The Annual Argument
By Carmen Faulkner
As the holidays arrive on scene, so must the decorations. For my family this means my parent’s three-story brick building in downtown Newaygo must be transformed into a Christmas Wonderland rivaled only by Santa’s Workshop or a New York Macy’s. There are miles of lights to be unpacked, vines of holly to be hung, a field of poinsettias to nurture.
Most importantly, though, there are a series of hanging decorations in the 14-foot windows that look out over the street. Each of them, four per window, are 12-36 inches long and should hang at varying heights from the ceiling. Why we never record their order or proper hanging length is both a mystery and modern-day tragedy. Without that oversight, though, there would be no Annual Argument, and, perhaps, no story to tell at all.
Several weeks before Christmas we gather, my parents, my partner and I, in the closed down shop on a Sunday. As the light fades, we make a platter of cheese and crackers and open a bottle of wine. We sit, eyeing the empty walls with both anticipation and dread for the hours ahead, and try to summon the Christmas spirit.
Between bites, we begin pulling out the lights. We stand on high ladders, wrapping strands of white around the duct work until the ceiling is aglow. We pull down Fall decorations, replacing them with their winter counterparts. The artwork above the bar is swapped for a snowed in river scene, of spruce tips breathed white with snow. We line the hall with Christmas Trees, wrapping them in tinsel and colorful garland. We unbox ornaments, old and new, and place them patiently among the branches.
Finally, it is time. Out from their summer hiding places come the giant window decorations. We take turns at holiday-Tetris, attempting to decide in which order to hang them.
There are rules. You cannot place two of the same decorations next to each other. Nor can you do two of similar size, or of similar color. …But they can’t be alternating colors either. We grow irritated with one another, each of us preferring our own arrangement: Red then gold, tall then short, short again, gold again, then green. We agree, finally.
We tie string to their ends and examine the ceiling to ensure hooks still live in the wood to which we will fasten our decorations. But it is not so simple as placement. We require my Dad, for reasons unknown, to stand atop the ladders, balancing our giant ornaments, while we decide on the length he should cut their strings.
“How about this?” He questions, 13 feet up, stretching to the ceiling, glitter falling around his face, clinging to his sweater. “Too low.” My Mom responds. He pulls it up higher. “Too high,” she says.
“There, there, there!” She yells as he loops the string. “That one is perfect.” (It is also at the exact same height it was to begin with).
They seem to be in casual agreement at first… but the music has mysteriously quieted and our small talk diminishes. There’s an electricity at the back of my neck and my baby hairs stand on end. My partner and I sit down, grinning, mentally beckoning the show that has already been set in motion.
Up goes the second ornament. “Scott, it can’t be at the same height as the last one,” she says, voice flattening.
“Great,” he responds with a dry sarcasm, letting out the line. She sits silently, hawk-eyed as he ties it in its final resting place. Then up goes the third. Her face reddens, and I can see her doing mental backflips; the length at which the ornaments hang is of utmost importance. She must make him understand.
“It has to be longer. That looks ridiculous.” A venomous retort. I can see her nails digging into her palms. She is readying herself for battle.
“Rob, it’s fine!” His voice crescendos over us as he looks to the ceiling, glitter infiltrating his lashes, poisoning his disposition.
“No, it is not fine! You can’t see what it looks like from up there. They can’t be the same height like that!”
“Rob, they aren’t the same height, they are totally different heights!”
“Yes, BUT, they are different SIZES and therefore end at the same place.”
“Just tell me what you want!” He bellows, frustrated but offering no alternatives.
…. She is unsure. Lower or higher? Every other? Every third? “What do you guys think?” She turns and looks at us.
“Rob, tell me RIGHT NOW or I’m getting down from here!” He’s straining over the ladder, force buckling his knees in a show of drama, begging for mercy from a sympathetic Father Christmas, that he be released from this cruel insanity.
"Just hold on a second!”
My partner and I sit rigid in our chairs, desperately suppressing laughter, but the creases in our mouths betray us. I quickly google ‘Christmas Decorating Height Suggestions’ and am heartbroken to discover our plight is but a lone island in a sea of Christmas misery. There is no ‘How-To’ Tutorial for this.
I take too long to respond, and Dad scoffs at me, raises the ornament, ties without regard. But now Mom is angry. “It just looks wrong,” she says, turning to ice or stone. We are on decoration 3 of 8, and the Annual Argument always heats up after 3.
