Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Southern Holidays

As I write this, I am recuperating from the family and food that defines Thanksgiving. Now the Christmas holidays stare me in the face, threaten me with the reminder of all the things I have not yet accomplished for the season. I want to focus on my family, my writing, my deadlines and my stories, but instead my mind is now filled to the brim with panic. Who gets what? Where did I store the Christmas wreaths? What do I get my father in law?

I’m not sure when it started, or how, but somehow the Christmas holidays have begun before Halloween. Now I grew up (until the tender age of twelve) north of the Mason-Dixon line, so maybe the south has always started the holidays sometime before the pumpkins are ripe on the vine, but I doubt it.

I could list a passel of reasons I believe that early holidays are bad for all of us, but the biggest amongst these reasons: the kids start forming their Christmas list in October. By December first, the list is so long it resembles a toilet paper roll being unwound through the house. They forget that they have to go to school, or study for tests, or take exams – they’ve been thinking about presents and cookies and vacation for well over two months by now. A severe case of the gimmees take over. Second, the catalogs show up in my mailbox in such plentitude and of such heft that I just throw the whole lot of them in the recycle bin without even looking at them.

Panic and commercialism – is this a true Southern Christmas? I think not – so what is? Wreaths, garland, shortbread, tinsel – we all have our own special memories and I guarantee they don’t have anything to do with “one day sales” or “10 percent off”.

Maybe the myth of a Southern Christmas only resides in books. Or maybe the real Christmas is in an article in Southern Living or Coastal Living where everyone looks happy, the presents are wrapped, the food is cooked and everyone holds a glass of wine and laughs with their family and best friend. Okay, so who decorated the house? Who cooked the food? Who wrapped the presents? Mommy, that’s who, and she’s probably passed out from exhaustion in the back bedroom. So much for Christmas mythology.

Yet, we build our lives around myth and story – if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t write. I wouldn’t have a cricked neck and a larger backside than I did ten years ago. So, is there merely a myth of the truly Southern Christmas? Can it only be found in old photos and faded memory? Or does it exist in the commercialism that starts before the Jack O’Lanterns hit our front porches?

I believe the true Southern Christmas exists in our own stories, in our own homes, in the true Christmas story – the one that started this whole holiday extravaganza. So, in the spirit of the South and of Christmas, this year I am vowing to celebrate story.

Once again, I return to what I’ve said before: I believe in the power of story. When the food is cooked, and the gift-wrap is bunched up, when the good deeds have been done and the poor have been fed, tell your stories around the table. Relay the family story about your crazy Uncle, and your favorite Grandma. Tell the story about the year your sister knocked over the Christmas tree with her pregnant tummy (okay, so I did that, but do they have to bring it up every year?)

I’m not sure there’s a way to back off the holiday panic when the world is decorated in Christmas lights and candy canes, but I’m going to try. I want to create more family stories (even if they are embarrassing), and not more irritation, aggravation and panic.

Patti Callahan Henry’s love of story began at twelve years old when her family moved to south Florida. Bereft of friends, Patti turned to books and story. Now she writes novels, and has just completed her fifth for Penguin, so maybe that moving thing wasn’t so bad after all.


Keetha said...

That is lovely. Thankfully, I come from a family of story tellers and that is always the best part of our get togethers. The food is a close second.

I'll be looking for your books.

Jan said...

I agree...I've seen kids with Christmas lists so long they could make up an Encyclopedia! To me, this isn't what the holidays are about. I tend to get a little nostalgic around Christmastime; I loved watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with my brother and sister, curled up with our blankets and eggnog :) That's why I love the DVD set of the Original Christmas Classics (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Frosty the Snowman, just to name a few)! You can get this limited keepsake edition set at any place that sells DVDs, and it even comes with a bonus music CD! You can also get it at I can't wait to start enjoying this with my children! I work with Classic Media because I think the holidays are about more than just presents and commercialism! Have a great Christmas and I hope it's exactly as you want it :)