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December 11, 2022

A friend recently asked, “What does keeping Christmas mean?”

I learned from internet research that keeping Christmas is an expression in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Though the phrase was undoubtedly used in the Victorian era, the origin goes back at least to medieval times.

Keeping Christmas in the South recognizes important role of food in holiday festivities. The sandy roads, or boulevards, that led to old plantations houses were often lined with pecan trees. Each fall, the nuts were gathered. When families sat together in rocking chairs or on joggling boards on the front porch, cracking and picking pecans was a pastime. Pecans were considered a delicacy and a staple. They were a favorite snack, eaten straight from the shell, or roasted and salted. They also were included in numerous recipes. My mother put pecans in apple salad, sweet potato soufflé, and banana bread. Pecan pie is the dessert of choice for a Southern Christmas.

Baked or candied, in casseroles, pies, or bread, sweet potatoes were always a part of Christmas dinner. Sweet potatoes were also a staple. During the Great Depression, my grandmother frequently prepared sweet potatoes in three different ways for the same meal.

Southerners enjoy adding seafood to holiday fare. Oyster dressing was always a part of Christmas dinner in Clare’s home. We frequently include shrimp or scallops with our Christmas meal. For some families, crab cakes or she-crab soup is a prelude to the main course.

At the center of the table is a platter with the featured meat. This varies from family to family or from year to year. Favorites are tenderloin, wild goose, or a turkey baked, smoked, or deep-fried in peanut oil. A Christmas ham is traditional for many Southern families. My grandmother soaked a cured ham in apple juice overnight to remove the salt. She rubbed it with an orange, studded it with cloves, and basted it with apple cider.

Side dishes included peas with pearl onions or green beans with almond slivers. Squash casserole, macaroni and cheese casserole, and pickled okra are often added to the feast.

And then there were the sweets! My mother was the queen of celebration. Her coconut cake, lemon squares, and Kentucky Colonel chocolate bourbon balls were enough to draw a crowd. One brother-in-law said that the Kentucky Colonels were sufficient reason to marry into the family.

 Keeping Christmas meant savoring the smells of the season. The aroma of cedar elicits memories of my youth. I recall trudging through fields and woods on our old family farm with my dad, granddad, uncles, brothers, and cousins, searching for the perfect red cedar trees for Christmas. We gathered branches from holly trees, preferably with bright red berries. We shot mistletoe out of the tops of oak trees with a 22-rifle.

Mama preferred natural decorations mixing the collected greenery with citrus fruits to accent her garlands. Oranges studded with cloves gave a holiday fragrance. Lemons, limes, and pineapples were added to the centerpieces. Glossy magnolia leaves gave every decoration a distinctively Southern elegance.

Poinsettias, discovered and named for Greenville native Joel Poinsett, were featured in our home as in many others in Upstate South Carolina. A blaze in the fireplace added the smell of hardwood smoke to the crisp December air.

Our cedar Christmas tree was decorated with ornaments we had made as children and others that had survived years of handling and storage. Some were homemade; others were gifts from friends. Each one had a special meaning.

Our custom has been to keep some small gifts by our front door. If a visitor comes, we can offer a tasty treat. Gifts for family and friends can include homemade pound cake, cookies, or brownies. Jellies and jams, fruit, and nuts are popular Southern gifts. Moravian sugar cake is an all-time favorite. One lady in Winston-Salem made the best pear preserves from the knotty little fruit that grew on a tree in her yard.

All of these traditions are a part of keeping Christmas. But there is more.

Keeping Christmas is about spending time with family and friends. The joy of swapping stories and singing together is a part of a Southern Christmas. A Southern Christmas should include more listening and less hastening.

My mother was adopted. She had one older sister in her new family, whom she called Sister. It was only natural that my seven siblings and I should call this dear woman Aunt Sister. She was a proper Southern lady. Her heritage went back to a plantation in Darlington County. She was the first person I knew who used the expression keeping Christmas.

When my friend raised the question about the phrase, my thoughts went back to Aunt Sister. What did she mean by keeping Christmas?

Keeping Christmas well means to worship in a candlelight service and with acts of kindness. Beyond good food, decorations, gift-giving, and family time, it is important to keep Christmas in our hearts.

It was something Ebenezer Scrooge had to learn in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge had become so self-centered that his life focused on material wealth. He refused to light a coal fire, preferring to curse the cold weather in an attempt to save one more shilling. Like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, Ebenezer’s heart was two sizes too small. He saw the world around him as a place of misery. The real problem was within his own soul.

The ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future confronted Scrooge with his own spiritual poverty. Through these revelations, he had the opportunity to change. Much to the astonishment of Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge became a different man. The streets of London were the same. Tiny Tim still had his affliction. The transformation that occurred was in the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Keeping Christmas requires a change of heart.

One Christmas, Aunt Sister, sent me a poem by Henry Van Dyke. Here is a portion of “Keeping Christmas.”

There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to forget what you have done for other people and to remember what other people have done for you;
  • to ignore what the world owes you and to think about what you owe the world;
  • to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
  • to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness?

Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
  • to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
  • to stop asking how much your friends love you, and, instead, ask yourself whether you love them enough;
  • to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
  • to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
  • to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kind feelings?

Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing

  • to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—

stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—

  • and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem is the image and brightness of eternal love?

Then you can keep Christmas.

And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

December Light 1916 is a Christmas novel by Kirk H. Neely

It is available at all fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week make a special gift or volunteer your time to a charity that provides for needy families. Thank you.

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