"Christmas that year, not one to look forward to, was one we should alway look back on."
The opening sentence of "Looking Back on Christmas" by William Owens. I don't know if it's memoir or fiction, but it's become one of my favorite Christmas stories. Reading about SantaCon, I decided I should tell the story in a bit of detail. It's the story of a family gathering in rural Texas on Christmas Eve. The family gathers, then sits down to dinner, and after dinner:
After the first table [old Texas tradition my family carried on with in my childhood: the men ate first, then retired, and the women and children ate. Yeah, my wife was appalled by that, too, and it was long before we were married that she encountered it.] the men and the bigger boys built up a big fire in the pasture between the house and the front gate. Then, while the women stood on the front porch to watch, Uncle Charlie gave the little children firecrackers and showed them how to shoot them. He put a paper fuse against a live coal. When it had lighted he threw it away from the fire into the dark.
"Don't ever let one go off in your hand," he said, "And don't throw it close to nobody. Somebody might get hurt."
While we went through the firecrackers he had given us, the men made a trip back to the kitchen. This time they brought the jug with them and set it in the back end of a wagon. They brought out more fireworks, and Monroe had the sack of power in his coat pocket.
"Time for a roman candle," Uncle Charlie said.
He took a long red roman candle and went to the fire.
"You all watch now," he said, "I'm gonna hold it like I was aiming to shoot the gate."
Charlie runs into the dark and let's the candle shoot balls of fire, then he gets Othal to join him in a roman candle battle. Full disclosure: I once did something similar with my cousin, although in summer, not winter. We used plastic tubes from his golf bag to launch bottle rockets at each other. We didn't even have the excuse of alcohol, we were just young and dumb.
Anyway, you get the flavor of the celebration. Firecrackers going off, then roman candles being fired at each other in close range. Then when those are exhausted and everyone's tired of running around and through the house:
Uncle Charlie was not ready for the fun to be over. He went up the steps and across the front porch. Aunt Niece was standing in the door, with the lamplight behind her. He lifted her chin with his fingers and went on past her, to the chimney corner where he kept his double-barreled shotgun. Then he came out with the gun under his arm and a box of shells in his hand.
Near the fire, he loaded both barrels and set the stock against his shoulder.
"You aiming at the gate?" Othal asked.
"You got to aim at something."
He fired, and after the first blast we heard shot rattle against the gate.
"Got it first shot," Othal said, and ran for his own gun.
In no time at all, five guns were blazing away at the gate, and the little children were running for hiding places under the house. I shivered at the sound, but felt safe, for their backs were to us and they were aiming at the gate.
Then Othal came running around the house, loading and firing as he ran, and some of the others took after him. The women had run inside, but I could hear them telling the men to stop. Too scared to stay under the house, I crawled out and started for the door. In the darkness I can straight into Otha's knees, and he let a double-barreled blast go off right over my head, leaving a burning flash in my eyes and a ringing in my ears.
The gate was "a wide, heavy gate made of oak timbers fourteen feet long and an inch thick." However, the next morning: "We went to look at the gate, and found it half hanging from the posts, with the timbers drilled and splintered by shot." The story ends this way:
Uncle Charlie came in with a backstick for the fireplace. My grandmother was waiting for him.
"You ruint the gate," she said.
"I reckon we did."
He laughed and the light in his blue eyes showed he was not sorry. She frowned and went out to the front porch.
Aunt Niece came in, with a peeled orange in her hand.
"Christmas gift," he said to her.
She went up to him and stuck a slice of orange between his teeth. They were both laughing without making a sound, and once he leaned over and kissed her.
"I had me some Christmas," he said.
Keep Christmas as you will, and may it be unto you according to your faith. I even agree with Garrison Keillor about what is properly Christmas, but by that all I mean is: I will keep my Christmas, and you keep yours. SantaCon doesn't bother me a bit, so long as they don't try to change "Silent Night" to make it about bar hopping.