My sister liked my blog about my memories of Thanksgiving and sent me a copy of a slim and magical volume, Memory of a Large Christmas, by Lillian Smith. I think my sister intended it as a sort of appreciative gift, but I choose to think of it as payment for the blog, because looked at it that light, it makes me the highest paid writer in the world.
I had never heard of Lillian Smith, and from what I can tell, she seems to have fallen out of fashion with today’s readers. She was a Southern lady, a social activist, fighting and writing against segregation in the Jim Crow South, and her fiction is apparently all written with that theme running through it. With segregation no longer an issue in America, she appears not to be read as much as she once was. I hope that is not the case with Memory of a Large Christmas, and if the rest of her work is as charming and evocative and beautifully written as this little volume, Lillian Smith needs to be rediscovered in a big way.
Let’s begin with beginnings. When it comes to Christmas memories, Tolstoy’s famous first line, “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” is only true to the extent that a certain spirit of love and joy runs through all Christmases, but—to paraphrase Betjeman—many changes can be rung on the bells of love and joy and Christ’s spirit, especially when those things and that time are seen, as they should always be seen, through a child’s eyes.
Some leap right into the eggnog and holly and festivities: “One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”
Some begin in fruitcake weather with the sweet anticipations and preparations that make all looked for events so special: “Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”
Even the movie, A Christmas Story begins with a slow, loving look back through Ralphie’s eyes at a drab working-class neighborhood in Cleveland made beautiful by snow and love and memory.
Lillian Smith’s affectionate, bitter-sweet look back begins with the essence of her home seen through her very young eyes, which is to say the essence of every home and every Christmas: “Everything about our family was big: there were nine of us and our mother and father and a cousin or two, and Little Grandma when it was her turn to stay with us, and Big Grandma when it was hers, and there were three bird dogs and four cats and their kittens and once a small alligator and a pet coon. And the house took them all in. And still there were empty corners and stairways and pantries, and maybe the winter parlor would have nobody in it, but if it did you could go to the summer parlor, or if you felt too crowded you could slip in the closet under the stairs and crawl on and on until it grew small and low, then you could get down on your stomach and crawl way back where things were quiet and dim, and sometimes you liked that.”
Her Christmas memories, unlike Dylan Thomas’s or Truman Capote’s or Jean Shepherd’s do not look back at a specific Christmas, nor do they look back through a specific, first-person-singular voice. She utilizes a style quite unique, shifting from the second-person singular to a third-person singular identified as Miss Curiosity to first-person plural, shifting too from various pre-World War One Christmases in the vast, rambling house in the opening quote, to a smaller cottage in the mountains of northern Georgia, shifting also in age and clarity of memory, much like Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, mixing and melding times and people and events into an impressionistic pastiche of celebrations and activities that are now as irrevocably vanished as the people themselves. Consider her description, seen through very young eyes, of the aftermath of the terrifying and upsetting but vital ritual of a hog-butchering:
“And now, in an instant, ALL THE WORLD turned into a Good Place with a Good Father and Good Mother and a Good Granny who made good sausage, and a Good Jaspers who said, Little Sister, come here, Old Jaspers will show you how to cut a pork chop.
“You went to him: and the big black hand covered the small white hand, and holding firmly to the long steel knife, the two together pressed down on something, then Jaspers whispered, Hold tight! and you did, and he lifted your hand and his and the knife and came down hard—and lo, the two of you had cut a pork chop. And he was saying softly, I sho do like pork chops, don’t you, Little Sister? and you whispered back, I sho do, Jaspers. And the two words had changed the whole world.”
It is not fashionable in today’s world to write or speak about such things, things that were common in an older time, relationships that were common in that older time between old black men or women and young white children. The time has rightly and deservedly gone, just as hog-butchering has gone as a seasonal ritual, but I too remember those relationships and black hands and the past cannot nor should not be revised, but rather seen for what it was, both good and bad. Snooty young people who know better than you how the modern world should be run will reduce the object of that love to “a mere domestic,” as if a child’s love had anything to do with social standing or job or race or sex or age or anything other the mysterious synchronized beating of two separate hearts.
And it is that beating heart that runs through this Christmas memory, a child’s heart in a child’s time, until, in that final north-Georgia Christmas she evokes the essence of Christ’s spirit in what must be the most extraordinary Christmas dinner in the history of man.
Lillian Smith’s father, aging, in financial difficulties, with all his children out on their own, saving Lillian and her younger sister who have come back from their own lives in other places to be with their parents, has invited the prisoners on a local chain-gang to have Christmas dinner with them:
“When Mother said she was ready, our father asked ‘Son,’ who was one of the killers, to go help ‘my wife, won’t you, with the heavy things.’ And the young man said he’d be mighty glad to. The one in for raping and another for robbing a bank said they’d be pleased to help, too, and they went in. My sister and I followed, not feeling as casual as we hoped we looked. But when two guards moved toward the door my father peremptorily stopped them with, ‘The boys will be all right.’ And ‘the boys’ were. They came back in a few minutes bearing great pots and pans to a serving table we had set up on the porch. My sister and I served the plates. The murderer and his two friends passed them to the men. Afterward, the rapist and two bank robbers and the arsonist said they’d be real pleased to wash up the dishes. But we told them nobody should wash dishes on Christmas—just have a good time.”
It is axiomatic that if you write about a specific person or a specific event or emotion it becomes universal; the reverse, obviously, simply becomes a mess. It may seem strange that a very specific and somewhat eccentric family in a very specific house in a specific part of America in a very specific time so long ago, a time that ended with the coming of World War One, should be so completely accessible and understandable to today’s readers, so that there are those magic moments where you think, Yes, that’s just how it is, but that’s the magic of great writing. This little memoir deserves a special place on your shelf of Christmas classics: The Night Before Christmas; A Child’s Christmas in Wales; A Christmas Memory; Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep; whatever others you know of that sing to you. It’s one of those books you’ll want to go back to over and over again with the coming of “fruitcake weather.”