We all have Christmas memories, but I think we have an internal filter that enhances the good memories while trying to forget the bad ones. But sometimes those sad ones keep coming back to haunt us, and we try to push them to the corners of our minds.
Most of my earliest Christmas memories are related to special Christmas gifts. When I was 13, we lived a mile south of Norphlet near Flat Creek Swamp, where I spent countless hours hunting in the woods and fishing in Flat Creek. That particular Christmas morning, I walked into our living room and there was a Sweet 16 shotgun. I couldn’t believe it. I knew my parents couldn’t afford such an expensive Christmas present and I was delighted. I still have the gun.
Last year I asked Santa to bring me steel animal traps. I had read all of Jack London’s books and other books about mountain men who hunted traps, and I was determined to make a line of traps in Flat Creek Swamp.
After Santa brought me six steel traps and I managed to scrape together enough paper money working odd jobs and handing over coke bottles for a deposit to buy six more, I set my trap line in and near Flat Creek. It was one of my plans to make money, and I was going to clean myself by catching martens. I thought that every week I would catch at least a couple of kuna and that would be it for me — money, money, money.
Well, after a year of trapping, I caught a few raccoons and a bunch of possums, but no mink. Raccoon skins sold for $3.50 because of Davy Crocket’s fur cap, but opossums only 50 cents. I really didn’t clean until Christmas Eve when I went to one of my traps and there was a big rabbit. Mr. Benton, our Norphlet fur buyer, gave me $17 for the hide and I went to El Dorado with Dad to do the Christmas shopping.
This must sound familiar to some of my readers who have read my Christmas novel “The Red Scarf”. In the novel, I used the mink money on Christmas Eve to buy Richard a red scarf for the prettiest girl in Norphlet. Well, in the novel I found a mink on the road after it had just been run over. Getting caught in a steel trap didn’t seem like it fit the story, and I didn’t buy anyone a red scarf.
But there were other Christmases that were sad. When your father has a serious drinking problem and you have a feisty mother who can shoot and slap at the drop of a hat, you’ll be the referee to keep things from turning violent and celebrating Christmas can be a disaster.
Some of my Christmas times will always be dark memories. I hated that Christmas came on the weekend because my dad was afraid to drink during the week because he would lose his job at the refinery.
He was killed by a drunk driver when I was a sophomore in college… He was a drunk driver. After the driver of the other car sued and collected all the insurance money from my mother, it was a sad, quiet Christmas with very few presents.
It didn’t seem like the Christmas celebration came back until Vertis and I started dating. I was still in college, money was tight, but after learning that her favorite color was pink, I scraped together enough money working in the college cafeteria to buy her a pink sweater and skirt.
Vertis remembers a special Christmas when she received a Mouton jacket, a rather expensive coat, which her family with a Baptist minister’s salary could hardly afford.
After college I got a job at EXXON and went to South Texas to work on the King Ranch as a geologist, and we immediately fell into a Tex-Mex Christmas celebration, which always meant a young man knocking on the door selling homemade hot tamales saying “Féliz Navidad.”
After I transferred to Benghazi, Libya, our first Christmas there was bleak. Since I was a drilling geologist, and the rigs don’t shut down for the holidays, I happened to be in the desert that first Christmas Eve. My two weeks in the desert ended on Christmas Day, and Vertis met me at the airport.
On that first Libyan Christmas, we were alone in a foreign country. On Christmas night, Vertis wanted to show me something in downtown Benghazi, and we drove downtown, where there were tall fir trees in a roundabout, and as I drove into that roundabout, I was shocked. It had colored Christmas lights from top to bottom.
“Christmas tree?” I questioned Vertis.
“Dream on, Richard. Libyan Independence Day is very close to Christmas and the lights are to celebrate it.”
Well, that was a small positive point that helped brighten up that first Libyan Christmas, but the rest of Christmas Day didn’t add much. We got home and settled down to listen to BBC tunes on our shortwave radio. The broadcast was from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and as we listened we sat there in a dimly lit room. (Our lights were out as part of a growing city-wide power outage.) I considered leaving EXXON, but I didn’t.
Back in Texas, our Christmases were always a ten-hour drive to El Dorado, but after we moved back in the mid-seventies and built our house, that first Christmas was special. When Lara opened her gift, a jacket with rabbit fur lining, she was so excited she cried.
When our kids were older, we bought our own three-wheelers for teenagers, but a few months later, we got rid of them after Ashley knocked his over and got a concussion and Lara broke hers and dislocated her coccyx.
When I think back to the trip at Christmas, a very different Christmas memory always comes to mind. When our children were 13 and 15, we went on a special holiday to Egypt, and that Christmas we spent Christmas Eve in the hotel where Agatha Christi wrote the novel “Murder on the Nile”, and on Christmas I chartered a sailing boat called a Felucca for 10 dollars, and we sailed on the Nile.
In fact, music, especially choral music, is the perfect way to celebrate Christmas for me. As we sit in front of our fireplace watching Christmas in Belmont, those wonderful carolers bring the season to life. Our church always uses music to celebrate the season, and one Christmas our choir director, Wilson Borosvskis, placed the choir on a live Christmas tree with Vertis as the top of the tree.
Vertis and I love music, especially Christmas music, and Christmas wouldn’t be special for us if we didn’t sing and listen to Christmas music. Christmas music expresses the Christmas spirit, and if I want to feel the mood of the season, just listening to or singing “Good Christmas Men Rejoice” gives me an inner smile that only comes at Christmas.
Richard Mason is an author and speaker. It can be reached at [email protected]