Christmas in Alabama was a two-edged sword. Though we lived in the deep south, it got cold. Very cold. And that meant several things. It meant that along with our usual early morning chores, we'd have to make sure that both stoves had wood. The kitchen one, small and bulbous, took branches, nothing thicker than a rolling pin; the living room one, big and boxy, took trunk wood, most of which had to be split to fit under the stove lids. It meant that we'd have to break, with heavy sticks, the ice in the water buckets of five horse stables and twenty-three discrete dog kennels. It also meant that rattlesnakes would crawl under the house where we kept our kindling and that mice would brazenly scamper towards the warmth: the kitchen, the living room, the cranked-up electric blankets that cocooned our sleeping bodies.
We lived in a converted fishing cabin built by a slipshod handyman named Rooster (I kid you not), and the winter wind whistled icily through the cracks in the unstained pine planks, which were graffitied with penciled saw lines (hopelessly overshot), splashes of basic addition, and scribbled phrases like "this side up." December meant that the gaps in the wall boards had to be covered with packing tape or stuffed with cotton.
But it also meant that mom would make homemade doughnuts, thick ropes of batter coiled into hot oil and then dusted with sugar, or apples and onions, both frontier recipes from the Little House Cookbook we'd gotten her last year. It meant that Christmas Eve dinner would consist entirely of the cookies we'd helped her make all week, the madelines and macaroons, the orange cranberry nut biscotti, the pecan praline lace, the pizzelles with toasted anise seed. (Well, that's how it was pitched, "all you can eat cookies," but the witch always managed to force some chowder into us too). It meant that my mother, brother, and I would saddle up three horses and scour the nine hundred acres of our ranch for the perfect tree. Once found, we'd tag it with the same blaze orange tape our stepfather frequently used to legally indicate that the crap hanging off the bed of his pickup, the pipes and planks, was too big and would crash right through your windshield if you got too close. Then Doctor--as we formally called our stepfather, a former army dentist--would head out the next day, chop it down, and haul it back.
It meant we'd make pasta angels from elbows and bow-ties, and Drummer Boy drums from TP tubes. It meant we'd string popcorn with red thread and lather pine cones with glue and dredge them with gold glitter. It meant singing carols around the blonde upright as Mom haltingly banged out "Mele Kalikimaka." It meant my brother and I would be able to pick one (but only one) Christmas special to watch on the usually off-limits TV. It was a tough decision and, fearing a blunder, we typically stuck to the tried and true: The Heat Miser, Emmett Otter, Peanuts. But a few times we took a chance on something new. Once a show was begun Mom forbid us to turn back (a lesson, she declared, in reality), and one year we swallowed a bitter pill indeed: a limp 1982 cartoon starring Pac Man and his family called Christmas Comes to Pac Land. I still feel the weight of that disappointment. Now, as I decorate the store in preparation for the "retail rush," as I garland the counter with a string of multi-colored lights made from the translucent casings of shotgun shells, as I crown the armless gold mannequin (Goldfingerless) that stands guard over our register with the felted chimney pot I once wore as a Central Park carriage driver (a holly spring added for festive flair), and as I listen to Shane MacGowan growl about "Christmas Eve in the drunk tank" on the holiday CD my girlfriend, Kristy, recently burned me, I think about those winters in Alabama. And you know what? I miss 'em. Even the snakes.