My family only has a couple of hard and fast traditions at Christmastime, but they are etched in stone. In fact, one of these traditions is a subject in my debut novel, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake.
On the first Saturday in December my entire family (all twenty-six of us) jump on the ATV’s and ride into the woods on this year’s great tree hunt. This includes great grandparents, grandparents, mamas, daddies, and ALL the kids. Apparently, that seems a little odd to some folks. But I’ll tell you what’s odd to me….the fact that every single year….after seven hundred arguments, we get back to my mama’s house with a tree that will not and could not possibly fit in the house. Too tall. Too fat. Too BIG. After several surgeries, we manage to cram it into its place of honor. My parents started this tradition sixty one years ago on their first Christmas as husband and wife…only then they traveled on bicycles…not ATV’s. Legend has it the tree has NEVER gone in on the first try. My mama STILL stands in the woods and insists it will and my daddy STILL insists it won’t. My mama wins every time.
Until I was sixteen years old, I thought everybody in the USA had gumbo on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t until I met a boy from Boston who was in Louisiana visiting relatives, I learned that wasn’t the case. On December 23rd, we begin stirring the roux, a combination of equal parts oil and flour. This is a process that lasts a couple of hours or more, depending on how brown you want it to get. And we all take turns stirring the pot and sipping the eggnog. This isn’t ordinary eggnog, it’s eggnog from Maggio’s in Natchitoches, Louisiana the City of Lights. Maggio’s is our drive through liquor store. (I think that may be exclusive to Louisiana. LOL) The eggnog is only around during the month of December and it’s slushy and creamy and nutmeggy and delicious! We make the gumbo in the outside cookhouse and it’s a little bit like tailgating in Baton Rouge. Lots of people, lots of food and lots of fun. By late evening, we add the chicken, sausage, the holy trinity (onions, celery and bell pepper) and Cajun seasonings to the roux and let them marry overnight. On Christmas Eve, it’s perfect. Oh…and the boy from Boston? By the time he went back home, he loved gumbo, shrimp and grits, fried alligator and….redheads.
My favorite tradition is when we light candles on Christmas Eve to remember those who have gone before us. In all the chaos that ensues when we are tearing packages open, kids squealing with delight, grown-ups as excited as the children, I always pause a second or two and look at those candles flickering on the mantle. And I always stop then and there and thank God for these people who still surround me every day and the ones who once did and whose memory always will. Check out The Secret to Hummingbird Cake, I think you’ll recognize some of the folks I’ve mentioned here.
Merry Christmas from my family to yours!
CELESTE FLETCHER McHALE is a Southern Lit author from Central Louisiana. Her debut novel, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake, is being released through Thomas Nelson in February 2016. Celeste attended Louisiana State University and Northwestern State University where she majored in history. She currently lives on her century-old family farm, and she enjoys family, writing, football, baseball, and raising a variety of animals. Learn more about Celeste and The Secret to Hummingbird Cake at FletcherMcHale.Wordpress.com.