A Christmas Story

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stove lighter

When I grew up, we lived in a southern bungalow that had no central heat. Maybe you recognize the gas stove in the picture. It sat a bit recessed inside the mantle and there was no chimney. I vaguely wondered how Santa left gifts with no chimney to come down, but in my child’s mind, a phantom chimney magically appeared inside the wall on the night before Christmas.

One Christmas Eve morning, when I was still in my teens, a shrill jangle of the phone at 6 A.M. jarred me awake. From my room I heard Mamma answer with a startled, “Hello,” Two seconds of silence—then, a shriek, then hysterical laughter.

“You got me!” Mamma cried.

I slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to her door. Laugh tears streamed down her cheeks as she hung up the phone.

“Mamma Teenie,” she said, still laughing as she wiped her eyes. “Got my Christmas Eve gift again this year! I should have known no one else would call at this hour, but I was in such a sound sleep, dreaming about Queenie Matthew’s Devil’s Food cake.”

Mamma Teenie was my grandfather’s sister. She and her daughter, Benfordine, lived two houses away from us in “the big house” at the top of the hill.

Mamma and Mamma Teenie out-teenaged me in knowing how to have fun. They cut-up so in public it often led me to deny kinship. One Halloween when they were about ages 40 and 60 respectively, they traipsed all over town trick-or-treating. They adored discussing whether so-in-so’s party had been “worth dirtying up a pair of drawers for.” They played Bridge and Canasta, went fishing, and thoroughly celebrated life. But getting each other’s Christmas Eve gift was their game of choice.

The game could only be played on Christmas Eve, and it involved being the first to say, “Christmas Eve gift.” Mamma Teenie always won.

“Since she beat you, do you have to give her a Christmas Eve gift and a Christmas gift?” I asked, looking out the window toward Mamma Teenie’s house in the cold, darkness of that Christmas Eve morning.

“You don’t give a gift,” Mamma explained. “It’s just a thing people say.”

“It’s stupid, then,” spoke the voice of my teenage wisdom.

She turned a serious face in my direction. “A thing is never stupid, if it brings some joy in this life. Why don’t you play with us? Call her back and get hers.”

“Puleeze. Anyway, she’d answer with ‘Christmas Eve Gift instead of ‘hello,’ and get me before I had a chance.

“I should have thought to do that.”

“Who can think at this hour?” I said.

“Well, you can get hers when we go to Brummett’s,” Mamma said. “She’ll be off guard. The minute she gets in the car, get her!”

Even Christmas itself with all the gifts, the table set with mamma’s best dishes, and the laughter of family and friends, was anticlimactic compared to the anticipation and excitement Christmas Eve stirred in me.

The highlight of the morning was a trip to Brummett’s Grocery with Mamma and Mamma Teenie to get sausage for Christmas morning breakfast. Mr. Brummett raised his own hogs, butchered and smoked them, and made his own sausage. No hormones, no nitrites, no chemicals tainted his meats. Mr. Brumett’s sausage cakes, cooked in Mamma’s black iron skillet and sandwiched inside her homemade biscuits, constituted one of life’s great fulfillments.

The day was dazzling cold with a sunny, blue sky when Mamma drove into Mamma Teenie’s circle driveway. Cousin Benfordine stepped out on the porch and waved with a smile that turned her eyes to slits.

“We’ve been in the kitchen since before sunup putting the big pot in the little one,” Mamma Teenie said, her eyes twinkling as she climbed into the front seat beside me. Her fragile arms pulled me into a hug. “Hiya doin’ this morning?”

“Ready to get you,” I said, giving her my own mischievous grin. “Christmas Eve Gift!”

Her face crinkled. Her mouth flew open, first in shock, then in the kind of laughter that doesn’t make a sound. Her tiny body shook. She threw back her head and leaned clear to the dashboard howling silently. This went on for so long Mamma and I exchanged anxious looks.

“I thought I was done with you all,” she said, when she finally caught her breath, “and bless Patsy, if this little one didn’t get my Christmas Eve Gift.”

“I got it, Mamma Teenie,” I said, as she dabbed at her face with the hem of her red plaid skirt, “but it’s a senseless game.”

