Memories of Christmas: presents, plays, parades

Rick Wagner • Dec 24, 2016 at 4:00 PM

When I think of Christmas, my mind goes back to my childhood and high school years. And that brings back memories of family, school and church in and around my hometown of Surgoinsville.

When I was in elementary school and even before that, we used to go to my paternal grandmother’s on Christmas Eve. While we were gone up the hill, Santa Claus would come at my house, so after eating and opening gifts at my grandmother’s with my dad’s family, we’d return home and I’d open Santa’s gifts and those from Mom and Dad. Santa sometimes stopped at Mamaw Wagner’s house, too.

For Christmas in 1973, Santa brought a television for my bedroom. It was a 13-inch RCA black-and-white tube type TV, and my family albums are brimming with Polaroid photographs of me with it. I was uptown then: I could watch something different from Mom and Dad, picking up three channels well, one OK with “snow” and some others so-so at best. That was the same reception as the big set in the living room. I definitely grew up with television.

My three children today are not so impressed since it was nothing like a flat screen LED, but back in the early 1970s to have a supplement to our 1960s 23-inch Philco console model was spectacular. Thanks again, Santa, even though I knew you bought it at Kmart instead of making it from scratch. Santa didn’t bring a color set until Christmas of 1977, a 25-inch RCA Colortrak.

Aside from television technology, one Christmas we had a variation in the plans. I was in the church play at Amis Chapel United Methodist Church, and it was on Christmas Eve, so I performed as an actor before going to Mamaw’s house. The word “actor” may be stretching it, but I did say my lines.

On Christmas morning, we’d go to my maternal grandmother’s and stepgrandfather’s house. Sometime that day at Ma and Cecil Lee’s, Mom, Dad and I would go to my great-grandmother’s place. Our tradition is still to go to my aunt’s house in Stony Point Christmas Day, although this year we’re changing the location.

The ride to Maggie “Granny” Crigger’s was about three or four miles from these other two places, with Mamaw’s house up the hill from our home and the other about two miles away east in Stony Point. My great-grandmother lived in the Friendly Town section of Surgoinsville, west of our house, and to this day when I smell coal smoke or see a Kennedy half-dollar I think of her and Christmas. She always had her Warm Morning stove burning coal Christmas Day, and the Christmas gifts to me and the other great-grandkids were the half-dollars

Also in elementary school, I remember in second grade being sick but really wanting to go to the class Christmas party. Mom took me and made cool cookies shaped like candy canes. On the way back home, we didn’t stop at home, which I didn’t notice for a while. Despite my protests, she made me go on to the doctor in Kingsport. I got well before the big day.

Speaking of candy, in second grade I also was in a play called “Uncle Billy’s Candy Shop” that I believe was performed around Christmas. My second grade teacher, Patty Pierce, now Alvis, recently told me I had to memorize a very long part. I can’t remember any of it now, but I do remember doing the play and I have a copy somewhere. It is probably next to the 13-inch TV.

When it comes to plays, my most stand-out memory by far is from a Christmas play at Amis Chapel. The year is lost in the mists of time, but I was still at Surgoinsville High School, which I attended from seventh grade through 10th grade. I think it was around my eighth or ninth grade ear, Christmas of 1978 or 1979.

I was a cloth seller in the marketplace, and my job was to move the play along by explaining the actions of King Herod as I fumbled around with rolls of cloth. Unfortunately, I hadn’t quite learned my lines, so I was reading them and fumbled a line. When I got to the king’s name, I said “He-rod” instead of “Herr-odd.” 

Everybody broke out laughing, and from then on every time we got to that part of the play, we had to try hard not to laugh. It was like when actors and actresses on “The Carol Burnett Show” or “Saturday Night Live” started to laugh except we were in a church Christmas play, not a television comedy. Fortunately, the play went off without a “He-rod” hitch. (Could this have been a slightly off prophesy of the future nickname of baseball player A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, who was born in 1975?)

Another year we somehow jumped over about three pages of dialogue but then came back and redid that dialogue after I somehow got us back to the start of what we had skipped. My two sons had speaking parts in a play at Amis Chapel this Dec. 18, but Herod was not in the dialogue this year.

You see, Christmas celebrations and plays, like all things on earth, change. By sixth grade, Mamaw had died, so we started going to my paternal grandfather’s house, Pa and Rosie Winegar’s, in Bloomingdale on Christmas Eve, which we continued doing until they died after I graduated from college. Before that, we visited them on another night.

I’ll never forget the year he got a new Kodak instant camera (ironic since new versions of this are popular this year) and was trying to take a photo. Every time he started to take the photo, he’d find us in the viewfinder but have a coat from a rack blocking the lens. The camera viewfinder and lens were separate, so he could never understand why we kept telling him the photo he was about to take would be of a coat sleeve.

And finally, I remember all the Christmas concerts and parades starting from fifth grade going through my senior year. It is funny how I remember many of those holiday tunes and fingerings for the tuba/sousaphone bass line all these years later. “Winter Wonderland” and the others run on an endless loop in my mind this time of year, it seems. 

One year it was so cold at the Kingsport parade in the late 1970s, when we thought Santa would never arrive, that our instruments froze. I tried to keep my instrument and self warm inside Dobyns-Taylor Hardware, but my sousaphone keep hitting low-hanging things.

By the time the parade began, all we could do was play “Jingle Bells” in unison in whatever key we could play with the frozen instruments. I still think my fingers sting when it gets cold because of all those parades in the cold. We marched and played in Surgoinsville, Church Hill, Mount Carmel and Kingsport Christmas parades in the 1970s and early 1980s, but only the Model City parade patrons got our Surgoinsville monotone performance in unison.

Today’s Lesson: Christmas memories stick with you, and maybe it was better I became a journalist instead of an actor.

Bonus question: What happens when band instruments freeze before a Christmas parade?

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.