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Christmas in Plains: Memories

From Chapter 6

As the big day approached, we children went through a gamut of imagined gifts that might be ours on Christmas morning, finally honing our lists down to a reasonable balance between high expectations and the cautionary responses of our parents, designed to deflate our hopes. Then we would mail our letters to Santa Claus at the North Pole, hoping that he would be more generous than we were being led to expect. Not quite understanding the interrelationships, we nevertheless used maximum propaganda around the house.

"Mama, if I just had one of those little Red Racer wagons in the Sears catalogue, I could haul wood to the house, water to the field hands, and vegetables from the garden. During peanut season, it would make it easy to bring some peanuts home from the field so I could boil them to sell." My real visions were of A.D. and me pulling each other back and forth around the farm, and flying down a steep hill together.

There was no chance that we might intimidate our parents, or beg successfully for particular gifts. The process of our expressing hopes and their dashing them was strangely routine and impersonal, our goal being to obtain as much as possible for ourselves and theirs to minimize disappointment when we didn't get what we wanted. At least for us children, Baby Jesus was not involved in this important dialogue.

It didn't seem right --- at least to her --- for Mama to have to cook a complete breakfast on Christmas morning, so we always had just sausage, biscuits, and jelly --- a custom that we Carters have maintained for seventy years. This menu could be prepared the afternoon or evening before, kept in either the icebox or the warming compartment of the woodstove, and heated up quickly. In fact, we rarely even built a fire in the big cooking stove on Christmas Day. When we didn't eat dinner with some of our kinfolks, Mama would warm up leftover fried chicken or we would eat country-ham, pimiento-cheese, or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. What served as our "microwave" in those days was the kerosene stove, which could be lit instantly and provided either an oven or two grills.

One of the great crises of our childhood was when our baby sister, Ruth, found a way to open a valve and suck out some of the kerosene. I remember that she turned a dark color before Mama could induce her to vomit by sticking a finger down her throat while Daddy held her upside down.


Since our house was always cold in the winter, the fireplace in the front room controlled the official beginning of Christmas morning. We were absolutely prohibited from entering this sacrosanct place until after Daddy had gotten up and built a good fire. Several times during the night, one of us would go into our parents' bedroom, to be met with a stern "Go back to bed! It's just two o'clock." Finally, about an hour before daylight, we would hear Daddy get up and replenish the fire in the round woodstove in their room, and we'd rush in there and put on our clothes as the chill slowly dissipated. In the meantime, Daddy would go to the front room and build a good blaze in the fireplace, which we had carefully let die down the previous night so Santa could come in without burning his britches.

After an excruciating wait, we would be given permission to dash into the front room. The cookies and milk we had left out for our distinguished guest would be gone, and his presents would be in our assigned places in front of the hearth. Our parents were experts at convincing us that we would get "some fruit and maybe some clothes that you've been needing." What we dreaded most was underwear (BVDs) and socks, so our reaction was genuine pleasure when one or two toys or some books were also there. My sisters would almost always get a "Bi-Low" doll. Once, after a good crop year, Gloria and I both got bicycles.

I don't remember much about gifts to my parents, who never seemed to expect anything and usually insisted that "Christmas is for children." Except one year, after Mama had nursed members of a black family and refused to charge them for her services, they delivered what turned out to be her favorite gift of the Christmas season. It was made by Felton Shelton, who lived on our farm and wove baskets of white-oak strips.

The present was what Felton called, for some unexplained reason, a "sky mop" (scour mop?). He drilled nine holes in a block of wood about eighteen inches long, the center one at an angle for inserting a long handle. Then he twisted corn shucks and wedged them into the other holes, making an almost indestructible scrubber that could be used to apply the caustic Red Devil lye to our floors. Mama did this at least a couple of times a year to keep bedbugs and other insidious vermin out of our house.

My most common request to Santa Claus was for two or three books, and I would prepare my choices very carefully. Sometimes I had suggestions from my mother or our school superintendent, Miss Julia Coleman, but most of the time I would search through the book section of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue and make my choices. Above all my other requests, this was the one that was most certain to be honored, because Mama was always encouraging me to read as much as possible.

The year I was eight years old, I was amazed to find a large cardboard box under the Christmas tree with a tag on it that said, "Love from Miss Abrams." She was the same head nurse who brought us the marble "snowball" from Cleveland. When I opened the gift, I found twenty-six leather-bound books, including the complete works of Victor Hugo and a twenty-volume set of The Outline of Knowledge. Mama eased my concern by telling me that I could take a few years to read through the entire collection.

The next year, we had our usual Christmas morning, and once again my most cherished gifts were some books that I had wanted. During the day, however, both my sister Gloria and I developed red spots on our faces, began to cough, and had itching eyes and runny noses. It took Mama only a brief glance to announce that we had measles, which we all knew was making the rounds of the Plains community. We listened to her stern admonition about going blind if we strained our eyes or exposed them to bright light. Her prescription was like a prison sentence: in addition to the aspirin and cough syrup, we had to stay in bed in a darkened room.

I wanted to obey Mama, but the new books on the table were too much of a temptation to resist. After an hour or so, I eased up a window shade, got one of my new books, and lay on the floor by the window to read, hidden behind the bed. It was almost inevitable that Mama would catch me, and then she searched the room, removed all the reading material, and gave me a stern warning that Daddy would administer a fearsome punishment if I disobeyed her again.

My most memorable Christmas morning was when I found, as had been predicted dismally by my parents, just two oranges, some English walnuts, dried raisins, and a pair of trousers. Trying not to appear frantic or disappointed, I searched all around the tree, and attempted to control my trembling lips and to hold back tears. I considered myself too old to cry. After a few moments, Daddy said, "Sometimes I think old Santa might leave something out in the yard." I looked out of the living-room window and didn't see anything, and then ran back to my room. There, outside, with her reins tied to a tree limb, was a Shetland pony! I dashed out of the house, and ten minutes later A.D. and I were taking turns in the saddle. I named her Lady, and for the next ten years she was a most wonderful companion.

Our family usually exchanged and relished our gifts early in the morning, and then traveled around to visit some of the other members of our family, either in nearby Plains or among my mother's folks in Richland, eighteen miles to the west, finally arriving at the place chosen that year for our big noon meal. After that, we would return home for a remarkable afternoon of total leisure, similar to what we usually enjoyed on Sundays but without any restraints against things like shooting guns or playing cards. The farm would be almost completely devoid of black neighbors, who would be visiting friends or relatives. Their travels by foot or on wagons took longer, of course, than ours by automobile. Except for the unavoidable chores of caring for animals and toting in water, firewood, and stove wood, no one was expected to have any duties.

Excerpted from CHRISTMAS IN PLAINS: Memories © Copyright 2011 by Jimmy Carter. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

Christmas in Plains: Memories
by by Jimmy Carter

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 0743227158
  • ISBN-13: 9780743227155