Bare Feet on Yellow Grass: Christmas in the South

CG | Christmas in the South is a strange critter. The traditional imagery of a be-snowflaked holiday wonderland — peopled with rosy-cheeked carolers, horse-drawn sleighs, and lovable scamps bundled up for a snowball fight in a Rockwellian backdrop of evergreens and capacious snowmen — simply doesn’t square with the reality of December in the South. Ours is much more likely to be a scene of sickly yellow grass and bare, charcoal-black trees set against a grim, slate-grey sky.

The weather plays a big part in setting the mood down here, and white Christmases just don’t play into typical expectations. Each year, my expatriate friends on social media sigh heavily about leaving places where it truly feels like Christmas to return to hometowns that feel much more like the bleak dregs of late February. “Wintry mix,” I believe they call it. On the rare occasion that Southerners do get a proper snow, we generally just don’t know what to do with it. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a neighbor from up North who’ll lend you a snow shovel – otherwise you’re stuck working with a flat headed shovel as I was when it snowed here in Atlanta a few weeks ago. And if you’re unlucky enough to get stuck somewhere other than home when the snow starts coming down… well, good luck. The less said about Southerners driving in the snow, the better. Here in Atlanta at least, we prefer our snow to be man-made, impeccably mapped and labeled, preferably accompanied by “great music, laser beams overhead and high-powered LED lights dancing all around to the beat of the music.”

wintry-mix

Kids seem to have an easier time of it. After all, hope springs eternal in the hearts of all children, and kids down South are particularly eager to push their imaginations to the limit to make the most of whatever seasonally-appropriate weather they get, regardless of how meager. At the first softly metallic hint of snow in the air, you’ll find Southern kids “sledding” down muddy hills rimed with a thin layer of frost on a cafeteria tray, Rubbermaid Roughneck lid, or some other improvised craft. They’re experts in constructing diminutive snowmen stained with red dirt, studded with leaves and acorn shells. Catching suspiciously sleety snowflakes on their tongues, throwing slushy snowballs, and etching gritty snow angels into a hard crust of frost is hardwired into their DNA.

Christmas is Christmas regardless of the weather, and traditions form regardless of where the mercury falls. Like many families, ours made a tradition of driving around the city to take in the lights – some of them outrageous in scope and artistic vision. One particularly ambitious house on Boultier Street in Montgomery went all out for decades, becoming a legend in the city. Most Southern towns manage to throw up a pretty decent Christmas tree downtown. After all, if there’s one thing we’ve got plenty of, its pine trees.

Like anywhere else, we have mall Santas, but down South you’re also likely to get a Santa or two randomly riding through neighborhoods on a hook and ladder truck. (I’m not sure that this is a specifically Southern phenomenon, but I’ve never seen it during my time up north). And if you live down on the Gulf or on a lake, I don’t have to tell you what you already know: you’re damn sure going to see Santa on a boat or jet ski. We do Christmas boat parades, by the way. Do y’all do that up north?

Wherever I may be celebrating the season over the years, my favorite Christmas tradition remains rooted in the Montgomery of Decembers past: a glass of egg nog from the familiar Barber’s Dairy quart carton paired perfectly with a few of our Granny’s homemade Christmas tree cookies, followed by a front-yard family photo taken in shirts sleeves and bare feet on a reliably overcast Christmas morning.

 

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