I came across a photo a little while back of “Aunt” Texie Teague Hunter, who lived much of her childhood and all of her adult life in the remote White Oak community.
This particular photo ran with a story in 1972 before my time at The Mountaineer. The moment I saw it, I knew it would be right for this day, this edition, the week before Christmas.
Turns out the picture was used for a story about a surprise party given in Aunt Texie’s honor for her 73rd birthday by the people of White Oak Baptist Church.
She had taught Sunday school there for 55 years and at that time was teaching a class of teenagers.
I met Aunt Texie in 1987, my first year full-time at The Mountaineer, while doing a story on old-fashioned Christmases. I’d wanted to get up with this lady, then 89, who seemed to be regarded as the matriarch of White Oak, but she wasn’t going to be home that day — she was on her way to town.
So, while her daughter shopped for groceries, I hopped up in the pickup truck, right there in the parking lot, with Aunt Texie and talked about Christmases past.
She told me about getting her first baby doll for Christmas. As I wrote then, any country mountain woman of that generation remembered their first doll. Aunt Texie’s doll came without any clothes, and a visitor to her home spent part of that Christmas day sewing rags into clothes for the child’s new toy.
“In a way we had a grand time at Christmas, but law, we had no money,” Aunt Texie said.
One year, each child in the extended family got a box of firecrackers. Little Texie Teague, being the youngest, got the smallest box. Determined to make as big a noise as her cousins, the child set fire to the whole box and got her big bang.
I’ve talked to a number of people over my years with The Mountaineer, who remember childhoods when Christmas treats consisted of an orange, maybe some candy.
“All us children, we’d wash out stockings and hang them up by the fireplace, and on Christmas, we’d find an orange and some candy in our stockings,” said Maggie Trantham, who ran Trantham’s Store on Upper Fines Creek with her husband, Homer. “We didn’t get no toys.”
Note that she said she washed out her stockings before hanging them. A number of children back then had only one pair; there wasn’t a clean spare for the fireplace.
“The children in the family, we tried to stay up as late as we could on account of Santy Clause, but our parents would send us to bed,” Henry Hyde of Dix Creek told me back in 1988. “We were lucky to get a couple of oranges. Toys — I guess I was half-grown before I saw one of those little old cap-busters boys used to carry around. … Kids nowadays don’t enjoy it. They have everything year round, but back in those days, candy and oranges, now that was for Christmas.”
Along with oranges, apples and chestnuts, a common theme in those old-time Christmas memories was the cooking. Women would cook for weeks ahead, folks told me, and since the holiday came at the onset of winter, usually families had hog meat, canned, pickled, dried or smoke-cured.
Cracklin’ bread was a treat common at Christmas, when women would add the lard rendered out of the hog, the “cracklins,” to their cornbread.
Aunt Texie said she always cut a holly tree for her Christmas tree, back in her early married days. It was so beautiful on its own, it didn’t need decoration.
It made me sad this week, when fellow reporter Becky Johnson asked about people who celebrated Christmas in traditional ways, and I realized that almost everyone I knew who had done so is now gone. That’s why it is so important to talk to those people, get those memories on record, while you can. So few remember, and fewer still know how to live by the old ways.
Then it cheered me, to come across the photo of Texie Hunter. In this picture, probably taken at Christmas of 1971, she is sitting by a television set, placed on a rolling TV stand.
Above her, on the wall, are taped dozens of Christmas cards. Somehow you know that she enjoyed receiving every one. And beside her, on top of the TV, is a Christmas tree. Not an artificial tree. And not a Frasier fir, the gorgeous, full trees we enjoy these days. This one looks like a white pine, about 2 feet tall, only a few branches, and those adorned with a shiny tinsel garland. It is so simple, yet so beautiful.
Everything about the picture is lovely, including the woman at its center. Her features are strong, her gaze is direct, and you sense both power and peace in that face, the same things I remember from our meeting 17 years later.
It’s the simplicity that we seem to crave, but can’t find these days.
“People want too much, anymore,” Aunt Texie told me. “We didn’t care too much about that then. I think people put too much into things like that, and not the One that’s above us.”
Therein lay her strength, a divine Christmas gift that gives us the power to experience joy, whether in times of plenty or want, despite COVID, nasty politics, a crazy economy and the incredibly weird months of 2020.
We’ve traded oranges and candy for bargain stocking stuffers, a once-in-a-lifetime toy for video games and high-tech gadgets, and in the process it is all too easy to bypass the one gift that ties past, present and future together, the one that binds us to eternity.
Merry Christmas, folks. And may your coming week have its simple, divine moments, the kind that transcend centuries of celebration.