As long as I can remember, family Christmas meant a gathering at my Granny Connie’s old stone house. It was built from Big Ivy Creek rocks by the men of Dillingham, a hamlet in northern Buncombe County where tobacco fields used to sprawl as far as the eye could see.
At four p.m., five generations of Dillinghams and their families proffered dishes and platters to the potluck table: Aunt Tillie’s meatballs, Cousin Leslie’s Greek salad, Cousin Amy’s pot roast or fried chicken, country ham biscuits, steaming corn bread, baked beans, green beans flavored with chunks of fatback, corn pudding, poached salmon from my parents, and dark and gamey bear meat from hunter and Plott hound breeder Uncle Hoyte (RIP). On the dessert table there was Aunt Judy’s Italian cream cake with black walnuts, Cousin Mary Gale’s blackberry cobbler, Granny’s sugar cookies, and sliced fruitcake—and usually someone made a banana pudding, for good measure.
The children ran underfoot and squeezed in where they could find space in Granny’s bedroom, kitchen, or living room in front of the roaring fire, with heavily weighted paper plates. After—and only after—watching Granny open the fancily wrapped gifts from each of the families, were we allowed to ascend to the big room under the eaves, where my mother had slept with two of her sisters as a child. There we’d find suitcases and trunks full of hats and old shoes, porcelain-headed dolls with limp fabric bodies, sacks of jacks and marbles, and other enticing ephemera that would hold our attention while the adults chatted away downstairs.
As we grew older, we were allowed to walk up the hill to our cousin’s house to play with their new gifts. They would model their monogrammed sweaters in front of the fat white pine Christmas tree in the bay window and break out new makeup kits to admire. It was always a disappointment when the headlights slowly grew larger up the drive, and my parents gathered me up to head back to the city.
None of this was a new tradition, my mother informed me. Back when Granny’s house was made of white clapboard rather than stone, Christmas Day was celebrated in this fashion. Mom’s older sister and her husband would arrive from West Virginia, bringing homemade divinity candy. Their mother baked a complex, multistep Japanese fruitcake (my mother grated the fresh coconut so vigorously she’d scrape her knuckles on the grater until they bled). Once they moved to the new house, my mother inadvertently made her mark, writing “Merry Christmas” onto the edge of the great stone mantle above the fireplace in spray-on snow. It wouldn’t wash off.
Today, the iced tea, milk, and coffee that once accompanied dinner have been replaced by sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and bottles of craft beer. My cousin and her family now live in the ancestral home. The interior, once filled with quilts and hand-knit afghans covering the beds and backs of floral print sofas, has been remodeled into a comfortably chic Pottery Barn-meets-Restoration Hardware series of vignettes. Many of the older relatives, who were the master organizers of their day, allow those of us now of-age to unfurl the plastic wrap and tin foil from the dishes gleaned from family recipes. Of course, others have passed on, including our matriarch, Granny Connie, and we still acknowledge them with a prayer and a tear as we circle in the living room to hold hands and say grace.
This ritual has become a reflection of the passage of time. The tiny brunette who used to play dolls quietly in the corner is now an architect with children of her own. The little redhead with the big blue eyes is a mother herself now, twice over. We are some spouses fewer, from divorce or death, but the gathering is also a barometer of new members of the family and where they stand. This isn’t the place to bring a first date, for example, nor even a third. My husband—an Ossetian who emigrated to North Carolina and passed away in 2011—was welcomed with curiosity and fondness.
When the ever-growing branches on this family tree depart into the Christmas night, there’s a flurry of activity as leftover ham, biscuits, and sticky bourbon-pecan pie are divvied up. It might be some time before we meet again—especially for those who have travelled from afar, or who are traveling into the winter of their lives.
The fireplace flickers with a glow that’s more for looks than warmth, since the winters are milder. Above the embers, family photos, fresh garland, and holiday décor perch on the contemporary wooden mantle that extends out over the old stone hearth. Underneath, the indelible lettering written some 80 years ago still spells out “Merry Christmas.”
WNC contributing editor Constance E. Richards is an Asheville-based writer and curator.