Southern Scribe
    our culture of storytelling

 

 Porch Tales   

 

 

Christmas in Sand Flat, Misísippi

By Ulmer Speed

 
 
 

Imagining a fat man with a white beard dressed in a red suit riding in a sleigh being pulled through the snow by reindeer required points of reference unknown to a five-year-old boy living in Sand Flat, Misísippi.  The description of Santa Claus sounded something like the clown we had seen during the halftime show at the basketball game that mama took me to over at the school.  My cousin Doug couldnít figure the Christmas thing out either. We tried.  We asked ourselves why a person would slide down a sooty chimney into a roaring fire pulling a bag full of presents.  We wondered why he brought the whole bag, since he left only a couple of toys anyway.  He would have a better chance at sidestepping the fire holding fruits and nuts and a few toys rather than a full bag.  Our logic was based on Dougís remembrance of getting only two presents last year.  I was sure that I got something last Christmas, but I didnít remember what; that was a whole year ago.  I couldnít think of anything that I needed this year.   

Understanding the snow thing wasnít that easy either.  Since I had never seen snow, Doug explained it as being like a heavy frost, only much heavier.  I was pretty sure that Doug had never seen snow himself, but he was older than I was so I listened to him, promising myself to ask mama for a better explanation.  After Doug left, I asked mama about snow and she told me that snow was frozen rain, only white.  She said some other stuff too but before she finished, I was pretty sure she hadnít seen snow either.  Besides, she couldnít explain why Santa used reindeer rather than snow-deer.  God knows mama always tried to answer my many questions, but she knew more about kitchen stuff than she did anything else.  For example, I thought she did a good job of explaining why people used wood stoves to burn wood.  

Mama had no equal in the kitchen.  Her mastery of kitchen skills, however, revealed itself mostly in her baking.  She specialized in cakes, particularly Christmas fruitcakes.  She used dried figs, dates, cherries, raisins, candied lemon and orange bits and other good tasting things held together with a mixture of flour, milk, and eggs with just a sprinkling of nutmeg.  She added the nutmeg to make the cake smell good.  Well, if she didnít thatís the way it seemed to me.  She blended pieces of hickory nut or black walnut into several of the cakes for variety.  As her helper, I got to lick all the mixing bowls, but concerned that I would get sick by eating all that raw cake dough she suggested that I run up the road and ask Dougís mama if he could come over and help me with my chores.   

At first aunt Flora didnít want Doug to go back with me because she said an extra youngíen would interfere with mamaís baking.  Finally, she let Doug go back with me to spend the night to save her sanity from his and my whining and begging and my assurance that mama had sent me to get him.  He took over the bowl-licking when we werenít bringing in stove wood or arguing about just how hard I would find the first grade.  Doug had not done well in school and, because we were first cousins, predicted that I wouldnít do all that well either.  Mama tolerated our arguing as nothing more than kinfolk fun but drew the line at fighting in the house.  Consequently, several differences were taken to the porch to settle.  If I hit him first or got him down I stood an even chance of not getting hurt too badly, unless we rolled off the porch.  He was older and bigger that I was; he was in the third grade already.  After the cakes cooled we got to soak them with brandy, wrap them in a clean cloth, and store them on the top shelf in the pantry to keep them moist until the two weeks before Christmas.  Thatís when family started stopping by expecting cake and coffee.  

On the night before Christmas mama pestered me so much about Santa not wanting to be seen and would not likely bring me anything if I stayed up too late that I became fed up with the whole thing.  I asked mama why Santa made life so miserable for children by expecting them to be good and going to bed early.  She listened and turned back my bed covers.  ďAnd why does Santa Claus bother to dress up in his red suit with white cuffs if nobody gets to see him?Ē I wondered aloud.  She didnít ignore me totally; she just said that was part of the mystery of Santa.  She smiled, kissed me goodnight, blew out the lamp, and closed the door.  

Santa came to see me in spite of my worrying mama to death with questions about whether he was real or not.  I had fought Doug two days before Christmas.  Worse, during the fight, I bit him so badly that aunt Flora had to drench the wound with coal oil and bandage his entire hand; he had me down on the porch and wouldnít let me up so I bit what I could get to.  Santa undoubtedly forgave me.  Doug didnít.  I would have to fight him again when his hand got better. 

On the fireplace hearth I found a huge bowl of mixed nuts and fruit that was like nothing I had ever seen or smelled before.  I had seen pecans, apples, bananas, and oranges, but I had never seen any as big or as bright as were in that bowl.  They smelled almost as good as mamaís fruitcakes.  Doug told me that the other things in the bowl were satsumers, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and English walnuts.  He said he knew what they were because he had gotten some of the same stuff last year. 

Santa brought Doug and me identical toy cars and cowboy rifles.  Mama gave me a real long pencil and a writing pad as a special present, she said, so I could begin practicing my ABCs.  I suppose she had overheard Dougís prediction of my future performance in school the next year.  When we asked Mama why our toys were made of wood, she said that Santa gave all his metal to the government so our men could win the war.  We didnít understand her answer but we didnít understand most of mamaís answers about Christmas, except what she said about Santa.  Santa proved himself real.  He had slid down the chimney; we found soot dust on the hearth and black finger marks on my presents.  Also, after several hours of searching later that afternoon, Doug and I found sleigh marks and real reindeer tracks in the yard by the chimney.  Well, Doug said they were sleigh marks and reindeer tracks.  When we told mama what we had found she just nodded her head knowingly and smiled.   

That year I learned the magic of Christmas in Sand Flat, Misísippi.  I learned it from mama.


The author is Mr. Ellis Ulmer Speed, a 1970 engineering graduate of Mississippi State University.  He currently works for the Defense Technology Security Administration in Alexandria, Virginia.

His e-mail address is ellis.speed@dtra.mil

 

© 2002, Ellis Ulmer Speed, All Rights Reserved