Today’s guest post was written by Jim Casada.
Momma And The Spirit Of Christmas written by Jim Casada
If the spirit of Christmas embraces things such as love of family, togetherness, warm feelings, goodness, excitement, and faith, then our Momma was the very essence of that spirit (I say “our” because both of my siblings, Don and Annette, are regular visitors to this blog).
Without going into detail, suffice it to say that Momma had a troubled childhood. Born in Clay County, she spent much of her youth far from her highland homeland. Her mother died (in Blind Pig country, where she is buried) when she was just beyond infancy, and her father apparently decided it would be best if relatives raised Momma. Her adoptive parents moved frequently, and it was always my impression that the resulting instability affected her a great deal. Certainly once she was back in the Smokies she never wanted to leave them, and I heard her comment to that effect on many occasions, saying “there’s no place like these mountains.”
Although she never said much about it, and certainly the care and devotion she lavished on her adoptive parents in their later years would have one think otherwise, clearly warmth and love were scarce commodities in her childhood. Likewise, she never had much in the way of Christmas gifts as a youngster. This was evident in two ways—the frequency with which she mentioned an elderly man who had befriended her and given her a quilt at a point when her adoptive family was living in California, and the pure delight Momma took in everything associated with Christmas right up until her death.
She loved the rituals of preparing for the season, especially decorating with materials from nature. Momma would “make over” a few springs of mistletoe shot down from a lofty oak like they were the grandest things in the world; she derived pleasure beyond measure from our annual family Christmas tree cutting (in the wilds, none of the tree farm type stuff); she turned greenery (white pine boughs, hemlock, and holly) into wreathes, table centerpieces, and mantle garlands; she made door hangings from nuts, hemlock cones, sycamore balls, milkweed pods, and the like which were beautiful; did much the same with grapevines; stuck colorful gumballs on every thorn on limbs cut from honey locusts; strung garlands of popcorn and cranberries for the tree; and she thoroughly enjoyed visiting others to see their decorations.
Momma was always involved in anything and everything Christmas-connected at Bryson City Presbyterian Church—filling pokes with stuff for young kids, performing behind-the-scenes work in connection with pageants (she was a first-rate seamstress, which was to be expected since she epitomized frugality and “sewing your own” saved money), and volunteering in any way she could. Similarly, some of my earliest Christmas memories revolve around charitable endeavors in which she would, usually although not always through the church, do her part and then some to make sure the was some joy in the season for those who were less fortunate. She didn’t have much truck with food stamps and government support, but like many hard-working mountain folks had no problem whatsoever in helping those who were down and out and needed a hand. She always worked with her children to craft handmade gifts for their teachers, rightly feeling that the personal effort had more meaning.
Then there was Christmas-related cooking, and as a greedy-gut boy who still can hold his own as a trencherman, that was of immense importance to me. Momma was a splendid cook, and one of our family’s real losses in that connection was a compulsion of hers, when Parkinson ’s disease afflicted her late in life, to throw away a great many things. Among the items lost to that mania to organize were recipes.
Fortunately though, she had passed many of them on to my wife and other family members, and as a result some survive. Among them were chestnut-and-cornbread dressing, orange slice cake, applesauce and black walnut cake, pumpkin chiffon pie, her special approach to preparing squirrel, cracklin’ cornbread, Russian tea, popcorn balls made with molasses, fried pies, stack cake (handed down from Grandma Minnie), and a number of types of homemade candy. However, if I had to pick out one dish in which her culinary skills shone brightest, it would not necessarily be associated with Yuletide. She could fry chicken better than anyone I’ve ever known, and that included Grandma Minnie, who was an absolute wizard in the kitchen. I know how Momma did it—each piece well coated with flour after having been dipped in egg, then slow fried, followed by a session of sitting in a cast iron skillet in the oven on low heat (usually about the length of time we were in church, because Bobby Bare’s “Chicken Every Sunday” could have been the anthem of the Casada household). Still, duplicating the end product has always eluded me and the rest of the family.
Momma took quiet pride in her cooking skills, and she loved to see her family and friends eat.
Throughout my boyhood, and I think precisely the same held true for both my siblings, she truly fed the multitudes in terms of setting the table for our friends. We never had a lot of money but you could rest assured the table was set with a precious plenty and there was never any issue with setting an extra place or two. Interestingly, and it’s a testament to Momma’s generosity and hospitable nature, my friends ate with us far more than I ever ate with any of them. We were at times almost a communal kitchen for kids in the neighborhood.
