Our Sentimental Christmas Tree - Southern Living

Every year, you can read our Christmas tree like a big old Southern novel. It's all about where we are from, who our people were, who we were, and who we are now. Almost every ornament tells a story.

But let's start with the tree, which is always real and always big, usually from one of those choose-and-cut tree farms in the mountains of beautiful Ashe County, North Carolina. We buy a large one for the front porch, too, illuminated by strands and strands of those old-fashioned round colored lights, which prompted a famous matriarch of the town to stop me on the street when we moved in 20 years ago and announce severely, "My deah, you should nevah use colored lights on your historic home. Nevah!" She rapped me on the shoulder, hard, and swept away.

Well, I did it anyway, and I am still doing it. We put colored lights on every Christmas tree we've got, and we've got them everywhere—on the front porch, on the back porch, in the den, in the kitchen—and, of course, there's the big one situated between the dining room and the living room, the special one that is covered with the keepsake ornaments that hold our history.

Children love making ornaments—soldiers, angels, clowns, Mr. and Mrs. Claus—from wooden clothespins.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

The handmade Appalachian ornaments come from my own childhood spent in the coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia, home of my father, Ernest Smith. He eloped with my beautiful mother, Virginia Marshall (nicknamed "Gig"), married her on Christmas Eve 1930, and brought her home to his beloved mountains. Though it was a great love match, she would always miss Chincoteague Island, her childhood home off Virginia's Eastern Shore. Mama is represented by a little carved Chincoteague pony—and by her own measuring spoons, for she was also a home economics teacher and a famous cook.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

At Christmas, Mama pulled out all the stops. For weeks ahead, her kitchen countertops were completely covered with pans of fudge, pecan pies, chess pies, and sour cream pound cakes. She made tin after tin of "sticks and stones" snack mix to give to everybody. But the main event was the much-anticipated arrival of the big barrel of oysters that Daddy ordered specially for Mama every Christmastime. Packed in ice, the wooden barrel traveled all the way across Virginia from Chincoteague Island on a Norfolk & Western train, finally arriving at the Grundy depot with much fanfare. It took several men to carry it to our house and required an engineer who had been born in South Carolina to demonstrate how to open them. Two women helped Mama cook them up "every whichaway," as she said. They cooked for two days, and on the afternoon of the second day, just about everybody in town came over to help us eat them all. We had oysters in the shell, fried in cracker meal, in stew, in fritters, and scalloped. Everyone was fascinated; most of the townspeople had never even seen an oyster before "Miss Gig" moved to town.

This was the time for sleigh riding down Hoot Owl Holler, cousins coming to visit from far away, and the annual pageant in our little stone Methodist church—the pageant in which I was first an animal, then a wise man in a bathrobe, and finally an angel—but never the Virgin Mary, because I had curly hair. Apparently, the Virgin Mary had straight hair.

Christmas was also the biggest time of the year for business at my daddy's Ben Franklin dime store on Main Street. As a little girl, I "worked" in the store, where my primary responsibility was taking care of the dolls. Around Christmastime, I would comb their hair and stand them up just so. I particularly liked to raise their arms a bit, so they would be ready to hug any little girl they got on Christmas morning. Even to this day, our holiday tree always has a doll or two standing by, arms aloft, face hopeful.

This very old homemade doll was given to me as a child by an older woman who lived up Hoot Owl Holler back home. This was my favorite doll, and I named her Sissie because I was an only child who always wanted sisters.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

In my entire life, I've never NOT had a Christmas tree in my home. But life is long, and a lot is going to happen in this world. Christmas is loaded—a minefield, an emotionally charged holiday often too important, too symbolic of some ideal that none of us can ever reach anyhow. The tree will be crooked, the cake will fall, the cousins will quarrel, and Grandpa will drink too much. Sooner or later, everything will change. There will always be somebody who is not there. I married young, had two boys, and then divorced. For me, those lonesome post-divorce Christmases were instructive and just as meaningful (in their way) as any others, though I have now lost my seashell wind-chime ornament from the nameless motel on the Outer Banks where I once spent a solo holiday with only a single candle and a Big Mac.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

But "It's never over till the fat lady sings!" is the message of an opera-singer ornament given to me by rock and roller and born survivor Marshall Chapman. A lucky second marriage to journalist Hal Crowther has brought me much happiness and a truly lovely stepdaughter, Amity. It also brought several boxes of antique handblown glass ornaments from his ancestors in Scotland, Buffalo, and Boston. Crowther Christmases were rollicking affairs that featured harmonizing uncles and a huge (very rare) beef roast with Yorkshire pudding.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

Though my new husband first said our blended family was "like signing on as first mate on the Titanic," now, 30 years later, our big Christmas tree celebrates not only our past but also our present—all of it, the good and the bad, the hard and the easy, the whole family, including (and best of all) our four grandchildren! Ornaments represent us all—a music note and a ballerina are for our talented granddaughters, Ellery and Baker Ferguson (ages 8 and 10). A sports ornament is for athletic Spencer Seay (age 10), and a horse and rider is for his 13-year-old sister, Lucy, a horseback rider extraordinaire. Here's a trout for my fisherman son Page Seay, a typewriter and beer mug for Hal, a writing pen for me—plus, of course, our many beloved dogs! Amity's sand dollar commemorates our family trips to Maine. There are other ornaments that remind us of memorable vacations, friends near and far—and our heroes, such as the Dolly Parton ornament crafted from the ring on a Mason jar.

Dolly Parton is my friend and hero. The quote across the front reminds me of a song by Matraca Berg in the country music show Good Ol' Girls, which I wrote with Matraca, Jill McCorkle, and Marshall Chapman.

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Elizabeth MacLennan

The special little beat-up red-and-white Christmas stocking was presented to me in a hospital delivery room in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on December 23, 1969—along with my own "Christmas baby," Joshua Seay. Weighing 6 pounds 7 ounces, he came into the world hollering at the top of his lungs. Just an ordinary baby boy—a miracle. Though I still have his stocking, we don't have Josh, who died of a heart attack in 2003 after years of heroic daily battle with the devastating brain disorder schizophrenia. Yet we don't mourn Josh at Christmastime but instead celebrate his remarkable life.

WATCH: DIY Peppermint Christmas Tree Ornaments

We always trim our tree with these precious ornaments. I still make fudge, "sticks and stones," pound cake, and oyster casserole. But these days, we go wherever the children are. Above all, the Christmas season is the time for children, for right now, for Santa Claus and new bikes and funny gifts and big hugs. It's the time for a church pageant featuring my granddaughter Ellery as Mary—with beautiful straight hair! And my husband and I will sit up late that night admiring the sheltering boughs of our Christmas tree, basking in the steadfast glow of its old, shining angel and all those ever-changing, twinkling colored lights.

Lee Smith is the author of 13 novels and 4 short story collections. Her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer's Life, is available at amazon.com.