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Christmas in the country
Now and Then
roger branch

There have been many holidays on the calendar for decades — even centuries — and some have been removed or added over time. Separate holidays honoring presidents Washington and Lincoln, but these have been combined. Confederate Memorial Day is gone. Martin Luther King Day has been added.

People in rural South Georgia “back in the day” paid little attention to most such holidays because farm work dictated the content of their days. Some even grumbled because “the mail did not run” on holidays that were meaningless to them.

The Fourth of July was seen as significant to most folks, but might be ignored if it fell on “putting in” (harvest) day for a tobacco farmer. A network of families and laborers worked out a pattern of harvest days that took up every day of the week except Sunday and usually Saturday. If the Fourth fell on one of these days, it was ignored unless that farmer served some refreshments after the work was done.

Coming after crops had been gathered, Thanksgiving was more widely observed. However, Christmas was beloved to almost everyone. It knit up tattered places in the fabric of communities, churches and families. 

Even when crops were fruitful and prices were good, months of hard labor and other challenges frayed social bonds and personal contentment. Christmas was the individual and social “balm of Gilead” that “made the wounded whole.”

Christmas was widely celebrated in schools, churches and communities but especially in family gatherings. The focus on separation of church and state had not begun, so most schools had Christmas programs, sometimes as community events. 

I can almost still hear Harry and Larry Lane and Marion Jordan singing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” as they did on the stage of Lyons High School nearly 75 years ago.

Many country churches dressed up youngsters in something resembling the apparel of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men to make a manger scene with a doll for Baby Jesus. Talented readers rekindled a bit of the glory of Bethlehem with words from the gospels of Luke and Matthew. Children sang “Away in a Manger,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and other Christmas songs. Everyone joined them to sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.” Many adults became misty-eyed.

However, Christmas was brightest around the hearths of homes. Its essence did not lie in presents under trees. In some families, adults did not exchange gifts and children got one big gift and perhaps some smaller ones. They did not feel cheated by gifts of new clothes or shoes. Small items were important. If a girl got some “bob jacks” (AKA jack stones), she was ready for games with her cousins that very day. If a boy got some marbles, he was equipped for hours of fun with cousins and friends. Gifting was not extravagant because even after a prosperous year, up-front expenses for the next crop lurked behind the flip of the calendar to the next year.

Even with children at play, happiness came from being together. The same was true with their elders. In some families, men arranged hunts that day or on days just before and after. With a good bird dog or two, they might harvest quail for supper. 

At that time of year, doves swarmed to fields where scattered corn from grazing cows and hogs offered food. Aided by cold front tail winds, they were challenging targets.

Although burdened by fixing the most elaborate meal of the year, women enjoyed the opportunity to catch up and share. In fact, parts of the meal were prepared in advance and the present workload was shared by many willing hands. Some were famous for certain foods and always made the meal sumptuous with their offerings.

Turkey was not the traditional main dish for most families. This bird requires too much attention to be part of a family flock. Besides, baked chicken tastes better and is more tender. A few people raised turkeys for the market, but a hen from the yard was cheaper.

Some turkey growers disposed of their birds with turkey shoots. They did not shoot the turkeys. They shot targets, flying targets. These were 8- to 10-inch squares of board with crossed lines drawn on them. They were spun into the air at a distance from contestants who paid for a chance to shoot the target with a shotgun. The winner was the contestant whose shot “drove the cross” or who came closest to the place where the lines crossed. The prize was a live turkey. My father, who was a crack shot with shotgun or rifle, once won seven turkeys at a shoot with his brother Bill egging him on and paying the fee. We ate a lot of turkey that year.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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