The Best Night of the Year

Melanie and Susan, Christmas Eve circa 1963

“As little ones kept being added to the family we could always count on having more children around and more presents under the tree to be opened.

Howard, Russell and Son, armed with cameras on Christmas Eve

There were a lot of funny incidents to remember, such as the time Howard broke one of my Christmas glasses, which I had bought at Weiler’s [Jewelers] when they were going out of business and busted out of his pants when he leaned over to sweep up the pieces of glass, and also the time that Tiny went to pieces in the bathroom when she used our toilet paper, which had red Christmas designs on it, and thought she was having a hemorrhage.

Mamie, B.J. and Tiny, Christmas Eve at Sara's house

There was the time when Tiny’s granddaughter, Beth, was about two and Uncle Roy looked at her and said, ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ which was just his normal way of talking to kids, and she thought he was Santa Claus. Big and Uncle Roy always enjoyed the parties as did Mama. Big was especially happy when she could get into the ‘Wild Turkey’ which was her favorite whiskey. Uncle Roy never took a drink in his life.

Susan, Tricia and Uncle Roy

Sara, Melanie, Rena Roach, Mamie, Christmas Eve circa 1967

“One year we dressed up Pam in the Santa Claus suit (at the Gwin’s house next door) and she appeared at the party as an elf man. She did a pretty good job of fooling her younger cousins until Melanie spotted her shoes and said ‘Those look just like Pam’s shoes.’ We all got a big kick out of the elf man. Another time Son dressed up in a Santa suit, and every year our friend Son McMillan from Minter City called on the phone and pretended to be Santa Claus and talked to all the children.

Jessie and Cathy, Christmas Eve circa 1966

“Probably Georgia had the most fun of all. She always said this was all the Christmas she had ever had, and she would go home loaded with gifts after standing at the sink for hours washing up all the dirty glasses, bowls, etc.”

Georgia and me, in our usual corner, circa 1964

There is no way to adequately describe the Christmas Eve parties at 409 East Adams, which began in 1952 and grew and grew until the early ’90s.  Sara began decorating every inch of the house around Thanksgiving, and she met the Christmas tree truck in the Kroger parking lot (the old Kroger, behind Fincher’s) as soon as it rolled into town. Those poor truckers didn’t know what to do with this little lady who examined each tree as it was being unloaded, fingering the needles for freshness and potential to hold hundreds of ornaments. Russell (who knew better than to be off on a sales trip on this afternoon) would load the anointed evergreen into the back of the station wagon and off we would go with that year’s prize, plunking it into a bucket of water on the back porch until time to haul it into the designated spot in front of the living room window. It was always so tall and so full that Russell had installed an anchor in a ceiling beam to hold it up and it fell his job to crawl underneath daily and refill the water tank. He was so sick of the whole tree business by Christmas Day that the poor old dried up husk would be out in the ditch by lunchtime.

The presents would begin filtering in a week or two before Christmas Eve. Mamie’s were true artworks, sheltering carefully selected gifts from the big stores of Columbus, Ohio. They arrived by train and brought gasps of wonder as they were unpacked from the crate. Then Tiny would come in with big boxes of gifts, followed within a few days by Betty Jane, Tricia, Rawa,  etc. etc., etc. Keep in mind that at the height of this tradition there were 8 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren, each of whom got a gift from each of the 5 Evans offsprings and various cousins, great-aunts and various folks who wandered in from year to year. If you do the math, it’s easy to understand how the gifts crept further and further across that huge living room and it would take a good half-hour for Tiny to hand them all out to the children.

The anticipation was almost unbearable, especially for me and Cathy, as we had to live with all those presents filling up our living room. We would creep in and shake the boxes with our names, trying to guess what treasures were hidden inside. As the days crept closer to Christmas Eve, Sara bustled around the kitchen without rest, always with a Perry Como or Bing Crosby holiday record going in the background. Then, on the appointed day, Russell got in the act. His fiefdom was the meat and his very presence in the kitchen flipped some sort of harridan switch in Sara. She would chase him out and he would tinker around the back porch, adjusting the big heater on cold nights, laying out the very well-stocked bar, sweeping off the carport, anything to stay busy until he could creep back into the kitchen. Cathy and I learned very young to stay out of the way. Georgia arrived after lunch and just took care of details as she always did. By the time the short December day began to darken, it was as if all the joys of Christmas were descending on East Adams, as aunts and uncles and grandmothers and cousins and great-aunts and great-uncles and some folks that we couldn’t quite identify came pouring in, laughing and hugging and kissing and settling in for the Best Night of the Year. The men gravitated to the back porch, and my memories of my uncles B.J. and Howard and Son and Gray are always spiced with the smell of Scotch and bourbon. The wives found their chairs in the living room, balancing plates of Sara’s candy creations and cheese straws and decorated Santa teacakes. Howard and Son cranked up their 8 mm cameras, blinding us with the flashes and capturing us all for posterity. The children were reasonably well-behaved, entranced by that cascade of gifts spilling out from underneath the tree.

Some invisible signal would be given for the cousins to settle down and for Tiny to take her traditional role as the hander-outer-of-gifts. My spot was inviolable, just to the right of the tree, with Georgia. Always with Georgia. She got as many gifts as the rest of us, but wouldn’t open hers until she got home to her tiny house off Avenue I. She helped me with mine and was just as excited with each present as I was. Then she would help me carry them all back to my bedroom, the only safe place to shelter them from younger cousins (Yes, Susan and Trey, I’m talking about you) and to be savored later. By the time all the presents were handed out, Russell was patrolling with a massive black garbage bag, sweeping up the ribbons and wrapping and styrofoam peanuts like a human vacuum cleaner. The tree looked sadly barren, but it was the only sad element in that room.

Plates were loaded with ham and turkey and casseroles and homemade rolls and cake slices, and eventually everyone would start drifting out for their own Christmas Eve preparations in their own homes. We would tidy up a bit and help Georgia pile all her gifts and a bottle of Jack Daniels and all the cash which had been quietly stuffed into her apron pockets into the car, and, during the very best years, all of us and the Bartlings would drive down to watch the outdoor Nativity tableau at the Presbyterian Church for a little while. We had to stay long enough to see the curtains drawn back and the angel appear, although it seemed that many years the designated angel was someone with a less-than-stellar reputation around Greenwood, eliciting caustic comments from Sara. Then we would carry Georgia home, see her safely inside and head back to our house to try to wind down and go to bed.

All of our generation, plus one: Susan, Pam, Trey, me, David, Cathy, Beth, Melanie and Bill, Christmas Eve 1970

We’ll cover Christmas Day tomorrow, but suffice it to say that no children in the history of the world have ever had better Christmas Eves than the grandchildren of Jessie and Howard Evans in those years of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Sara was the conductor of that orchestra, but our sweet and thoughtful aunts and uncles and grandmother were the instruments that made it sing.

Sara, Tiny, Son, Mamie and Tricia

About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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1 Response to The Best Night of the Year

  1. jemiller25 says:

    This might be my favorite one.

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