Growing up southern meant many things. In the summer it meant you grew tomatoes and green beans and collards. In the fall you cured country hams, rabbit hunted on Saturday, and despite my mother’s groaning about it being a day for family and questions about what time we would be home, Thanksgiving Day. Growing up in the south meant you went to church on Sunday and work on Monday. It meant we lived into community every day, but none more than Christmas Day.
A Small Community
New Hope was a small, two-lane highway community just on the outskirts of Wilson, close enough to town to go out for dinner, but far enough away to be called the country. It was a community of dirt paths, tobacco fields, and hardworking blue collar folks. It was the kind of place where folks knew their neighbor and took care of each other… tomatoes and green beans, rabbits and collards. New Hope was the kind of place where you kept the same phone number your entire life. A good, hardworking, honest, prideful kind of place.
Once a month, my father would sit at the dining room table and do what my mother referred to as “the bills.” She would scurry my sister and me outside. He would spread “the bills” out on the dining room table, run his fingers through his hair, and stare blankly out the window. There wasn’t enough. Times were tough at the Hart house. Later in life, he told me that Baker’s Grocery, just a mile down the road, allowed him to charge groceries by the week. He would pay his bill on Friday and start a new one on Saturday.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Baker’s was one of many independent grocery stores in Eastern NC in the 1970s. Places where the butcher knew your name and that your mom liked those thin pork chops without a lot of fat. Stores where the cashiers asked how your “momma’nem” were doing and to tell them she said hey. Baker’s, like many other small grocery stores of the day, bought local produce and pork before local produce and pork was a thing.
For the most part, I like the comforts of living in 2019. I can order my groceries online and have them waiting for me at a set time. The lady that brings them out knows my name. She knows I like my bananas just yellow with not much green. I don’t have to go to the bank on Friday to cash a check to have money for the weekend. It’s as easy as opening an app on my phone and going to an ATM. The comforts of modern life are nice, but I sometimes miss the everyday life of small town communities.
The New Hope of my youth was not much different from the many small communities that dotted the map. Each had families like us with charge accounts at the local grocery store, with butchers and cashiers who knew your name. There were rabbit hunters, gardens with tomatoes, green beans, and collards. The local gossip spot where you could find out that “ole so-and-so” had been running around. Or, that something must be wrong with Miss Edna, she’s not been to church in two weeks.
A Lasting Impression
As much as I sometimes miss that simpler way of life, I especially long for it at Christmas. The time of year when we echo the words of the angel and heavenly host in Luke in saying “peace on Earth and goodwill to men.” Every house in New Hope would be decorated with lights and wreaths. The trees were always put in a place where they could be seen from the highway. Every evening, my sister and I would have to go to each window to turn on the candles making sure they weren’t touching the curtains. My mother was certain they would catch on fire and burn the house down. I don’t remember the lights and candles and trees to be seen from the road as some sort of Great Christmas Light Fight or simply keeping up with the folks down the road. Looking back, I believe the lights, trees, and candles were a red door for the whole community to see. Those lights and decorations were an all are welcome sign. And, every house was decorated.
Starting several days before Christmas, there would be knocks at the door. Folks from the community, some others from further away, all stopping and sharing the joy of Christmas. “Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” Sometimes that joy was a tin of haystacks or maybe a country ham; sometimes it was simply friendship. Christmas seemed like a time when everybody forgave a little quicker, laughed a lot more, and loved just a bit deeper. Nobody went without. Christmas was special.
Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men
I don’t make Christmas lists like I once did. Caroline and the kids do a pretty good job of surprising me with something unexpected and awesome every year. Yet I can’t seem to remember exactly what they gave me two years ago. Funny how that works. This year I fully expect it to be the same. Caroline and the kids will say how hard it is to shop for me, that I am too particular about things. Caroline will put on a big to-do on Christmas morning about how I am not going to like what she got me, that she went out on a limb and failed. This Christmas, like every other Christmas, I will be completely surprised by and love whatever it is she and the kids get me. And two years from now I won’t be able to tell you what it was. Funny how I can’t seem to remember an unexpected and awesome present from my wife and children just two years ago. But I can remember how life and especially Christmas looked and felt 40 years ago.
Funny how a community living into, “Peace on Earth and goodwill to men” can make such a lasting impression.