She frowned. “It’s not senseless, but it’s hard to explain the meaning since there’s no gift involved.” She cocked her head and her eyes took on a faraway look. “Long years ago, my mamma and daddy, and everyone we knew played it.” A jiffy later the somber moment passed and she was all smiles again. “Don’t worry about what it means,” she said, patting me on the knee. “It’ll make all too much sense to you some day.”

We joked and gossiped all the way to Brummett’s that bright Christmas Eve. My mind can still see the little market, crowded with folks we knew, that day and all the other Christmas Eves we went there together.

During those years the hope of getting a stereo and new records, or a TV, or that a certain boy would call for a date to midnight church services kept my fingers cold and my stomach jittery all day. And through those years Mamma and Mamma Teenie played “Christmas Eve Gift.”

When I grew up, married and got a home of my own far away from our little town, I taught my family and friends how to play “Christmas Eve Gift.” Despite my lame efforts to explain what the game meant, they played with enthusiasm, as if the winner would get a million dollars.

Over the years the meaning of this game quietly seeped into my consciousness. Now I know the secret—why Mamma Teenie couldn’t or didn’t want to put it into words that day. The simple game, “Christmas Eve Gift,” is a doorway to the past that brings back Mamma and Mamma Teenie and the sound of their laughter. It calls up memories of other loved ones, now gone, and of all those long ago Christmas Eves. And somehow, for just a moment, we are together again.

In spite of no chimney, Santa managed to come.

Miracles happen!

Santa and star

 

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14 Comments on "A Christmas Story"

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Andrew Speno
Guest

Yes. The true meaning of Christmas: memories of loved ones, near and far, still here and already gone.

Kathy M
Guest

Hey, Josephine …
CHRISTMAS EVE GIFT!!!
Probably not first, but I wanted to give it a shot!

Sue Ellen Bullock
Guest

Lovely story. I think you sent it to me years ago in a trio of stories about our home town. Have you written more about El Dorado? Such wonderful memories, and I love the way you bring the story around to the true meaning of the game. Goosebumps.

karen odenbach
Guest

you are so talented and beautiful. love this story

Jeri Thompson Rowe
Guest

You probably don’t remember me since we were in different grades in El Dorado….but we do have something else in common….Brummett’s grocery store. Your story brought back warm memories of my mother, sister and I walking to his store to get our groceries. What a sweet man he was and what wonderfully, simple days we grew up in. It didn’t take a lot to make us find joy in life. Thanks for the memories and the great story.

Gavin Keenan
Guest

Very nice remembrance, Josephine. Merry Christmas to you and Frank.
Cousin Gav and Josie.

Signa
Guest

Your story stirs up all our own memories of the little insignificant things that become tradition and bind families together. These are the humble, yet vital elements of love!

Arlene P.
Guest

Yes, in South Arkansas, we did that back in my childhood.

Kathy Myers
Guest

Josephine, you KNOW I adore this, and can hear your lovely southern drawl in every sentence. And the names! Cousin Benfordine … you just don’t hear names like that anymore, at least not up hear in Yankee land. Bless you for keeping these wonderful memories alive! Kathy M

Linda Hall Fordyce
Guest
Loved this! We play it in our family, too, only it doesn’t start until after noon. Grandmother Wesson almost always got us first. I can see her waiting on the front porch when we’d drive up on Christmas Eve. She said it with delight with three shakes of her apron and then stood beaming while we climbed the steps onto the porch. She was five feet tall with sparkling brown eyes. The whole visit started with hugs and laughter. Thank you for bringing up all these wonderful memories. I’m forwarding this to all my family. Love to you and Frank!
Carolyn Terry
Guest

Oh my, a wonderful story. My grandfather (Poppa) would say, “Christmas Gift!” I always thought it was his way of saying Merry Christmas. A sweet memory that this story brought back to me.

Pollyann G. Powers
Guest

My family also carry on the tradition of “Christmas Eve Gift”, but we always gave some insignificant gift. My mother always gave a quarter, wrapped in a tiny box. Daddy would always give a pretty rock from the yard. Misty would give a rose, cut from the garden, and I gave a sea shell from my collection. I enjoyed reading your memory. Cousin Pollyann

William Emmons
Guest

Love the story. This time of year sure brings up “old” memories. We all have them.
God bless, Merry Christmas and Happy NewYear.

Kathy Cannon Wiechman
Guest

Christmas memories are a precious gift. And the older we get,the more of them there are to savor. Merry Christmas memories Josephine!

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