As the night drags on in a cacophony of Grinch-like rhetoric, the disagreement over the length at which the decorations should hang grows in passion. My Dad’s concerns get more far-fetched. Maybe the ladder will collapse. The wall speakers are in the way and THIS JUST WON’T WORK. One of the hooks has mysteriously vanished into a thin and vicious air.
My Moms unhappiness with the order grows too. They are too long. They are too short. The colors are wrong. “Why do we even do this?!” She yells, to an unrelenting crowd.
When the last ornament is hung, my Dad jumps off the ladder and heaves it through the doorway out of sight, determined for that to be the last of it. My Mom retreats to the kitchen, banging things, furious that it doesn’t look ‘just right.’
By now the cheese is gone, the wine is gone. My partner and my cheeks burn with ache, our eyes are crusted with the dried tears we try to hide. I am certain I could record this conversation, and next year it would be IDENTICAL. It is identical to last years. It would be identical to the argument ten years prior.
It takes about 20 minutes of silence for them to come around. We vacuum. We pack away the boxes, carrying leftover decor back to storage. We turn on music. We open another bottle of wine. We sit, finally, at the table staring at one another, my parents feigning indifference, us feigning enthusiasm. “It all looks beautiful! Better than last year!”
The minutes tick by, and before long we crack. The glow of lights bounce off the red and cream brick. Jazz does a jig through the air. We sigh first, then giggle. Soon we are all laughing, in this room lit alive by Christmas. My parents steal glances at each other and grab hands. All is not forgiven, they still blame one another for a sub-par job, but there is a twinkle in their eyes and we all agree: we will meet here again next year for the Annual Argument… Though arguably, next year, Ornament #3 should be just a touch lower.
Christmas with a Bang II -Road Trip to Natchitoches
By Charles Chandler
In a previous article, it was revealed that one of our unique Louisiana Christmas traditions was the Big Bang. It was about our love of fireworks, bunches of fireworks and the bigger the better. Back in the day the mother and father of all Christmas Lights and Fireworks displays were to be seen at the Festival of Lights in Natchitoches Louisiana. Each year whether we had been good or bad (mostly bad) it was our tradition to pile into some family vehicle and drive about 60 miles down to Natchitoches and attend this Festival. For me and my pack of Piney Woods cousins, this was a high adventure because the town of Natchitoches was a fascinating, exotic and maybe dangerous place. On the appointed Saturday it would take forever to get underway mostly because we had to go over the trip ground rules and do a bunch of promises that we would not behave like proper “little heathens” like we did last year. Finally, we were off and after about mile 30 we stopped wrestling and started looking out the windows. Things started to change as we left the piney woods and entered the Red River Delta. We began to see swamps, small rivers, bayous, and lakes with ancient cypress trees draped in Spanish Moss and the occasional giant live oak. There were huge flat cotton fields, pecan plantations and pastures stocked with scary looking herds of Brahman cattle. There were flocks of small white egrets flying around them and a few were even riding on the backs of the giant humped backed bulls. We knew were getting close to Natchitoches when we could see the Grand Encore bluffs and the bridge over the Red River. As we crossed this tall iron bridge it was one of the few times we were quite because as we looked down at this big boiling body of muddy water, we knew this was a mighty river and one that we probably could never swim across.
Our day plan for this Christmas junket was straightforward, drive through town and on to Melrose Plantation, then back to some restaurant in Natchitoches for lunch, and then find a place along the Cain River to watch the fireworks. As we rolled into Natchitoches it was noticeably different both historically and culturally from our Anglo homes. It is located on the Cane River and was established by the French in early 1700. As Dad drove slowly down, the narrow streets we would stare shamelessly at people that had names and accents that were very different from ours. There were cobblestone streets, old homes, and older Catholic Churches with bell towers and crypts and mausoleums above ground. Sometimes after lunch, if we little Protestants promised to behave, we would get to go into these Churches to admire the statuary, paintings, and iconography. Sometimes if we kept that promise we were allowed into the scary burying grounds to read the names and dates on the crypts. My favorite Church was St Augustine that was further on down Cane River by Melrose Plantation.
The reason for the stop Melrose Plantation was to buy a couple peck sacks of their famous paper shell pecans. Even though we had a large paper shell pecan tree in our backyard our pecans according to my Dad were not as sweet as the ones bought home from Melrose.
