But we did have fireworks of a frightening sort that year, and they did not come from detonation of firecrackers or sparklers.
This is how the true story goes as I remember it and as it was told to me.
My father had loaded up his family in our farm wagon, with our two trusty mules pulling our rig. We had feed for the animals for overnight, and, because the weather was very cold, we children were well-clad in warm wool clothing with blankets wrapped about us to ward off the cold. Old black flat irons had been warmed, wrapped in towels and placed at our feet in the wagon to add warmth as we journeyed four miles over the country road to Grandma’s house to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Mother and Daddy sat “up front” in the wagon on the bench especially made to be placed in the wagon for the driver and one passenger. We children rode behind them, in the bed of the wagon, softened by the hay for the mules, our blankets to keep us warm, and the meager presents we were able to take to Grandmother and others who would be at her house. The time of this trip was about 1936 and the Great Depression was still bringing economic hardships to everyone. We country people were fortunate. We had plenty to eat we had grown on the farm, and we had shelter and clothing, although the clothing was much-worn and hand-me-downs.
A sense of excitement swept over us, for, although we went to see Grandma fairly often, going at Christmastime was special. Some of my cousins my same age would be there from Atlanta and other away places. We would have a delightful time playing together. And, we’d been promised that if we had been good, Santa Claus would find us at Grandma’s house as well as at our own. So we had our special stockings to “hang by the chimney with care.”
Grandma’s house was built in 1850 by her father, so it was an old structure. It started out as a log cabin. The original cabin was somewhere beneath the added rooms and lumber that had seen the cabin grow from its former one-room and lean-to kitchen to three large rooms across the front, an ell added-on dining room and kitchen, two large porches, front and back, and an attic that held all sorts of mysteries and delights for curious children who played hide-and-seek there and found plenty of treasures to entertain us in old storage trunks. There were three fireplaces and chimneys in the house, one in Grandma’s front room, one in Uncle Hedden’s front room, and one in the kitchen. All fireplaces were burning large logs on that particularly cold Christmas Eve.
Arriving at Grandma’s house well before dark, we played outside some even in the cold before supper (that’s what we called the evening meal then.) Then Aunt Dora, my Uncle Hedden’s wife who, because Grandma was so elderly at this time, was the “lady of the house,” called us in to wash up and eat the steaming meat stew she had prepared for her large family and all the guests present for that Christmas Eve feast. With dark coming early, there was no more playing outside after supper. How we managed to settle down enough to go to bed that night, I’ll never quite know. Exhaustion probably had overtaken us. Because there were not enough beds, several of us children had the delight of sleeping on “pallets” made with our warm blankets on the floor in front of the fire. The sandman finally took over and we drifted off to sleep.
Then, sometime after falling asleep, we were roused with the excited shouts of “Fire! Fire! Get up! Get outside as quickly as possible!”
We instantaneously changed from sleeping to leaping, heading for the closest door to the outside, somehow remembering to take our blankets with us to guard us from the cold. The adults urged us children across the road and into the barn, where we watched from the barn hall with wide-eyed fright.
The adults formed a bucket brigade from the spring near the house and began a frantic movement of water to fight the fire. With a tall ladder propped against the roof, the water was lifted by climbers and poured on the blaze shooting from one chimney.
From our safety in the barn, we children could see that the fire was leaping from the chimney on the north side of the house, the one from the fireplace in “Grandma’s room.” The men and women worked swiftly, and soon the blaze was under control. Grandma’s house had been saved and everyone in it.
“What happened?” we children wanted to know as we left the barn and went back to the house that had seemed to be in such great danger but was saved from destruction. “The soot caught fire in the chimney,” someone explained to us. “We built up the fires too large and we had not properly cleaned out the chimneys,” someone else said.
Despite the midnight fire and the excitement, we finally got settled back into beds and on pallets. “Can Santa get down the sooty chimney?” some of us children asked. We were assured that yes; Santa might even be able to help brush out the congested chimney as he lowered himself through it to bring our gifts.
Whether it was in my sleep and dreams or whether I actually saw Santa descend, fill our stockings with candy, an apple, an orange, some nuts and one hand-made toy for each child, I learned a few great principles about the season. Love of parents and family is better than a warm blanket anytime. When an emergency arises, it takes level-headedness and doing what has to be done to meet the challenge. And, indeed, if a child is good, obeys his parents, and does his best, Santa will come on Christmas Eve despite the frightening fireworks in the chimney and the failed economic times.
c 2009 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 17, 2009 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.