The Williams Family Christmas Tradition

How the Christmas Parties Began


BY CLEO MATTHEWS AND GLENN WILLIAMS

On December 22, 1991, we celebrated the 50th year of what has become a tradition of getting together and exchanging Christmas gifts. We've had a party like this in every year since 1942 except in 1988 when Glenn was hospitalized and, despite his protestations, the family decided to forego the party. In 1942 when Cleo left home and went to work in Tarboro she had no idea she would be starting a tradition that would survive so long. After all, traditions are not planned--they de-velop because we are introduced to them by someone or something special and, as a result, they have meaning for those involved; yet they survive only so long as the meaning does. That year, her first away from home, Cleo bought gifts for the rest of the children and re-turned home with them to be opened on that Christmas Eve. Prior to her leaving home, Christmas includ-ed Santa's visit but not the exchange of gifts. What she started has come to mean a great deal to each of us and we have taught our child-ren, by example, the meaning of family at Christ-mas. They know that family in-cludes the broader family of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and cousins of the descendants of Charlie and Lucille Taylor Williams.

That first Christmas party included Mother and Daddy and the nine children: Cleo, C.T., Margaret, J.D., Phillip, Oliver, Glenn, Milton and Aaron. With the addition of Shirley, Nancy and Don and in-laws and grandchildren, the group in 1991 grew to about 50, including both family and the dates of some of the younger generation (special guests were Aunt Ann and Julian Bryant).

Those Christmases in the forties only lasted a couple of weeks, beginning a few days before Christmas and lasting until January 6--"old Christmas" Mother called it. A week or so before Christmas, the bigger boys would carry the ax and all the rest of us would follow behind to find a cedar or pine tree suitable for decorating. As Cleo remembers it, Daddy and Mother usually were "gone to town" to "see Santa Claus" while we looked for the tree. After we cut the tree, Daddy would help us by nailing a board to the bottom of the tree to serve as a stand (wonder what his secret was--nowadays both store-bought and homemade stands always seem to fail just as you get the tree in the house). We would decorate with mostly homemade items and tensil strips, much of which we had saved from the prior year. We didn't always have electricity so there were no lights on the tree.

When Daddy and Mother returned from Christmas shopping, Daddy would have candy, fruit and nuts he had bought for the holiday but no one could get to the goodies until Christmas Eve day. There would be oranges, tangerines, grapes, raisins (still on the pieces of vine, including the seeds), apples, hard candy, giant chocolate drops and assorted walnuts, Brazil nuts and pecans. Daddy would leave all of the goodies in brown paper bags sitting inside a box or larger paper bag and feeling and looking down into the bags to retrieve a treat was half the excitement and fun of the day for Cleo and anyone else who got the chance to reach down into those bags. Mother would start cooking and, with a little imagination, it is possible even now to recall the smells of sweet potato pie, chocolate cake and coconut cake made from fresh coconut which Daddy would break
with a hammer after draining the milk. We always wanted to drink the milk but Mother wouldn't allow it because she "needed it to make the cake". Glenn remembers years later on a trip through Florida seeing signs advertising "coconut milk" and being disappointed to learn that it was cow's milk flavored with a touch of coconut. We see fruits, candy and nuts like this every day now but it was a rare occasion, in those days, to see any of these things, except maybe apples which grew on the farm.

Don and Phil entertain at 2002 Christmas Party

Mother would cook some special things again for "old Christmas" althoughit was not as elaborate. The time in between seemed so special in those days. There was no rush to get the house decorated weeks before Christmas and though we didn't get nearly as many gifts, we probably treasured them far more. Of course we didn't worry about dietary restrictions as much then as we do now but somehow or another the memory of the taste of foods says that it was better then when we had less choice.

For years Cleo, and then Margaret, when she left home to work in town, continued to bring home gifts for everyone at Christmas. At some point,the number of gifts was larger than the amount of money available and we began the much more sensible approach of drawing names. In those early years, we always got together on Christmas Eve night at Mother and Daddy's home; but as the children got married and began to have their own families, legitimate scheduling conflicts arose. The annual get-together meant enough to those who had left home that we settled on the weekend before Christmas, generally, as a time to open family gifts.

After we lost Daddy and then Mother, we decided that we still wanted to get together at Christmas even though we had begun to have a family reunion in October each year (another tradition that we need to write about one day). In at least a couple of years, we met and erected a tree and exchanged gifts at a club house; but the feeling wasn't the same because it wasn't "at home" and we all seemed to drift off to our own homes soon after opening the gifts. Since that time in the early seventies, we have had our party at the home of one of the children or grandchildren where we eat well, sing carols and have a great time. These times together give us several hours of time to talk with each other, to share our hopes and aspirations for ourselves and our family and, most importantly, for cousins to get to know cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews to get to know each other.

Sadly, we lost Daddy and Mother and Aaron, Phillip, Milton, Margaret and her husband Edd and their son Eddie Wade during the years between 1942 and 1991. The 1991 gathering was extra special, though, because Phillip's son Keith, Milton's son Greg and daughter Kim and her husband Steve, and Margaret's son Phil, his wife Sharon and their children were with us. The fact they were there validates the earlier comments about traditions--they survive because they have real value and significance for us even after the special someone who introduced us to them are no longer there to share the time with us. We all dearly love Keith, Greg, Kim, Phil and their families and hope that sharing their 1991 Christmas with us made the day as special for them as their presence did for us.