He would sit by the fire and crack these pecans and my Mom would use them in the holiday cakes, pies, and candy. The other was to let my Mom once again move at a glacial pace through the historic plantation. She loved this place and would admire the Great house, African House, Yucca House, Weaving Cabin, and Bindery. She took forever to study the paintings of Clementine Hunter a now-famous primitive painter that once lived in one of the small cabins. We mostly chased each other around the incredibly large live oaks. Or pestered the poor docents asking why you could not touch this or that item. Finally, after the annual allotment of pecans were bought and Moms inspection complete it was time to focus on food. This was a really big deal because we were going to have food that was very different from our borings, bland Anglo grub, (no disrespect meant Mom). This Natchitoches food had flavor and spices that would make our eyes water and our mouth burn and all the little boys loved it. After the adults chose the restaurant, we were allowed to choose our lunch. Our entry was always the same, the world-famous Natchitoches meat pies, the sides were generally a cup of gumbo, red beans, and rice, and bread pudding for dessert, all washed down with a gallon of sweet tea.
After lunch, the men would adjourn to benches on Front St for people watching and the ladies would do a little Christmas shopping. As soon as we recovered from our food coma we were let loose to “run wild” along the riverfront park. A favorite activity was throwing rocks at the flocks of tame ducks which usually brought severe scolding’s from the locals.
Soon it was time to gather up and find a family spot to watch the parades, the Christmas lights, and the purpose of being, the big bangs. O my goodness what firework, in those days you could get up close and personal with these fireworks. You could feel the concussion in your body when the big display bombs were fired. We would clap at the rocket burst and ooooh and ahaaaaaaaaaaa at the special static displays that were usually some animals or sacred scene. These firework would go on for what felt like hours all leading up to the magnificent crescendo. For us, it was magnificent like the end of the world magnificent.
When the grand finally was over we all held hands so as not to get lost in the crowds. Once in the car, a kid count was taken and we headed back north. We were exhausted from the big day but had to stay alert until we crossed back over the scary and now dark Red River, just in case the bridge fell in and we had to swim for it. Once over the bridge we could relax and listen to our parents’ prattle on about whether the fireworks were as dramatic as last year and which riverfront home was the best in the show. My predictable and frugal Father would complain about the traffic and that lunches and the bags of pecans seem to be more expensive than last year. The back-seat boys would stop wrestling and giggling and soon were asleep and most likely with visions of rockets and star shells and cherry bombs dancing in their heads.
Side Bar: It should be noted here that fans and the residents of Natchitoches take their little meat pies very serious. They strongly believe that this dish was created locally. They also disregard the historical fact that the Native Americans, French, Creoles, African Americans Spanish, Cajuns, and Mexicans traveled back and forth through this area for hundreds of years and all have dishes similar to this Natchitoches meat pie. However, long ago I learned that arguing with people from south Louisiana about food is like trying to talk a stump out of the ground. A lot of effort but nothing happens. Understanding the passion around this dish I personally think this meat pie started the Mexican American War. Natchitoches used to be on the contentious western frontier with New Spain and that world-class troublemaker Zac Taylor served as a brigadier general at nearby Fort Jesup. Some historians say that agitator Zac, slavery and the annexation of Texas were the issues that started the Mexican American War. I have always suspected this war was caused by the Hispanics across the Sabine River in San Augustine and the folks in Natchitoches arguing over the name of this spicy little dish. The Spaniards and the Mexicans both claim the thing and insisted on calling it an Empanada. The folks in Natchitoches insisted it was their own meat pie and these hotheads probably started a fist fight and then a shot was fired and the war started and it is still going on today. We still have an army along the border with Mexico, they still want their territory back and now someone is wanting to build a wall, and all this over a little meat pie. You think this is a stretch, try arguing with a Hebert or Boudreaux or the local Prudhommes about food. And for goodness sakes, if you happen to find yourself in Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant in Natchitoches don’t ask the waitress for an Empanada. Lasyone’s was the restaurant in the Movie Steel Magnolias that was filmed in Natchitoches.
The Natchitoches Festival of Lights has been celebrated since 1927. Today's celebration runs from Nov. 20 through Jan. 6 and draws more than 100,000 visitors. It features more than 300,000 Christmas lights, more than 100 displays, and a parade as well as a candlelight tour of homes sponsored by the Natchitoches Historic Foundation. For more information please follow http://www.natchitocheschristmas.com/about/.
Photos from Carmen's Christmas Story
So you say you know a lot about Christmas?
Well, we plan to challenge you this season with a few teasers from songs, traditions, history, books, movies and cartoons.
More to follow so stay tuned.
1. Where did there arise such a clatter?
2. What was Brenda Lee doing around the Christmas tree?
3.What permanent injury did George Bailey suffer when he was a boy?