By Russell Kirby
To me, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year! Mama and daddy always told us, as long as we believe, Santa Claus will come! Until two years ago, when Mama had her stroke, I woke up every Christmas morning and there, under the tree, would be a gift or two from Santa. I was lucky…Edd, Keith, and I always had a great Christmas. We would make our list after going through the catalogue for hours and then on Christmas morning Santa would have brought what we asked for. Looking back, there is no telling what my parents had to sacrifice during the year, so we could have more than we actually needed on Christmas morning.
For the Kirby family, Christmas involved three celebrations: Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, and Christmas brunch. On Christmas eve we would gather at my maternal grandparent’s house. This was always a huge occasion where we would play with our cousins, open gifts, and eat lots of food. During my childhood, my Grandmother Adamson made all the food (she was a great cook) and all we had to do was show up. My mother was the oldest of five children, with her youngest sister being 21 years younger. I always thought it was odd that Mama was already married when her youngest sister was born, but we always had fun playing with Lynn as she wasn’t that much older than us. Until I was 12, there were only 5 grandchildren! The cousin closest to me in age was Lisa, who was a year younger than me and her younger sister Crysti and my younger brother Keith were the same age. We always had fun at Grandma and Grandpa’s house because they never cared if we messed something up or spilled our drink. They just wanted to make sure we were having fun. Interesting fact- Lisa now lives in Madison with her husband Chesley Pye and daughter Jesi (a freshman at MCHS)!! After dinner, we would gather in the living room and start opening gifts. My grandparents and my Aunt Barbara, each gave us something from our “Santa list”. Barbara was two years younger than Mama, had never married, still lived at home, but spoiled us children greatly at Christmas and on our birthdays! We were very fortunate and I think we all knew it! About a year ago, my grandmother and aunt died about 2 months apart and Lisa, Crysti, and I were able to reminisce over all the fun we always had at Grandma’s house.
After all the festivities at my Adamson grandparent’s house, it was always so hard going to sleep Christmas Eve. Before moving to Madison, we lived with my Grandmother Kirby in a large, turn of the century home in LaGrange. This house had been in our family for many years. In 1940 my grandfather, Eddie B. Kirby became the overseer of Unity and Hillside cotton mills (owned by the Callaway Family). Back in those days, in a “mill village” your house reflected your position. As overseer, the Kirby family lived in the largest house in the Unity village. It was in a prime location with the Baptist church next door and the Methodist church across the street. It was a large house with eight rooms and a central hallway going down the middle of the house. It also had a wrap-around porch. Inside the house, there were heart pine floors throughout, plastered walls, and 14 ft ceilings. The four beautiful fireplaces had marbled tile. On Christmas Eve, Edd and I always slept in Grandma Kirby’s bedroom. I would sleep in the bed with her and Edd always slept on a cot beside her bed. She would have to threaten us over and over to go to sleep, but we were so excited, it was hard! At some point we would finally drift off to sleep, but in the middle of the night Edd or I (or both) would wake up and start begging Grandma to take us into the living room to see what Santa had brought. She would say “no” over and over, telling us if Santa caught us we wouldn’t get anything, but finally she would give in and take us to look. I remember being so afraid that Santa would still be there and would take everything away! I held onto grandma’s hand so hard and my heart would be practically beating outside my chest. Grandma would open the door and we would peep in. The entire room was lit up by the Christmas tree, so we could see the gifts without turning on the lights! Grandma would not allow us to touch anything, but we could look and see! After that we had to go back to bed, dreaming of morning when we could play with our toys!! I always wondered if my parents ever knew we did that each year, or if it was just our special secret with grandma? When we finally “officially” woke up, we would run into the living room and start yelling and screaming, then we would run into Mama and Daddy’s room and make them get up!! They would get right up (they were as excited as we were) and we would all go into the living room and start playing with our toys. There would be cries of “Look, Mama, look” and “Daddy, help me do this”. Eventually, after an hour or so, we had to get dressed and load up the car and go to my Uncle Russell and Aunt Helen’s house for Christmas brunch.
Aunt Helen was my Grandmother Kirby’s sister. My grandmother was about 14 years older and had helped raise Aunt Helen. In turn, during the 1930’s through WWII, Aunt Helen lived with my grandparents and helped raise my daddy. Daddy was very close to Aunt Helen, so we always went to visit her on holidays. Uncle Russell and Aunt Helen Letson lived in Langdale, Ala. (now The Valley). Every Christmas morning Aunt Helen (one of the best cooks that walked this earth) had a brunch and dozens of people would be there. She would make everything imaginable to eat and made every kind of cake and pie for dessert. Uncle Russell had a fake phone in his pocket that would ring (a precursor to the cell phone) and he would pretend he was talking to Santa Claus! Of course, we believed Uncle Russell actually had a hotline to Santa, because he was such a wonderful, fun man. Uncle Russell would talk to Santa and ask us if we liked the gifts we got and to make sure we continued to be good all year! There would be dollar bills on the tree for all the grandchildren from my great grandfather Parker (Grandma and Aunt Helen’s father) and we always got underwear from Aunt Helen and Uncle Russell. I guess one year my disappointment showed in getting that underwear, and Aunt Helen said to me, “Now Russell, one day you are going to wish you still had me to give you that underwear”. I must admit I still remember being ashamed that she saw my disappointment! She was right…when she passed away in 2001 from cancer, it was a very sad day for us. I thought about all those years of getting that underwear and am so grateful! Brunch at Uncle Russell and Aunt Helen’s was always filled with laughter and fun and is one of my biggest memories from my childhood.
After we moved to Madison in 1973 we continued going to my Grandmother Adamson’s on Christmas Eve, spending the night with Grandma Kirby and having Santa there, and going to Christmas brunch at Uncle Russell and Aunt Helen’s for several years, but eventually us boys (Edd, Keith, and I) wanted Santa to come to Madison, so everything got abbreviated!! We still went to Grandma Adamson’s and Aunt Helen’s, but the visits were shorter. Christmas in Madison was always wonderful! The tour of homes, shopping downtown, church gatherings, the white lights manger scene on the square, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and the Christmas Eve service at Madison Baptist Church. To me, the Christmas Eve service was my favorite and was always a beautiful, personal service designed to worship the King!
Now, if you think, after reading this that all I care about is gifts you are wrong. We were raised to know the true meaning of Christmas. Now that I’m older, receiving gifts is so much less than giving gifts. I have seven nieces and nephews that I hope I spoil as much as my Aunt Barbara used to spoil us. They are all older now, so gift buying has become gift card buying, but I love knowing they are able to buy what they want with what I send. I think about the Magi who brought gifts to lay at Jesus’ feet. Did they have any idea the tradition they started over 2000 years ago? The gifts of the Magi showed love to the Christ child laying in a manger, just as our gift giving shows love to those we care about!! Merry Christmas to everyone in Madison…the Kirby family sure misses being there!