When Christmas Falls


     In the Old South that once was, certain people held an unusual notion about Christmas - that, if one breathed quietly and kept his ears properly attuned on Christmas Eve, he would hear Christmas "fall" at the very stroke of midnight. Not with a thud, of course, for Christmas is a gracious, sacred season, but those fortunate enough to hear Christmas "fall" could never quite describe its sound. Some said the falling was reminiscent of a low sigh, or the rush of angels' wings above the trees. Others recalled the sound as cracking ice, or a sudden rustle of leaves upon bare limbs. No matter that the notion could never be proven, little children believed, and the romance of Christmas remained for them always alive.

     Other sounds of Christmas were less mysterious, yet still charming: sleighbells ringing as horses stamped through snowy lanes, carrying young sweethearts wrapped to their eyes in blankets, coats, and muffs. Christmas carols hummed in fragrant kitchens, hummed to the tune of rattling pans, bubbling pots, and stirring spoons. A sudden gunshot in the snowbound silence startled everyone, then boys shouted as mistletoe tumbled from a high tree's branches. A fire crackling on the holly-decked hearth...

     Sounds of long ago, yes, but not so foreign to our ears that they do not stir our memories. And recall the smells of those distant holidays: the penetrating scent of balsam as the Christmas tree was brought in, ginger and clove-dusted cookies stored in the pantry, red peppermint splotches upon the baby's face, and the scent of hot apple cider topped with butter and stirred with a cinnamon stick, while children crunched and munched on brown mediciney-smelling horehound and licorice whips. Along with the enticing smells went wonderful tastes we have come to associate with Christmas, such as the spicy fruit anad meat mixture known as mincemeat, tangy loose-skinned tangerines, and homemade fruitcake laced with brandy or rum. Children carried paper bags full of Brazil nits, hazelnuts, pecans, and black walnuts out to the back porch where they cracked them with Grandpa's hammer on the rock steps, scrabbling with snow-stiffened fingers to pick up bits of the oily nutmeats. Bananas, oranges and lemons magically appear on the peddler's wagon as the Christmas season neared, rare tropical fruits that conjured up visions of unknown lands. And everyone savored the hard crystal sweetness of rock candy dangling from a string.

     But the time of Christmas has always signified far more than the holly boughs and cedar sprays that adorn our doorways. It is the moment when our faith becomes newborn in the person of the Christ Child, when stars seem brighter in the cold clear night skies, and the next wind could bring an angel's voice high and sweet to sing of peace.

     The little mountain churches have evolved their own traditions for the season, including the Christmas pageant, whose roots lie in the ancient mummers' plays of the Middle Ages. It's setting is a darkened church, where candles festooned with greenery flicker in the windows, and a homemade manger scene lies upon the alter. A choir sings the old carols while a narrator once again reads the familiar Christmas story from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Children portraying Mary and Joseph, the angels, and the shepherds solemnly move across the stage in costumes made from bedsheets and turbans fashioned from towels. Then the lights come up, the gifts are exchanged from under a tree in the corner, and as the people file out into the wintery night, each is handed a paper bag of "treat": an apple, orange, candies, gum. This is perhaps a holdover from Depression days when it would have been all the present some children received. These days, however, they will return home to a bedecked tree where many presents lie, in many ways to a Christmas far different than the ones of long ago. But the flavor of the season will always remain the same.

Painting - "Smoky Mountain Christmas" - Terri Waters