I'm thrilled to welcome Todd Johnson, author of the novel The Sweet By and By to my Holiday Open House! Todd talks about the meaning of going home for the holidays (a meaning I do share, no matter how many Christmases I've spent in my own home) and he shares his family's Christmas morning and day ritual. I think I would like to meet his mother as I found myself swearing tonight that I'd weed out some ornaments this year and set them aside (as I do every year), but....well, we'll see how it goes. Read on about the Johnson family's Christmas!
I have spent every single Christmas I can remember in North Carolina except for one. That was when my brother wasn’t able to take any time off from his Broadway show, and so the family came to New York City. It was fun. But also odd. Not to be home, that is, meaning of course my parents’ home, not mine. Every Southerner knows that regardless of one’s wishes, in the eyes of those who make the rules, “home” is never where you live; it’s always where you’re from. I love my home in Connecticut, just as I did my (tiny) one before that in New York City, but I’m afraid my compass will always be oriented South when it comes to holiday traditions.
One of my favorite things is to take a drive through the country east of Raleigh on Christmas Eve. I’ll take anyone who wants to come with me, but most of the time it seems like I end up doing it alone. Everyone else has either eaten too much or is still involved in eleventh hour clandestine gift-wrapping, or, God forbid, shopping. I always make it a point to go through Benson, the nearby small town where my dad grew up. Ever since I was a kid visiting my grandparents, all the houses on Main Street (and increasingly on other streets as well) have had glass storm doors in front. So at Christmastime, all the front doors are flung open to reveal grandly decorated trees centered in all the foyers, behind the glass. Perfectly positioned white spotlights flood each tree, intensifying the dazzling gift box effect. A Tony-winning lighting designer couldn’t do it any better. I poke down the street at about 10 mph, turn around at the gas station and drive back, repeating my circuit over and over, just so I can take it all in.
Christmas Day is heralded by the smell of waffles at the crack of dawn -- or even earlier, and I’m not kidding. My dad is always the first one up; we suspect he is a vampire and never really sleeps, which could actually turn out to be profitable for him. I wonder if he could get a book or movie deal. In any event, everyone stumbles to the kitchen table while it’s still dark outside, groping for coffee and acquiescing to that other Southern imperative, being force-fed by the people who love you. Afterward, it’s a short trip to the living room tree, taking care not to become entangled in greenery or ribbons or poinsettias. There’s a lot of stuff, very pretty, but also just plain “very.” When I die, I certainly don’t want it to be because of tripping over a topiary reindeer. My mom has been known to say that she is planning to scale back her decorations, but she always backpedals. She says she’s too superstitious to eliminate anything. So, every year, it all comes out of the boxes. A visit to my parents’ Christmas tree is like a trip down memory lane, with relics from every church craft fair and school project since 1963.
We always tend to pass out all the gifts before opening them one at a time, opting to savor each moment of delight or surprise (or bewilderment) rather than engaging in a full-on Filene’s Basement scramble. My dad, just like his own father before him, never ever tears his wrapping paper. He reaches into his pocket and takes out a tiny pocket knife which he uses to painstakingly slit each bit of tape, unfolding the paper as carefully as if the package contained a bomb. By now, we’re all used to the waiting, although sometimes it’s tempting just to snatch the gift out of his hands and rip into it. I think it’s part jealousy, however, for the rest of us, sort of like having finished all of our candy while someone else still has a brand new lollipop. There’s usually a break in the action for another round of coffee, then once presents are finished, it’s soon time to eat. Again.
This time it’s a fairly traditional Christmas dinner, with the essential Southern standbys like sweet potatoes and pound cake. There are seconds, and too often thirds, and finally we waddle, now slightly less capable of dodging precarious ornaments, to our respective chairs or sofas. There’s often talk of taking a little walk, getting some fresh air, but it rarely happens, as though mentioning it is almost as good as doing it. Then the chatter really kicks in. If you don’t like to talk, you have no place in my parent’s home at Christmas. The parade of relatives is endless. Stories, jokes, gossip, coffee. More stories. Then more coffee. No one bats an eye if you need to “go lie down,” that ubiquitous Southern phrase that allows us to excuse ourselves at any time whatsoever with no questions asked. And so it goes until everyone finally winds down, one by one, batteries drained, reticent to end the day. I know it will be exactly the same this year. And I also know I’ll be exhausted, relieved, giddy, impatient, gregarious, and full. Home.