holiday season to exchange presents, eat too much food and, hopefully, take time to remember the biblical reason for the season.

It's also a perfect time to preserve some family history. Chances are you'll be under the same roof with a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. They all have stories to tell. But (bah humbug!) there will come a day when you won't be able to ask them about their childhoods, courtships and other life experiences.

Better Half's late mom, Helen, left us a wonderful gift … some sixty short stories she wrote in the 1980s about growing up in rural East Texas. The tales are in a collection called "Mamaw's Memories" that we bound and gave to our children.

One of Helen's stories was about Christmas, which she called "my favorite time of year. Maybe that is why I chose Christmas Eve 1941 for my wedding day."

As a child in Nacogdoches County, she fondly remembered the family home "had a small tree, a branch put in a bucket by the fireplace, which we would put chains, etc., on. We hung our stockings on the fireplace. Christmas morning we would find our toys - girls, a doll; boys, a truck or small train … As we became older we received an appropriate book, fountain pen, cheap bracelet or necklace, gloves or scarf."

Christmas also meant church on Christmas Eve with "a large tree placed in the corner of the church and decorated by the church ladies," carols, a sermon, an appearance by Santa and "cedar branches in the church windows. There were candles that were lighted. I thought everything was just beautiful," Helen remembered.

December was hitching time for my grandparents, too. Bill Latimer and Abbie Whiteman got married on Christmas Day 1917, at the Methodist parsonage in Clarksville, Red River County.

"I wore a gray wool dress and gray high-top shoes, a gray coat with black fur collar and a rose velvet turban hat," my grandmother told us in a 1979 interview, two years before her death. My Granddad wore "a blue suit with vest. It was misting that day. Not too cold." Then they crossed the Oklahoma border to spend their wedding night in Idabel, returning to Clarksville the next day.

Abbie's parents didn't know they were getting married. Her mother found out about the wedding when a relative told her and asked, "How do you feel to be related to the Latimers?" Abbie's mom replied, "We're related to everything else. We won't draw the line there!"

The marriage lasted almost fifty-four years, until my grandfather's death in 1971.

I'm so glad we sat down and reminisced with my mother, Dorothy, about her life several years before her death in 2010 at age eighty-nine. One of the subjects was long-ago Christmases.

As a youngster, Christmas Eve meant stockings ("They always had fruit in them") and food put out for Santa. "I remember we left Santa a sandwich one time and he didn't eat it," my mother recalled. "It made me mad!"

Then there was the Christmas that my Mom "heard someone cracking nuts under the tree. Dixie (her sister) and I got up to peek. Maw (my grandmother) heard us get up and made us get back in bed." On another occasion East Texas had gotten a rare Christmas snow. "I saw tracks on my window sill and I just knew it was a reindeer," my mother remembered. "Now I realize it was probably just a cat."

These accounts of Christmases past from our families are priceless. So here's your assignment during Christmas break:

Schedule a time to sit down with your "chronologically challenged" relatives and let them talk about their lives. Write it down, video it, preserve it in some way before it's too late. It'll be a grand gift to your family.

Here's to a history-making Christmas.