As published in “The Valdosta Magazine,” Winter 2010.
The Christmas Box by Monique Nagel
Early on Christmas morning my family gathered around the tree my stepfather had cut down, decorated with ornaments that we kids had used our entire lives. Our home was decorated with popcorn garlands, lights, construction paper chains, and cards everywhere. The entire Holiday Season was spent with Jingle Bells frolicking on the radio and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer flying across the television. We played UNO at the kitchen table and laughed until we cried. My mother and stepfather were the glue that held this happy whirlwind together.
My stepfather has always been one of the funniest and most generous people I have ever known. I remember one winter he taught us kids how to feed Black-Capped Chickadees right out of our hand. I can still remember the sense of wonder that those tiny little wild birds would come and stand on his hand when he called them. Mama brought her own magic to Christmas too. Hiding presents from three teenagers and a toddler couldn’t have been easy. We even put lights and popcorn garlands on the small tree in our front yard one year. We hung tinsel garlands in the doorway to the kitchen. Mama smiled as we all debated where to hang the mistletoe, then told us the best place to put it. She was always coming up with something creative to do. She made a ceramic Mr. and Mrs. Santa one year, a gorgeous little ceramic Christmas tree another time. She also made the most amazing Christmas candy; platters and platters of it every year.
Mama came by all that candy making honestly – from Grandma -, and has always been particularly good at it. Divinity. Orange balls. Macaroons. Peanut brittle. Chocolate Rice Krispies candy. Fruitcake cookies. Ribbon candy. Fudge, fudge and more fudge. These are a few of the delicacies that she and Grandma made for Christmas.
A big pile of food is always festive, but when corn syrup is involved another level is achieved. No one walked into Grandma’s house in Mayday, Georgia, without taking at least one bite of something while visiting. Most left with a plateful. Grandma made that candy and gave it out in small tins and boxes to everyone she came in contact with. Co-workers, church families, neighbors, even the postman got a box of candy. There used to be two and three room houses on either side of the Mayday end of Howell Road. They were small and old, made from cedar planks. I don’t believe they had any insulation. Collectively, they were called “The Quarters.” The families who lived there weren’t as fortunate as others, so Grandma made sure that she remembered them too.
My Mother remembers a Christmas we had when we lived in the north and how hard that particular year was for her. We children were not cooperating, the disdainful beings that teenagers can be was spoiling things for everyone. She remembers how difficult it was to maintain any spirit for the season. At least, difficult until my stepfather went to the post office and returned with The Christmas Box. It was from Grandma. Full of candy and presents, something for everyone. All of a sudden it was Christmas! She says that box truly “made” the season for her that year.
I remember receiving my Christmas Box from Mama too. I was in Abilene, Texas, far from home and very alone. Working the midnight shift at a 24 hr. convenience store a few blocks away from my apartment. No car, no money, and since I’d only been there a few months, no friends either. I didn’t have enough money to buy a tree, never mind the ornaments, lights and a tree stand.
I was homesick, missing my family. The day before Christmas I got a box in the mail, from my parents! Oh, I held onto that box and cried. Inside were a new winter coat and a beautiful new sweater. It was finally Christmas, Mama was with me. It was such a surprise, that box. I had forgotten by my mother surely didn’t. For a few minutes she was there in the room with me. There’s just something about getting presents from family. Gifts from someone who knows you, people that you have history with. Someone who cares. My mother remembers getting Christmas boxes from Grandma when she and my father were stationed in France too. They meant so much to her when they were over there, away from family for the first time and out of the country!
The Christmas Box comes in all shapes and sizes; it doesn’t have to be big. It’s what’s inside that counts. First you gather and wrap the gifts for your loved one. The size and type of box of course will depend on what goes inside. We’ve used everything from 6-pack drink cases to square foot-sized cardboard boxes from the grocery store. I even used a suitcase one year. We flew to Phoenix, Arizona to visit loved ones and I packed a suitcase full of homemade Pear Butter and Mayhaw Jelly. The suitcase arrived on time and not a single jar was broken (hint: lots and lots of bubble wrap)!
One year my sister and her husband were stationed with the Army in Germany, with their newborn daughter. My sister wrote home lamenting the fact that there simply were no fabric stores where they lived. Apparently people in her area didn’t sew any of their own clothes. Mama taught my sister and I to sew when we were young. By the time we were in high school we were old hands at it. My sister’s Christmas box that year presents for my brother-in-law and the baby of course, but my sister’s gift was the real treasure. A sweet pink printed fabric with matching thread, delicate lace, zipper and a pattern. Mother sent everything that my sister needed to make baby her first dress. She had four girls now and that newborn is in college. Every daughter has worn the dress and my sister had it put away for her first granddaughter. How much that box must have meant to her, so far from home!
Today, my sister reminds me that the small things a Grandma does for her children carry on long after she has gone. Grandma has been gone for almost twenty years now, hard to believe. And this Christmas, we will think of her as we pack our cookie tins and Christmas boxes for others.