The sun peeked out quietly over the fallow cotton fields and surrounding woods, slowly spreading its warmth over the entirety of Cotton Plant. Winter had closed in much more quickly and severely this year in Union County, cutting short autumn’s glorious shocks of brilliant colors, while also curtailing my beloved outdoor activities when the school day ended. This made the cold march to Christmas seem all the longer and duller to this active, eight-year-old little boy.
At long last it was Friday, December 24, 1959. It was the last day of advent, and with those first gleamings of Christmas Eve, I awoke with one overwhelming thought in my head. And no, my inventive mind wasn’t fixated on toys and other presents – those would come the next morning. My interest was squarely on today’s mystical, magical once-a-year event! This Eve was the day for the annual family ritual of cooking the celebrated washpot ham for Christmas dinner. It was a day, indeed an event, that was now shared with the community at large. Over time, its popularity had spread over the countryside of the entire county, and even crept into many of the social calendars of “city folks” in the close-by small towns.
This Christmas family tradition had been passed down for at least three generations. For the last 35 years it had been under the care and custody of my grandfather, Monroe Patterson. Everyone knew him, and he was known to all as Mr. Monroe; he was respectfully called by that name by all ages. Now, I have been greatly blessed to have known many “larger than life” characters, and have read and been told about a number of others, but my memory of his character, vision, leadership, benevolence and positive influence on individuals and families across his entire community exemplified how my grandfather truly personified that description as much as anyone I’ve ever known.
His pale blue eyes, grey hair, wire-rimmed glasses and broad-brimmed felt hat perfectly framed those big smiles. He wore colorful, homemade flannel shirts, khaki pants, usually, but sometimes overalls, and dutifully carried both his pipe and Bull of the Woods chewing tobacco. His gold Elgin pocket watch, and more often than not, a handkerchief in his pocket completed his outfit.
Most prominently, he walked and talked with a great sense of purpose. Same way with his hands, which were always moving in a nuanced accord with the task at hand. I’d heard he could show a firm temper, but I never saw it. Most often, I had people tell me that, while on occasion he could be quick to make a judgment, he was equally quick to acknowledge when he was wrong. He could be as serious as a judge at sentencing, and the next moment show his mischievous, witty side. He loved to tease, and knew how to take it as well. He and his guys always worked hard, but you just knew a little levity was somehow going to be worked in. Repartee, friendliness and kidding were staples of his personality, and a hallmark of his good-natured, caring ways.
He was well thought of by so many. He could truly relate to everyone-their situations, concerns, fears and opinions. His ability to connect and empathize was amazing. He was generally a man of few words, and typically direct and on-point. But he just knew the best and right way to speak to different folks. His regular, day-to-day prose was plainspoken, but often profound and powerful.
He generously poured his attention on me, and I drank it up. I was the apple of his eye and I knew it. He was my mentor, guide, confidant, constant companion- and my best pal. He could do just about everything that was worth doing. He taught me how to ride horses, shoot guns, fish and hunt, and nearly everything about being a boy, and a whole lot about becoming a man. He taught me how to treat others, especially those who were sick or in any need, the responsible way to respect and care for animals and to be kind and nice to every living thing- even Republicans- if you should you ever run across one. I learned about the ways and means and importance of love and family and friends and responsibility and community and duty. It wasn’t a crash course- he lived by all of this every day. I was blessed to have 48 years of shared love and attention, and his patient instruction and guidance.
I was an only child, and the only grandchild who lived close by, so I had the run of everything on the farm. I walked around and got involved (read nosed-around) with everything and everybody, asking questions and chatting them up! While I was very curious, the largest part of it was just being around all these folks and learning their personalities and perspectives on things. I actually thought of myself as “one of them” and fit right in. Was I spoiled? Well maybe (probably!), but even so, I would like to spoil my grandson in the same manner. You see, while I did receive a ton of attention, and as their “pal” maybe a little more leeway here and there, every single adult also treated me as they would a son or grandson. I was the only youngster around, so I became everyone’s “project.” They took care to discipline me and see that I was “raised right.” I know I loved them all, and I believe they felt an extra-special attachment with me. I loved whenever I could “hang out” and enjoy a little horseplay now and then with everyone!
