Editor’s Note: The following is from Bill’s book, Some Assembly Required: A Daddy’s Christmas Book published in 2009. The grandparents featured in the column have all now passed away, but will be fondly remembered by Bill and Claudia Haltom and the Haltom children this Christmas.
My wife is a fabulous cook. She learned from her mother, who is also a fabulous cook. In fact, according to an impartial survey that I have conducted over the past 30 years, my wife and my mother-in-law are the two finest cooks in the world.
Each year on Christmas Day, my wife proves once again that she is the undisputed co-heavyweight champion of the culinary world. She does this by preparing a fabulous Christmas dinner. Turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, green beans, and sweet potatoes. And, for dessert, coconut cake and boiled custard.
It is an awesome Christmas culinary Tour de Force!
There is always a large crowd on hand for my wife’s Christmas dinner. Kids. Parents. Grandparents. God-Parents. And sometimes, there is even a special mystery guest (as they used to say on the old TV quiz show, What’s My Line, “Blindfolds in place!”)
As Daddy, I sit at the head of the dining room table at Christmas dinner. From my throne, I have three jobs. First, I say Grace. Second, I carve the turkey. And, third, I moderate the discussion around the dinner table.
It is in this third role that I face my greatest challenge. You see, we are a very opinionated family with highly divergent views. My father is an old west Tennessee yeller dawg Democrat and a Southern Baptist. My in-laws are conservative east Tennessee Republicans and Methodists. (I realize that Baptists are generally Republicans and Methodists are generally Democrats, but in our family, it’s the other way around.)
My wife and I are born-again Baptist-Methodist-Whiskeypalians. And my children are, not surprisingly, as outspoken as their parents and grandparents.
Consequently, discussions during Christmas dinner can sometimes resemble an episode of “The McLaughlin Group.” For example, Christmas dinner 1998 was almost spoiled by a fierce debate on whether Bill Clinton should be impeached.
My job is to steer the Christmas dinner conversation away from politics and religion, because, as we all know, a fierce debate over politics or religion can absolutely destroy even the best piece of coconut cake. And so, after saying Grace, as I start carving the turkey, I always announce a topic for our Christmas dinner discussion.
At our last Christmas dinner, after saying “Amen,” I announced, “The topic for today is Christmases past! Let’s go around the table and each tell the story of our most memorable Christmas.”
My son Ken went first, remembering the Christmas when Santa brought him a Joey Kent football jersey. Joey Kent was a wide receiver for the Tennessee Vols and was Ken’s hero when Ken was just seven. Joey’s number was 11, and Ken remembered a Christmas morning when a beautiful orange and white football jersey emblazoned with the number “11” was under the Christmas tree. “I wore that jersey every day for about a year,” said Ken. “I even slept in it.”
My son Will then remembered the Christmas when Santa brought him a train set. “I really wasn’t even interested in train sets,” explained Will. “But in all the TV shows and movies about Christmas, kids were always getting train sets, so I thought that’s what I should ask Santa to bring me for Christmas.”
At this point I interrupted, “Well, I sure liked the train set.”
My daughter, the Princess, remembered a Christmas Eve when Santa’s sleigh crashed into the side of the house around midnight, waking everyone up. There are some folks who believe that actually I was the one who drove into the side of the house, and that it was in a minivan, not a sleigh. But there is no way that happened. Santa Claus crashed into the side of the house. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.
My wife remembered the Christmas Santa brought her a diamond solitaire ring, and I recalled that at that same Christmas, Santa brought me a wife.
But the most memorable Christmas memories shared that day around the dinner table came from my father and my father-in-law.
My father recalled a Christmas morning back during the depression when he was just a little boy growing up in the mill town of Bemis, Tennessee. His father (my grandfather) was blessed to have a job at the mill. Even so, money was really tight, and there was some doubt whether Santa would come, and if so, what he would be able to bring.
“I’ll never forget that Christmas morning,” recalled my father. “My brothers and sister and I woke up, ran into the living room, and found by the Christmas tree … a crate of oranges!”
When my Dad recounted this story, his three grandchildren began to laugh. But then they quickly stopped. They realized their grandfather was very serious.
“I don’t know where my father got those oranges or how he was able to pay for them, “ said my Dad. “I guess Santa brought them. But they were absolutely wonderful!”
Finally, my father-in-law shared the memory of his most memorable Christmas. “It was Christmas Day, 1944,” he said in a soft voice. “I spent the day on the deck of the USS South Dakota in the Pacific. I read Christmas cards from home and just thought how great it would be when I got to spend Christmas back in Tennessee.”
Then my father-in-law specifically recalled one Christmas card he received that year. It was postmarked “Knoxville, Tenn.,”) and it came from the University of Tennessee. My father-in-law had been a student there when his studies were interrupted by the Second World War.
The card from the alumni office of the University of Tennessee featured a picture of the campus and a little summary of what was going on back at the university that fall. And then my father-in-law’s eyes glistened as he remembered the last line of that Christmas card from his alma mater. It said, he recalled, “…’And to all this you will soon return.’”
A year later, my father-in-law had his homecoming back to Tennessee and his university. He also had a wonderful Christmas present waiting for him. It was the GI Bill, and it paid his tuition to law school.
A Christmas with oranges … A lonely Christmas far away from home in the midst of a world at war. And as I listened to the stories, I realized how blessed we are to share these memories of Christmases past and to experience the story of Christmas present.