As a retired cooperative communicator who’ll celebrate his 80th birthday on April 6 of next year, I was flattered when The Tennessee Magazine’s editor, Robin Conover, asked me to write a piece about any Christmas traditions that my East Tennessee family not only observed but treasured through the years.
Oh, yes, we had traditions, thanks in large part to the love that our mother, the late Lochiel Brooks Kirk, had for the Christmas season — from decorating the tree and the house to cooking, baking, entertaining and shopping for perfect gifts for an array of family members and friends.
I was born and raised in Whitesburg, a small, friendly community in Hamblen County, about seven miles east of the county seat, Morristown. Our little town, on busy Highway 11-E, had a post office, a couple of grocery stores, a filling station or two and a three-story brick school building in which students in grades 1 through 12 got their education (I graduated from Whitesburg High in 1957). Our 1½-story clapboard house was just off the highway on a gravel road that ran alongside the busy Southern Railway tracks. It was the loving home of Mama; Daddy; my brother, Wayne; our paternal grandmother, Effie (Ma) Kirk; and myself.
Every year, in the kitchen of that house, Mama worked her Christmas magic to make the season special for lots of folks. Her specialty was her peanut butter log: a sweet, soothing, satisfying candy that family and guests alike loved. She carefully cooked the ingredients for the divinity-type base, and when the mixture had cooled, she flattened it with a rolling pin, slathered on creamy peanut butter, rolled her creation into a perfectly formed log and later sliced it into pieces for everyone to enjoy. What amazed me most, though, was the fact that Mama didn’t have a recipe for the peanut butter roll! She just knew how much of this or that was needed for a “run.”
“Mama’s specialty was her peanut butter log: a sweet, soothing, satisfying candy that family and guests alike loved. She carefully cooked the ingredients for the divinity-type base, and when the mixture had cooled, she flattened it with a rolling pin, slathered on creamy peanut butter, rolled her creation into a perfectly formed log and later sliced it into pieces for everyone to enjoy.”
Although Mama was known for her peanut butter log, she made other goodies that family and friends enjoyed, including caramel candy, luscious divinity (with nuts), sugar cookies made with “real butter” and moist and tasty fruitcakes (sometimes she would even crack hickory nuts for the cakes because she liked how they tasted).But Mama’s Christmas magic wasn’t confined to her kitchen. Our parents had a small 25-acre farm about a quarter of a mile “down the railroad” from our house. At the time, Daddy was still working as a truck driver for Mason-Dixon Lines, running from Knoxville to Greeneville every Monday through Friday. He lived in a Knoxville boarding house during the week but was home on the weekends. As each Christmas approached, Mama would select a shapely cedar tree on the farm and keep an eye on it for days. When she was ready to decorate for Christmas, she would get in our pickup truck, go to the farm, cut the tree and bring it home. Daddy, on the weekend, would build a stand for it (later on, thankfully, they bought a metal stand that had a reservoir for keeping the tree trunk “watered”). Mama loved decorating the tree with the stash of vintage ornaments, lights and trinkets she had collected and coddled over the years. She loved lighting up that tree and having the family help make each year’s offering more spectacular than the last. Though Daddy didn’t get involved with decorating the tree, he certainly enjoyed the festiveness of the season and loved having family around as much as possible.
Things got even better when both Wayne and I were lucky enough to marry women who believe in strong family ties and enjoy wonderful family Christmas celebrations as much as we did. Wayne’s wife, the former Mary Louise Parvin of Whitesburg, and my bride, the former Jane Downing of Pikeville, fit right in with the family. After celebrating numerous Christmases and other memorable occasions together, our little family was truly blessed when Jane gave birth to our son, Chris, on Feb. 22, 1983. He was the only grandchild of Mama and Daddy and Jane’s parents, the late Leroy and Eleanor Downing of Pikeville, and we celebrated numerous happy Christmases and other memorable gatherings before the eventual deaths of our parents. Our small family was devastated, too, in 2014 when Wayne passed away in a Knoxville hospital following major heart surgery, and we still miss him. (Chris, by the way, joined The Tennessee Magazine staff in May 2005 after graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a bachelor of science degree in journalism and is now associate editor of the publication.)
Though many of the Kirks’ Christmas memories revolve around a brightly lighted tree, festive food and fellowship, my earliest recollections also include attending special church services with our family. Wayne and I grew up in Whitesburg Baptist Church, one of the oldest churches of its denomination in Tennessee. Organized as Bent Creek Baptist in 1785, the two-story brick building we worshipped in still stands at the edge of busy Highway 11-E in Whitesburg as a well-known landmark in that part of the state. Daddy was a deacon there, Mama sang in the choir and they both taught adult Sunday school classes for many years. Several years ago, Whitesburg Baptist built a beautiful new church just a short distance from the historic building we attended.
Indeed, the Kirk family is among several generations of church-goers who were raised in that stately old building, and I feel so blessed. And after more than seven decades, one incident that happened in the historic sanctuary still stands out as almost painful for me. I was 4 years old, and Miss Roxie Tritt, my Sunday school teacher, had assigned me a little poem to recite at the church Christmas program, an evening event that had attracted what I remember was a huge crowd. Mama had helped me memorize my poem and dressed me in my best coat-and-tie outfit. I can still see Ma Kirk sitting there, waiting for me to recite my piece: “In a manger far away, Christ was born on Christmas Day.” To this day, I don’t know why, but instead of reciting the poem, I reached for the edge of my little dress-up jacket and pulled it over my head and face. Some people laughed, but Mama saw nothing funny about what I did.
So now, please allow me to make amends for failing to deliver a simple yet meaningful Christmas message more than seven decades ago. This year, please remember: “In a manger far away, Christ was born on Christmas Day!”
Have a wonderful Christmas and blessed new year.