In my several years as a way-underage apprentice cooking the ham, I had soaked up much about the heritage and lore of this big event. Now, at the advanced age of eight, I already knew by heart the ingredients (except a couple of the most secret), the ins-and-outs of prep work and the overall cooking regimen. And I dearly enjoyed every minute of it.
The fire was situated in its customary spot on a flat area next to the barn, a spot where you had nearby access to the wood pile, water, necessities from the house and plenty of room for the crowd of visitors whom would soon begin gathering. The trusty cast-iron washpot was the vessel that would hold the ham and fixins. It would be suspended above the fire by a rig of chains connected to its tripod of legs, by which it could be raised and lowered over the fire.
And then, right there it was, the object of everyone’s full-day of attention: a gorgeous and perfectly-sized green (fresh) ham, just patiently waiting to get the show going. It was strategically placed on the old wooden picnic table, which on this day served solely to facilitate the task at hand. Here, also, were the additional ingredients for preparation for the cooking, including one additional partially-cured ham, 20 gallons of water, five pounds of white sugar, a heaping portion of brown sugar- and then a little more, a gracious plenty of cloves and netted bags of oranges that still had to be quartered. Of course, there were other specialty “secret“ spices and rubs that will not be found listed here. Much like the files of Area 51, the still-classified JFK records, and my 4th grade comportment report, that proprietary list has a high likelihood of never being fully revealed.
An ice pick was used to thoroughly puncture both the hams so the fragrant brew of seasonings could flavor every morsel. Once all the ingredients were ready for the washpot, the hams were wrapped into a pillow case and loaded into the washpot, which in turn was lowered to the fire, which had been ablaze for a while, readying for the task. Seasoned hickory and water-soaked corn cobs provided the kindling and perfect bulk to cook and smoke the delicacy. Carefully attended to, it would cook all day and then that night be covered with plywood so it would simmer all night. Christmas morning would yield the sublime, sumptuous and perfectly done masterpiece! There was nothing to compare to a huge platter of sliced washpot ham surrounded by whole pickled peaches!
Meanwhile, my grandmother Patterson and her sister, Myrtle Carr, were the benevolent charge chefs at these holiday cookathons. These lovely, loving ladies were as close as could be, like two sister turtle doves dropped from on high. They never called each other by their given names; it was always, “Yes Sister, two more cups, please. “Well of course, Sister; coming right up.” They, along with all the other women in the family, were the “queens de la queens” of country cooking, and could even make Betty Crocker blush and shy away from a good old cook-off! They spent much of this day cooking all the main dishes such as turkeys and hams, pots of cornbread dressing, candied yams, greens, sweet potatoes and such, each from their family-favorite recipes that were nonpareil. But no self-respecting Christmas dinner was complete without the “Sweets.” That was the finishing act of the meal, and a fine finale it always was! There were citrus fruits sent all the way from Florida, ambrosia, buttermilk pie, chess pie and the most moist, show-stopping and dreamiest of them all, that heavenly “heavy” coconut cake!
Our “neighborhood” was truly as special as a snow day in April. I always thought if you had an apple for every relative who lived near-by to us, certainly within a few miles, you could generously over-fill a couple of bushel baskets. Of course, for perspective, you have to understand the meaning of a “country mile,” and back in that time it was much longer than it is today! Yet they weren’t just close in proximity; we were truly close in all ways, and shared feelings closely in times of illness and hardships, as well as in all the blessed occasions and events of daily life. In times of need or any overwhelming moments, right nearby one could find not only a good listener, shoulder to cry on or arms to hug, but advice on most anything, as well as food, medicine, clothing, a helping hand for tasks and so on as needs arose.
