Christmas in Middle Tennessee involves one of two things. Either it pisses rain and drops almost instantaneously to 20 degrees outside or it stays balmy and in the mid 70’s to 80’s during the day and freezes at night creating a Pneumonia Winter that makes the Christmas season an almost unbearable affair. On Rare occasions though it snows and creates a beautiful, snow clad winter background that fills the heart with warmth and magic as one marvels at the beauty of deep blue skies, frosted landscapes and icicles that drip from trees and create micro-prisms at the right angle as you look up into the gnarled branches. When the signs align just right, the moon is in the proper house and the winter gods convene in their secret warrens and fabled halls and have just the right amount of wine to decree that winter will in fact grace the south, then and only then do we have the sort of winter wonderland that country singers write songs about.
When I was fifteen, my grandfather decided he wanted to put of Christmas decorations. Living on a hill recessed back in the woods on a then oft untraveled mile and a half of road just inside of the greater Nashville area, simple strings of light on the roof ledge wouldn’t do. He had to make it bright enough and tall enough to be seen through the winter shrouded trees and into the newly built condo complex across the road. I was there most afternoons and went outside to help him some. We started by stringing lights around the small front porch, across the front of the house, out to his swing (which is another story all together) and down a few feet on the driveway. Then, using a tall piece of pvc pipe with aluminum foil wrapped around to reflect the glow, we strung lights in arching circles across the four guide wires holding it steady and created a looping light tree that glowed brightly in the night. But this wasn’t enough. It reflected none of the meaning of Christmas to him and so, after a day or so of thinking on it he went out to his workshop and went to work.
Long before I was born, my grandfather and a friend of his, a large man they always referred to as Big Fred who stood about 7′ tall and had to duck to walk in through the door decided that they wanted to build a sail boat. There in his workshop they went about their craft until they finally had it done. Taking it out to Percy Priest by the dam, they put in to the water and immediately noticed a problem: the lake had decided to join them inside the boat. To make a long story (that only he could properly tell) short, the boat sank and they, blissfully close, had to walk back to shore. The only piece of their boat that could be salvaged was the mast which had sat collecting dust in the garage of his workshop until that afternoon. Cutting the mast down a few feet, extending the side with small bits of scrap wood, he created a cross and wrapped it in white lights. Placing it a few feet from the tree, it became visible through the trees into the street to anyone driving by. He chose the white lights instead of colors because “the baby born on Christmas day would die on that cross and make us all white as snow.” Paraphrased as so much of what I say is, you get the message he intended.
It brightened our spirits, made what would have been a fine but otherwise routine Christmas so much brighter.
My cousin Jason and I chose this year, in honor of the tradition started so many years ago, to put up the tree and the cross. Looking at it standing there in the yard, lit and shining, I felt a bitter sweet sense of accomplishment. It was fantastic as a boy to watch the man work at anything he did and to be a party to the work as he told his stories. Now it seems my turn to tell the stories and share the traditions that our grandfather began for his children, grandchildren and all his progeny. I hope beyond anything that he would be happy and, more so, that this dark first holiday without him will be lightened some by the presence of a few twinkling lights.