I have always looked forward to Christmas. Not just Christmas Day, although that was the favorite, but the entire season.
In the early elementary school days, my family evidently had it pretty rough. I had no idea, of course, as my parents felt it their duty to protect their oldest son from the harsh realities of life — realities such as my father being laid off from the factory and not able to get a steady job for years. If we were poor during the Christmas season, there was never an indication.
I was raised in Kingsport, Tennessee, in the far northeastern tip of the state just five miles from Virginia and about forty miles to North Carolina. Kingsport is in the Holston Valley at 1,300 feet elevation, in the shadow of Bays Mountain, a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Davy Crockett was born some forty miles from my birthplace. There is a long and rich history of self-sufficient, self-reliant mountain folk.
A few days after Thanksgiving, my father would go get the Christmas tree. There would not normally be an artificial tree in our house in those days; neither would a tree be sought at a tree lot. The woods or the mountains would give up a tree to my father’s ax and he would transport it back to the house.
My mother would go to the attic and bring down the Christmas box that contained the decorations for the tree. It was a small, two-bedroom home so the tree was all the decoration needed. It was almost always placed in the living room in front of the window so it could be seen from the outside.
My mom and dad, assisted by me and my brother when we got older, decorated the tree. From the Christmas box came the lights with big, multicolored lights, not the tiny white LED lights so popular now. The string of lights would be tested and, if the lights failed to come on, my mother would painstakingly unscrew and replace each light until she found out the uncooperative culprit.
Once the lights were on the tree, the long string of tinsel came next. That was followed by the various colored balls. A finishing touch was plenty of “icicles,” thin strings of aluminum foil purchased in town. Once in a while Mom would string popcorn to be wrapped around the tree and prove food for the birds after Christmas.
No packages were ever placed under the tree. After all, that job belonged to Santa Claus and he didn’t arrive until later. It wasn’t unusual, as the season went along, for us to load up in the car and drive around looking for Christmas lights.
On Christmas Eve, my family and all those on Mom’s side would congregate at the home of my maternal grandparents, Charles and Pashie Duckett. There was plenty of food, so I assume each family brought their own contribution.
Mom’s oldest sister was Blanche who was married to Ray Flynn. Their son, Danny, was the eldest grandchild and four years older than me. Ruby, the youngest sister, was married to John Honeycutt. Their oldest, Johnny, has the same birthday as me but is four years younger. He was followed by sister Pashia and brother Jeff.
My parents were Bill and Kathleen Epps and Wayne, my younger brother, and I helped fill the house on Christmas Eve. Gifts were exchanged, the kids played outside, sometimes shooting off fireworks, and by 10 p.m. at the latest, it was time to go home.
I was sent straight to bed and, for the one day of the year, my bedroom door was closed. If I had to go to the bathroom, I was warned not to look at the tree. If I did, I was assured, Santa would either not stop or, if he had, would return and collect the gifts. We left out milk and cookies for Santa and I went to bed. Not once in all my childhood did I ever look at the tree on that one night.
The next morning, my parents would awake me (and my brother when he was a bit older — I am nine years his senior). The living room had been transformed into a small sea of packages. There was usually one “big” gift and several smaller gifts. Most of the gifts were from Santa but my parents kept up the ruse by having several smaller gifts from them. The rest of the day was spent playing with the gifts and celebrating the day.
One year, I asked Mom to write Santa for a bicycle. My mom hesitated. She explained that it was a big item that might not go on the sleigh. I was disappointed but not disconsolate. I really did want a bike, though. Looking back, I realize that money was tight, and Dad was out of work. Not that he didn’t work. He was one of the hardest working men I ever knew.
In the days before significant unemployment benefits, my dad took any job he could find, no matter how menial or demeaning, to pay the bills. My mom was a mother and housewife and my dad believed that a man provided for his family. For him, it was a matter of responsibility and honor.
He dug field lines, dug the holes for septic tanks, installed fences … whatever it took. Later, at a relatively late age of thirty-something, he would enter an apprenticeship program and become an electrician. He was never out of work after that. But that was in the future.
To this day, I don’t know how they managed it. On Christmas morning, there was a brand-new, shiny, red bicycle. I didn’t know how to ride yet but in the days and weeks ahead, suffering multiple crashes on the graveled, steep, hilly road in front of the house, I would learn. Day after day, year after year, I would ride the bike up the hill and, exhausted, coast down the hill. Over and over it went. That bike changed the course of my life.
An overweight, sedentary kid with little self-confidence, I began to slim down and my leg muscles grew stronger. In the 8th grade, I tried out for the football team at Ross N. Robinson Junior High School. I was a terrible athlete but I tried very hard.
There were only so many royal-blue jerseys to be had. Some candidates would be cut from the team. When the cuts were announced, I found out that I barely made the team. Another kid and I were the only two players to wear light blue jerseys. If there had been a fourth string, I would have been on it.
The next year, I started at center. I played center at Dobyns-Bennett High School, working my way up the ranks, until I was first string my senior year. I also joined the school karate club, eventually earning black belts. I became a U.S. Marine. The Marines led to the G.I. Bill and my ability to finish college and buy our first house. I really think I owe all that to Christmas and a red bicycle.
Several days after Christmas, the tree, now dry and brittle, had served its purpose and would be placed in the woods next door to serve as a shelter for the rabbits and other occupants of the forest. The lights and balls were replaced in the box, the popcorn strings hung on the fence for the birds. Even the icicles, thrown away by most people, were carefully retrieved and placed in the Christmas box which went back into the attic until next year. After all, next year was uncertain.
Christmas Days come to an end but some of the memories linger for life. I still cherish the memories of Christmas Eves at the Duckett home. My grandparents, Mom and Dad, Uncle Ray and Aunt Blanche, Uncle John and Aunt Ruby, are gone now, every one. Wayne and I are both great-grandfathers now, both live in Georgia, me in the Atlanta area, he in Brunswick. The cousins all live in the Holston Valley still. Danny and Johnny are retired, not sure about Jeff but he’d be close. Pashia earned her doctorate and is a Professor and an Assistant Vice-President at Northeast State.
There’s a new generation of family now and another generation that they are raising. I think I understand my grandparents better now. Why did they host all those people in their small house year after year? Because children, grandchildren, and family members are among the greatest of God’s gifts. And, if it is possible to get them all together, then what a wonderful Christmas gift!
Merry Christmas from our Family to Yours!
[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King (www.ctk.life). During the crisis, the church is live streaming at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays at http://www.facebook.com/cctksharpsburg/ He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South (www.midsouthdiocese.life) He may contacted at [email protected]]