Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Merry Christmas from the Family, Texas-style

If you’ve ever heard the song “Merry Christmas from the Family” written and performed by Robert Earl Keen, then you probably already know where this column is headed.

Christmas in Texas is far from the classic Currier and Ives print images we’re used to seeing this time of year. Around here, it’s usually 85 degrees with 95 percent humidity and we’re all walking around wearing shorts. Keen, who grew up in Houston, said he never saw a chestnut until he was 30 years old and that was in a picture in a book.

The holiday traditions in Texas are…different.

Oh, we celebrate with Christmas trees, turkeys, gifts and carols. But that’s where the similarities end.

My father loved “real” Christmas trees. He wouldn’t have an artificial tree in the house. Every Friday after Thanksgiving, we’d go out to his mother’s farm in Greenville and cut a tree. Our trees were Eastern red cedars. The smell of cedar still conjures up strong holiday memories for me. I was an adult before I learned that some people consider these trees invasive and destructive. It kind of broke my heart, but I felt less guilty about all those years of cutting down those trees in my grandmother’s pasture. Evidently, we were eco-responsible before it was cool.

Some of us celebrate the holiday meal with tamales. My family never did, which surprises me because we’re all nuts about Mexican food. My cousin Rachel could recite the menu of the Mexican Inn in Fort Worth before she could recite the alphabet. I think that’s a tradition we might have to borrow.

I mentioned caroling earlier.

Daddy loved Gene Autry’s version of the song, "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer." He’d sing it. He’d sing loud. And anywhere. Mostly, he’d sing it while my mother and I were trapped in the pickup truck with him, headed to Greenville to see his side of the Family on Christmas Day. Then he’d holler, “Aahh-haaaa!” like Bob Wills after the line, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, had a very shiny nose.”

In our family, we celebrated our immediate family Christmas at about 7:30 a.m. If I didn’t get up first, Daddy would. He’d come into my room, flip the lights on and off and shout, “SANTA CLAUS WAS HERE! HO! HO! HO!” Then he’d run to the living room before I could heft something at his head.

After that, we spent the morning with my mother’s side of the family in Tyler. It was breakfast at Grammo Williams’ house, then presents. At about noon, we’d get in the truck and head to Greenville to see Daddy’s side of the family. There was Christmas Day lunch, then presents, then a football game and finally dinner with leftovers from lunch. Finally, there was the drive back to Tyler. The day was hectic but it was fun. And, though I had no siblings, there were always a bunch of cousins to play with.

The year I turned 12 years-old, I got a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. In Texas, even little girls get BB guns for Christmas. I love watching “A Christmas Story” every year because of that gift. So much of that movie reminds me of the kind of Christmas holidays I had as a child, minus the snow of course. My grandmother even had the old push-button light switches in her house and I remember the same kind of old-fashioned Christmas tree lights being plugged in all in one ungrounded electrical outlet.

No wonder I went to work with firefighters for most of a decade.

You would think that, being from Texas and all Texas-proud that I’d have little Texas and western-themed Christmas ornaments on my tree at home.

Nope.

Santa Claus in cowboy boots, to me, is sacrilege. I like my Santa “traditional.” In cowboy boots, he just looks weird.

I know from personal experience that cats like to chew Christmas tree lights. I remember seeing that poor Persian kitty get zotzed in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and thinking, “That’ll never happen.”

Then I got a Persian cat.

Do not throw a grown-up, glitzy, Dallas-style holiday dinner party with the formal china and champagne, and expect it to go well with a cat in the house. Ever.

Kitty survived, but now and again, I could smell eau de toasted hairball in my furniture’s upholstery some ten years later.

Never, in all my growing up years and beyond, did I ever have a Christmas that looked anything like the fantasies in store catalogs and I’m glad. Our family celebrations put the “fun” in dysfunctional and we all loved each other more for being way less than perfect. As I’ve often heard it said, down here, we’re proud of the weirdos in our family. We like to bring our crazy relatives down from the attic and show ‘em off at dinner. And it’s kind of a Texas thing to look at the whole (Christmas) ball of wax and chuckle at ourselves. I think we’d be disappointed if the holiday went off without a hitch, a heat wave or a redneck relation, so in the words of Robert Earl Keen, “Halleluiah, everybody say ‘cheese!’ Merry Christmas from the family!”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas in Texas means oranges in stockings

I don’t know if this is a strictly Texas thing, but every Christmas of my childhood I got an orange in my stocking. Sometimes I’d get an apple and an orange, but most of the time it was just oranges. As a child, I never understood this.

My father finally explained it to me when I was in high school. He grew up in a farming family and there wasn’t a lot of money. Oranges were a rather expensive gift, especially being out of season elsewhere in the country. Of course, in Texas, we have The Valley down around the Texas-Mexico border and the growing season lasts a long time. But in the days of World War II when my father was a child, it was still tough to come by. Getting an orange in your stocking at Christmas was a pretty big deal.

Often, high school agricultural clubs sell citrus fruit as fund raisers. I remember my mother buying lots of fruit from my high school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. She’d give it to relatives at Christmas and it was always appreciated.

Fruit has been a luxury for a long time. It was in a European renaissance history class at Austin College that I learned about “cloved” fruit. It was traditional for a man from a wealthy or noble family to send a lemon or an orange with cloves stuck in it to a woman whom he wanted to marry. Citrus fruit was exorbitantly expensive then, as were cloves, which were not native to Europe, but to Indonesia. The gift was considered terribly decadent. It showed that the man had the money to support a wife in any style she pleased.

It was at a European renaissance-themed dinner party years later that I saw a man propose to his fiancé with a cloved orange. The ring was tied to a ribbon wrapped around the fruit. It was one of the most creative and romantic wedding proposals I had witnessed. And it made me think of Christmas, home and family.

Oranges have always reminded me of my father. I can remember him coming in from mowing the lawn and peeling an orange to eat. He liked to pass on bits of trivia to me, too; especially, the weird stuff.

“You have all your teeth because of oranges,” Daddy told me. “Pirates figured out a long time ago that if they went without citrus fruit on a long voyage, they’d get scurvy and all their teeth would fall out. So eat an orange.”

I was so grossed out by the mental picture of a toothless, nasty pirate and the thought of losing my teeth that I ate oranges until I was nearly sick.

My father had read that vitamin C prevented cancer as well as colds. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my father peeled oranges until his fingers were raw.

“I’m hoping it’ll keep the cancer from coming back,” he reasoned.

The year before my father died, I had traveled to Florida and brought back a bunch of oranges for him just after New Year’s Day. He had just been diagnosed with cancer. By that time, my mother had been cancer-free for fourteen years. I figured Daddy had been on to something with oranges as a cancer treatment.

It didn’t work, but it was worth a try.

The oranges became a symbol of my parents’ love. While my mother was, as she still is, effusive in her verbalization of love, my father was not. His way of showing his love was by doing things. Peeling an orange and handing it to me or my mother was his way of saying, “I don’t want to lose you.” It was as close as he ever came to saying, “I love you.”

So are oranges in a Christmas stocking a Texas tradition? Well, I don’t know. It’s my family’s tradition, and we’re from Texas, so the math works.

In this particularly difficult year, financially, I’ve thought about giving oranges as gifts. My daughters seem to like them rather well and I have yet to introduce them to the tradition, so I think this is the year to do it. I reckon that when they get around to asking me why they have oranges in their stockings, I can tell them about some of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten at Christmas…or any other time of year.