Speaking of kids, no starry-eyed youngster, no “Christmas will never come” mindset, or the firmest of believers in Santa Claus has ever derived more sheer joy from receiving gifts than Momma. As much as she gave of herself, and she was tireless and totally unselfish in that regard, she loved to open presents to her. Curious as a cat or eager child, she would pick up gifts bearing her name from under the tree, heft and maybe shake them a bit, and wonder out loud: “Now what that could be?” Similarly, I can hear her, well over a decade since she left us, saying “Another one for me!” with a mixture of disbelief and excitement when handed a gift on Christmas Day. She was careful in opening presents, because after all, the wrapping and ribbons could be recycled in the “waste not, want not” approach to everything which was her mantra. Still, it was easy to tell she would have loved to rip the paper asunder like a child.
Year after year she would, once all the presents had been opened, offer thoughts to the effect “I can’t believe how lucky I am,” “I’m so thankful,” and “This has to be the best Christmas ever.” She may not have had much of anything that was “the best” as a child, but far from looking back with regret or bitterness, as an adult she instead brought an attitude of optimism, excitement, and simple goodness to the season of Christmas.
She enjoyed a good joke. There were always gag gifts in our family, and at times Momma would laugh until tears rolled when Daddy received something such as a pair of underwear adorned with images of Mickey Mouse or a Sammy Davis, Jr. tape (Daddy absolutely detested Sammy Davis). Her laughter was infectious, and even though she was the butt of jokes more than a fair share of the time, it never troubled her.
As a clan, Casadas are not exactly gifted when it comes to diplomacy. All of us are wont to speak our piece in a decidedly direct fashion, and if Momma hadn’t been a moderating influence goodness knows where her offspring might be. Daddy could be highly opinionated, and his father, Grandpa Joe, was the essence of mountain stubborn and “quare.” Momma, on the other hand, always seemed to have just the right thought, action, or word when a soothing, smoothing touch was needed. She possessed a seemingly endless supply of dimes when a child did some extra work around the house or maybe just a bit of begging, she was always a soft touch when it came to providing a snack or special dish, and she was game to try almost anything one of her children asked her to do. But of all the countless times she offered just the right gesture, a few words of praise, or maybe a little pat on the shoulder, the moment I remember most came at holiday time when the whole family was seated at the table.
Don was probably 16 or 17 years of age, and we had all, including my wife of only a year or two, sat down to one of Momma’s meals. Midway through the feast from out of the blue, Don suddenly brought up a most unexpected subject. “I’ve come to a conclusion,” he pronounced. “I was born by accident.” It was undeniably true, since he came along a half generation after my sister and me, but no one had ever so much as dared hint at the matter.
Silence reigned supreme for a seeming eternity in what has to rank as the finest example of a pregnant pause I have ever experienced. Then Momma offered the perfect response. “Yes, but you were the most wonderful accident I could ever imagine.”
That way of thinking was at the core of Momma’s being. She was totally unselfish, genuinely moved anytime something was done for her, loving in the sort of fashion which grows in meaning over time and given reflection, and embodied everything I associate with the spirit of Christmas. No one loved the season more or brought more to it in terms of warmth and a giving heart. I was blessed by having her make Christmas truly special for me over a period of almost six decades, and maybe offering some index to her innate sense of understanding what was meaningful to her children, grandchildren, and daughters-in-law will form a fitting way to conclude this rather lengthy excursion into Yuletides of yesteryear.
This Christmas we will enjoy a cake—most likely one from a recipe she provided—atop a Fostoria cake stand she gave to Ann (my wife). At some point in the coming weeks I’ll make a point of once again reading the first book I ever owned, Zane Grey’s Spirit of the Border, which she chose for me when I was nine years old, one of many books she would give to a son who loved to read. My wife and our daughter will wear jewelry she passed down to them, and at the oddest of moments and for reasons which transcend my ability to explain, I’ll think of her. Doing so will bring temporary sadness, but it will soon give way to gladness and a smile. That’s the way she would want it, because Anna Lou Casada was a woman and a mother who walked life’s path as a shining emblem of the spirit of Christmas.
I hope you enjoyed Jim’s guest post about his Mother’s love of Christmas as much as I did. Many of the references he made immediately brought Granny to my mind. She made Christmas a magical time of the year for us too-and I can only hope someday my girls can say the same thing about me.
Leave Jim a comment and I’ll make sure he reads it!