By Chris Rathbone
Many of you have followed my articles over the past few years. Memories and stories from the past are something I really enjoy sharing. No doubt that my family had some rough times over those years growing up, but if we aren’t careful, we allow the rough times to overshadow the wonderful memories that God allows us to make with family and friends over the years. Sometimes it makes me feel a little sad though because I realize that there is no way to go back to those times. However, those memories give us many reasons to give God thanks for allowing us to make them. So, in this month’s article, I’ll be sharing some random Christmas memories of my childhood.
The Estatoe Church of God was the church in which I grew up. Every year, of course, our church family would have a Christmas program. As a child, many of us were “volunteered” to play a part in those programs. There was always a combination of being scared about being up in front of everyone and at the same time excited to be a part of the plays. Often the parts weren’t even speaking parts, but we still got nervous. The simplicity and beauty of those programs will forever be etched in my mind. The power of the story of God loving us so much that He came in the flesh in His Son Jesus was something that, as a boy, I didn’t completely understand. However, I never doubted the truth of it. Even now, I still feel the power of God’s love in my heart as my church does plays, programs, music, etc., as we choose to celebrate Christ’s birth. Every year as everyone was leaving the Christmas programs there at the Estatoe Church of God, we received a gift bag. It was a small brown paper bag filled with an apple, orange, banana, candy cane, and a candy bar. As a child, I was so excited to get that bag of goodies! So many wonderful times shared with wonderful people that I will never forget.
Then, of course, there were family gatherings. On the Atkin’s side of the family, my grandmother “Mammie” had 22 grandchildren and no telling how many great-grandchildren. Even if everyone couldn’t come to the family Christmas gatherings, there was always a huge crowd. Organized chaos is what it seemed like most of the time. Everyone laughing, talking loudly, eating, etc. If the weather permitted, all the children were outside running around and playing. We didn’t even try to buy each other gifts because we were such a large family. So just being together was gift enough. Mammie usually received the gifts. Usually new aprons, bedroom slippers, gowns, and sometimes new dresses she could wear to church. I don’t know how she did it, but she was always able to give all the children a few dollars for Christmas. Back then a couple of bucks was a big deal to a boy!
There was also a gathering on the Rathbone side of the family. Every year we would gather at Paw and Maw’s house. Over the years they moved several times. The earliest I remember was the Ol’ Wilson place on Cattail Creek in Yancey County. Then they moved down to the what we called The Depot House near “downtown” Pensacola. The last house they lived in was in Burnsville city limits above the Rec. Park. It didn’t really matter where, the point was that every year we gathered as a family. In those days the holidays were a wonderful opportunity to basically have a family reunion! And boy did we ever! Talk about some meals! Those occasions were special for sure because we certainly didn’t eat like that too often around the Rathbone household. As a boy, the Blueberry Yum Yum was a highlight for me. Most of the time I would go ahead and get me a big ole’ bowl full with my meal just to be sure it all didn’t get gone (if you know what I mean). Many of my family members that were present then have gone on. It makes me miss them and the times we had but at the same time I’m thankful to have them in my heart.
We certainly can’t talk about childhood Christmas memories without talking about some of the gifts! First is the “Brown toboggan experience” as my boys like to call it. Deyton Elementary was the school I attended in the 1st grade. Mrs. Masters was my teacher and was one of my favorites. She was such a sweet lady, firm with making us mind, but sweet and loving in the process. Somehow, I remember these things as if they happened yesterday. We drew names that year for Christmas as a class. The day of our class party came with food and fun. The time came for us to exchange our gifts. Most were just small simple gifts such as a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car for the boys and small dolls for the girls. Mrs. Masters did it alphabetically. As I watched those kids before me open their gifts one by one, the anticipation was building tremendously. I saw the cars, the army men, the toy guns, etc. and was on pins and needles waiting for my name to be called. My name was called, I hurried to the front, got my present and raced to my seat. I quickly tore the wrapping paper off and opened the box. All the while thinking “What will it be? A car, an action figure, a gun, a knife?” My mind was racing with excitement. When I open the box, my heart dropped! There it was in all its glory: A brown toboggan. Now I know that was probably all my classmate’s family could afford, but as a boy in the 1st grade, that’s not what you think about. Mrs. Masters tried to smooth it over by saying, “Just think, you’ll be warm this afternoon when you go outside to play.” I didn’t want to be warm; I wanted a toy! It was everything I could do to hold back the tears as I looked at that brown toboggan. It’s silly now but was certainly a big deal for a 1st grader!
Growing up, Dad and Mom may not have been able to give us a lot for Christmas, but they always made sure we had something to open come Christmas morning. Every year was the same. We didn’t buy a Christmas tree. A neighbor allowed us to search on his property and cut one, usually a small white pine that was more akin to a Charlie Brown tree. But by the time we put our decorations on it, we were happy. Back in those days the stringy icicles were popular. Even if the tree wasn’t much, by the time we got all those icicles on it most every hole was covered. We loved the lights, especially the ones that twinkled. We would lie on our backs under the tree looking up through the branches watching the lights blink for the longest time. In those days it seemed like Christmas Day took forever to come, but now it’s here and gone so quickly. We could hardly sleep on Christmas Eve and would always beg to open a gift. Sometimes they let us and sometimes not. Of course, we were up at 5 am on Christmas morning begging Dad and Mom to get up so we could open our gifts. Such excitement and joy that we as children had because of God’s blessings on our family.
Don’t misunderstand when I write about these memories. Our family had our struggles, heartaches, and hard times. That’s just part of living in this world. We can choose to allow those struggles to rob us of the good we experienced, or we can choose to be grateful for those wonderful memories God allowed us to make. Times sure are different now. All us kids grew up, have families, and lives of our own. Not too often do we get to see each other nowadays. But at the same time, we are making memories with our kids and grandkids. The point is this, be thankful this Christmas for the memories of the past. Make it a priority to intentionally make time for your family so that your kids and grandkids, Lord willing, will have memories to share. Most importantly, make sure that everyone in your family hears about Jesus who made these times possible. Celebrate Him, celebrate His birth, His death, and His resurrection every day. Celebrate God’s love for us all and cherish the memories He gives us with family and friends.
I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and blessed New Year. Whether you choose to celebrate or not, I pray God’s blessings on you and your family. Let us never forget that it’s all about Jesus!
Preacher Chris Rathbone serves as Pastor at Mine Creek Baptist Church.