Well, here it is December, when the “War on Christmas” rears its ugly head. Every day from now until Dec. 26, we’ll hear about people who get offended when they go shopping in a big-box store and a clerk wishes them “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” You people who want retail clerks to holy up Christmas for you, listen to me. They’re clerks. They don’t make the rules. They’re just doing what the corporate weasels upstream tell them to do. It’s just like the greeters at PoFolks restaurants hollering, “Howdy! Welcome to PoFolks!” They’re just trying to move some merchandise while pissing off the minimum number of customers. Nobody’s going to kill Christmas.
Christmas gives me mixed feelings. I’m not a holy Christmas guy, I’m not a joyful Christmas guy, and I’m not a bah-humbug Christmas guy. Truth be told, I’m more of a sad Christmas guy. I’ve got my reasons.
Back in my formative years, Christmastime at the Jowers house was mercurial. The Thanksgiving-to-Christmas interval was filled with anticipation of the good, the bad and the unbearable, and it was anything but a serious religious celebration. Somewhere along the line, my mother, Susie Jowers, got seriously annoyed with religion in general. Susie tolerated Christmas carols reasonably well, but she hated what she called “church music.” On Sunday mornings, when the Lewis Family singers wrapped up their local bluegrass-gospel show on Channel 12, the station switched over to a church service. As soon as the organ and the choir fired up, Susie would start screaming, “Turn that shit off! I can’t stand it! Change the channel, mash the off button, do something before that preacher starts talking!” If I hadn’t beat Susie to the TV on Sunday mornings, I’m pretty sure she would’ve put a chair through the picture tube.
I think Susie got her fill of church music at funerals—her daddy’s funeral, her mother’s funeral, her sister’s funeral. All of them died young, and Susie was bitter about it. She was wired so that hurtful things would make her either seriously depressed or fighting mad. She stuck with mad, because, as she put it, “When I’m mad, I can get a little something done.”
My daddy, Jabo Jowers, didn’t take his Christmas music too seriously. He didn’t mind a little religious music. “It’s all right with me,” he said, “as long as they ain’t trying to preach me into heaven.” When he had his Christmas druthers, he strongly preferred heathen music, specifically Elvis’ Christmas Album. I know, I know—there were spirituals on that album, and Elvis took his spirituals seriously. But Jabo didn’t listen to them. He was interested only in the last two tracks on side one: “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me).”
Starting in 1971, Jabo’s last year on earth, he focused his musical interests on Soul Train. The only thing Jabo enjoyed as much as Christmas was enthusiastic dancing, and they had plenty of that on Soul Train.
Jabo liked just about everything about Christmas—except for putting up the tree. A few days after Thanksgiving, Jabo would call me to the car, and we’d ride over to Fat Man’s Forest in Augusta. Fat Man’s Forest, which started out as the Sanitary Curb Market, later became Fat Man’s Corner, a store where the proprietor would have a man buried alive once in a while, just to draw in customers. It was Jabo’s kind of place. The Fat Man started selling Christmas trees in 1954.
Once we got to Fat Man’s Forest, we’d walk the lot in search of a good 6-foot blue spruce. Jabo would spend a good hour finding fault with all of them—too short, too thin, too crooked, too dry. Then he’d go back to the first tree he’d looked at and buy it.
Once the tree was home, Jabo and Susie would drag it to its place in the living room. Soon after, Jabo and Susie made it clear that Christmastime wasn’t a holy time at the Jowers house. As the first needles of the blue spruce started falling, and the water in the tree stand started spilling, and the frayed old series-wired lights went dark a strand at a time, Jabo and Susie did little else but speak the Lord’s name in vain. Together, they spent the Christmas season petitioning the Almighty to damn all manner of people and things. Please, Lord, damn the tree, damn the lights, damn the worn-out stove and the rusty truck. Especially damn the relatives who never stop by until Christmastime, when they eat up all our food and drink up all our liquor. And while you’re at it, Dear Lord, damn the bill collectors who’ll start calling in January, wanting the money that Jabo spent on Jabo Junior’s red Gibson guitar.
It’s no wonder that I turned out to be a secular Christmas guy. A few years back, daughter Jess’ culturally diverse school had a “musical celebration of the season,” suitable for folks of any faith or philosophy. I didn’t want to miss it, so I walked into the school’s music room, planning to sing along on the Christian hymns I remembered from my elementary-school days. But don’t you know, after 30 years of playing rock ’n’ roll and R&B, I could only find the beat and sing the notes in the Kwanzaa songs.
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