A Hillendale Christmas

There are two types of families during the holiday season: those who eat dinner on Christmas Eve and those who save the big meal for Christmas day. I come from a Christmas Eve dining tradition. My wife and her family ate the holiday meal on the following day. Marriage is about compromise, give and take, share and share alike, in sickness and in health, till death do us part (read: battle it out and argue early on until one of you gets his or her way). Ten years ago, I won the when-do-we-eat-the-big-Christmas-meal discussion. That single victory might represent the last decision I made in our marriage.

Christmas is full of compromises, especially in a new marriage. Childhood holiday traditions are ingrained in our memories. The when-to-have-dinner discussion wasn’t nearly as contentious as the icicles-on-the-tree argument at our house. It is a dispute that raged for a decade or more. I come from a family that blanketed the Christmas tree with icicles. We loaded our tree with so many icicles that one could still find stray strands of the tiny silver-metallic threads in our house and yard six years after I graduated from high school and moved out of the house. My wife is adamant in her disdain for tinsel on the tree.

As children, my brother and I took great delight in throwing large clumps of icicles on our tree. Our across-the-street neighbor, Jimmy McKenzie, was an icicle man, although not a wind-up-and-try-to-hit-the-angel-on-top-of-the-tree icicle man. Jimmy carefully placed icicles on his tree one by one, following a carefully drawn out Christmas-tree-decoration diagram that was developed years ago and is strictly followed each year. As a result, the McKenzie children always crossed the street at tree-decorating time to hurl icicles with us.

In the early years of my marriage I still enjoyed throwing large clumps of icicles on the tree. My wife continued to plead her case for an icicle-free tree. Luckily for the nation’s icicle manufacturers, I had a daughter and son who liked to throw icicles, too. Though as they grew older, they lost their enthusiasm for tree decorating and icicle throwing. Teen holiday angst kicked in, and due to the fact that my wife has been known to go a little overboard in her holiday decorating and they are mostly responsible for loading and unloading the large storage unit that holds most of my wife’s Christmas trimmings, trinkets, and adornments, they no longer side with me in the icicle dilemma. They have been whipped into a less-holiday-décor-the-better state of mind.

I have to admit that I grew weary of the battle too. I had boxes of icicles hidden throughout the house. When my wife would walk through the den and secretly remove most of the icicles off of the tree, I would sneak into the den and grab one of my hidden boxes of icicles from under a sofa cushion or hidden behind the family portrait, and add more to the tree. For years this battle ensued each day throughout the holidays, until she finally wore me down. If you visit my house today, you will see a tree (actually four trees— I told you that she goes overboard) unadorned with tinsel.

In the greater scheme of Christmas, it doesn’t matter what time of day— or even which day— the family eats a meal. It doesn’t matter how the tree is decorated or how the garland is hung. Icicles or not, there is a greater reason for the season.

There are a set of tenets that I hold dear; I call them the Five F’s: Faith, Family, Friends, Food, and Fun. To me, these are the most important things in life, and whenever anyone can combine all or part of the five in one setting, the memories that are created are magical. It is the combination of one or more of the Five F’s that make holiday occasions memorable. As I look back to my childhood, my greatest memories, holiday or not, were always centered on two or more of the Five F’s coming together at once.

Faith, family, friends, food and fun— during the holidays families draw closer, friends drop by for an unexpected and welcomed visit, sometimes bearing gifts of food. The street I grew up on in the Hillendale subdivision of Hattiesburg, Bellewood Drive, was filled with great people and loaded with outstanding cooks. Our house was always overflowing with Christmas tins filled with cookies, seasoned nuts, breads and pastries. Jimmy McKenzie might be the original icicle miser, but he made a mean Bloody Mary and his wife, Mary Virginia still makes the world’s greatest sweet rolls and a Milk Punch that is known far and wide. Barbara Jane Foote, another across the street neighbor, is an excellent cook and hostess. Her husband, Larry Foote, always made salted pecans during the holidays. They were the best pecans on the planet and he took great pride in the process.

The holiday season is rife with opportunities to combine the Five F’s. I hope you are able to do so, and often. Merry Christmas.

Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur, author, speaker, philanthropist, father and husband – but not necessarily in that order. In addition to being the brainchild behind the Purple Parrot Cafe, Crescent City Grill, Mahogany Bar, Branch, Tabella and Ed’s Hamburger Joint, he’s also the founder of Extra Table, a non-profit organization created in 2009 with the mission of ending hunger and obesity in Mississippi.