And all of this was essentially the same for all our neighbors. They were all cherished and trusted; a good many of them we actually called “Uncle” Junior or “Aunt” Dorothy and such. Many times I truly wasn’t at all sure which ones weren’t actually related by blood or marriage, and it really didn’t matter at all. Many times I would shop around this “network” to see who was having the best supper, and somehow miraculously got “invited” to dine there, and maybe even stay over if breakfast sounded particularly fetching. (Got caught on this a couple of times, and my mother’s reaction-well, it was memorable as well).
And suddenly, somewhere around 8am- it began. Folks began arriving, at first just a few, with greetings and booming cheer; many brought modest gifts, mostly food or homemade specialties of some sort. There were uncles and aunts and cousins, neighbors and friends- just folks from all over Union and neighboring counties. It was always an eclectic blend of all races, religions, creeds, backgrounds, income, range of ages . . . just a true cross-section of the community. For this day and time this was not typical of social or sporting events, schools, clubs, etc. Yet, it was standard fare at my grandfather’s house.
There were many folks who worked with my grandfather, including my three uncles. They, along with a good many others in the crowd, made their living “off the land,” as this was a rural area. But there was no shortage of occupations represented: preachers, bankers, truckers, horse trainers, lawyers, sheriffs and deputies, farmers, lots of furniture makers and teachers- visitors spanned the entire range of vocations! Politicians from all areas of “gov’ment” were there shaking hands and “politicking”- 1960 was about on us and it was already set to be a huge election year. It was an ideal occasion to catch up on everything: gossip, births, deaths, marriages, new trucks, high school basketball- all and more. There was small talk, jokes, raucous laughter as well as short little stories and long, winding tales. They talked Ole Miss football, politics, crops, county and city happenings, health issues, who’s dating who (or no longer!). I made every effort to hear as much as I could! I wanted to see and know about everything going on. Most apparent, the folks mingling there exhibited a special spirit and camaraderie that was indescribable, one that even a little boy could feel and appreciate.
Some folks would stay for thirty minutes or an hour, some for several, but a great many made a day of it. It seemed the biggest fuss by everyone was made over friends, family and others from all over who had come “home” for Christmas and knew this was the spot to see and be seen, and to have a big reunion with everyone. Over the course of the day, this was the place to get together with nearly everyone within an enormously wide area encircling my grandparents’ home.
As was the custom, many of the menfolks would now and then take a sip or swig of cheer from the bottles that had been holed up in pockets either in their coats or pants-or both! Bourbon was the drink of choice. Small brown paper bags served to “hide” their contents in plain sight. This was the polite and accepted way of doing it (if there was any political correctness in this bunch, I guess this was their nod to it!). At this most wonderful time of year, these spirits were known simply as “Christmas Cheer”; it assisted the body in staying warm in the cold, made everyone smile, loosened their tongues and promoted congenial relations, while it also served to drive away the aches and pains accrued from hard work, tough breaks and mounting age. If they caught me looking as they indulged, they would generally give me a sly smile or a wink of their eye, and I would smile back and nod my head knowingly.
Some of the crowd that stayed for a good long while sat for a spell when they could find a vacancy in the mish-mash assemblage of outdoor chairs. Now, many of these didn’t start out as outdoor chairs, but were culled over a period of many years from the house as they lost “respectability.” Now, calling this accumulation eclectic would be putting on airs; perhaps the term “diverging characteristics” will suffice here. At any rate, about anything that was around the barn or yard that could give a fellow a rest was pulled around the fire. The most memorable were various sizes of stools, two wooden rockers, multiple outdoor folding chairs (rusted too much to fold), at least four good-sized buckets turned upside-down, and an Oriental patterned settee. (don’t even ask!)
