Growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast wasn’t what most would consider the best place to spend Christmas. In my lifetime, there’s never been more than a whiff of a white Christmas while stormy weather has dampened some holidays, including a rare tornado.
White Christmas and Jingle Bells were two Christmas songs that were meaningless odes to an alien, snowy world to those like me who grew up with a better chance of sweating on the most wonderful day of the year.
Despite the less-than-traditional holiday weather, there was a magic about Christmas there that won’t be on the cover of a card that will live in my memories forever.
My father’s parents lived on 20 acres of land just a few miles outside of Bayou La Batre, which was founded by a pair of French settlers from a Spanish land grant in the 1700s and brands itself “The Seafood Capitol of Alabama.” When it came to Christmas spirit, it was hard to find a place with more than their house.
My grandmother had this huge, fat artificial tree in the living room that she decorated with a mishmash of different lights and ornaments. I remember how the tree lit up the room in a riot of color with the overhead light off. There were fat C7 bulbs with their warm, dull glow, bubble lights that intrigued me endlessly and mini lights were starting to become the rage in the early 1980s. As a child, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
The Christmas feast was second to none at my grandparents’ house. Since my grandfather tended a massive garden, there were plenty of fresh vegetables done with plenty of bacon and salt to taste. There was more ham and turkey than a U.S. Army division could eat in one sitting. There was sweet potato casserole topped with melted marshmallows and macaroni crowned with a thick layer of melted cheese. The crowning achievement was the dessert table.
There my grandmother’s real genius in the kitchen was revealed. She made lemon pie with the perfect balance between tartness and sweetness, with the meringue drizzled with drops of honey for appearance sake. There would be a huge German chocolate cake made by my aunt that was a multi-layered delight of pecans, icing and moist, chocolaty layers.
My grandmother’s signature dish was her coconut cake, which looked like a slice of snowy heaven. My grandfather, who lost his leg and eye in the hedgerow country in France during World War II, would laboriously slice the coconut with a razor blade until it was so thin it would melt in your mouth with every bite. I’ve had other coconut cake and nothing even comes close.
The most memorable Christmas for me was 1983. One of those Alberta Clipper cold fronts brought record-smashing cold weather to the Gulf Coast that hasn’t been seen since. While low temperatures in the teens aren’t unknown in Mobile, the eight degree low recorded the day after Christmas that year was a record that still stands. Part of Mobile Bay even froze.
The cold started a few days before Christmas. I remember my parents would take us to visit both sets of grandparents at Christmas, with one family getting a visit from us on Christmas Eve after Mass and the other for lunch on Christmas Day. We were visiting my father’s parents on Christmas Eve and I remember how my mother wrapped me so tightly in jackets and sweaters that I couldn’t cross my arms, kind of like the younger brother in A Christmas Story.
My father, who worked at the Chevron oil refinery in Pascagoula, was dreading going to work on Christmas Day and we got to open our presents before he left for work in his clattering diesel Volkswagen. When it was time to head to my great grandmother’s house, we got in my mother’s green Monte Carlo with a hood so large you could land a helicopter on it. She tried to get the nearly decade-old machine’s anemic V-8 to turn over. Kunka-kunka-kunka-kunka…nada. So my mother phoned her younger brother and he came by to pick us up in his old Toyota that was able to start that day.
A few years later, Coca-Cola rugby shirts were the rage and the forecast for Mobile was for the mid 80s. My great grandmother brought us a piñata and the great grandchildren took whacks at it with a broomstick. The only problem was she'd forgotten to fill it with candy and trinkets and when it broke, there was nothing for the kids to collect.. We all got a good laugh, especially her.
So if your memories of Christmas are like mine and not filled with snowy days and winter wonderlands, fret not. The Christmas spirit is alive and well even in places where you're more likely to sweat on the most wonderful day of the year. Merry Christmas to you all.