And if you wanted characters, we had ‘em. One of the gentlemen, Mr. McAlwain, always ended his fancy tales or long-winded diatribes with the question, “you know what I mean? I saw it for myself, you know what I mean?” (I kinda did, but sometimes I just didn’t!) One of my grandfather’s three uncles, Millen Patterson, still had a wee bit of “the old country Scottish brogue” – he wore faded overalls and starched white shirts buttoned up at the neck – he was loud, boisterous and the life of the party. He was famous for saying, “I ain’t scotch! Scotch is mighty fine whiskey and I love it, but I’m a Scot, by God!” He was also prone to break out in loud song after a few trips to the barn where the Old Charter bourbon was hidden in the corn crib! After a nip or two, he gleefully belted out his favorite tunes, including one I’ll always remember that went a little like this, “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines.” He was unmistakably a merry old soul. Another stalwart card was Mr. Daniels, who was known for saying “it’s a good day for the races, ain’t it?” And no matter how many times he asked it, the proper reply was “what races?” His gleefully yelped reply: “the Human Races!” Every time he told it he slapped his knees and let loose his lilting laugh. And “Old Man” Jones always had chewing tobacco spit running out of both sides of his mouth in equal proportions – which my grandfather always said proved him to be a level- headed man! And almost right behind him was Mr. Knox, who quoted poetry at length, but primarily Kipling. Folks would get him started and he wouldn’t stop – until all his longtime friends (especially uncle Millen!),would tell him to shut up and “stop your showing off!” I believe Rudyard himself would have been plum pleased. Then you had Mr. Henderson, who was always said to be “so slick freckles would slide right off him.” I never saw it happen, but I ain’t saying it wasn’t so!
As the afternoon wore on, this cold day grew ever cooler. The already brisk, chilling wind also picked up. The warmth of the fire drew the assemblage of menfolk closer to the fire and closed the spacing between each other. This also seemed to make everyone speak louder and more boldly. When these same winds swept in a particular fashion around the house and barn, they conspired to torment all by wafting wonderfully sumptuous streams of luscious scents that were almost irresistible. These delicious smells emanated from a melding of the fragrances created in the kitchen by the aroma of roasting turkeys and hams being combined with the overwhelming and all consuming olfactory bliss of the baking of pies and cakes. It so permeated their clothing that when they returned home the lingering scents would keep them awake and hungry all night. Some wags even claimed their dogs licked their jackets and hats for the next several days.
My young-man’s take on all the celebrants was that deep-down inside many, if not most of the adults here-in their own way- felt just as I did on this occasion. To wit: the “ham get-together” was a welcoming place to participate in a truly jubilant celebration. It gave one a strong sense of belonging, of having a place among these special people, a commonality across many and various connections. You had a unique personal spot amongst all these people that you felt was yours, and yours alone. The festive atmosphere seemed to weave a unique kind of bond that brought us all closer in the spirit, good will, joy and cheer of Christmas. This kind of connection could only bring more harmony and good will to all. Also, it was well known that a fair number of these attendees no longer had much or even any family left. This get-together in fact, may have been the highlight of their celebration of Christmas. With that in mind, they were treated with a caring specialness befitting this season of love.
Stepping up onto the back porch, I looked down the hill that held the underground storm shelter, then past the garden and on to the barn and clear across the cotton and corn fields to the surrounding woods, finally settling my gaze on the still lively and joyous gathering around the beautiful blaze surrounding the washpot ham. As sparks from the fire flew up, I followed their path upward until they fell apart into the sky as shadings of dusk began to win the day. I vividly recall an urgent desire to capture this precious juncture of time and place, just as it was in all its splendor. I gently rolled it around in my head to better remember it all, mentally framing and filing snapshots.
Time marches on, but this magically suspended moment danced and sang, and Life glowed and glittered, and was reflected in all those faces down below. And as for me, on my family’s little piece of Union County here in the northeast corner of Mississippi, on this glorious night, the fire was bright, all was well, all was right.Christmas, Cotton Plant MS, Mississippi history, New Albany MS, Union County MS