Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas Card 2020: Looking Forward

Sacred Heart Chapel; Mobile Bay, Alabama

A holiday ritual that wasn’t curtailed this year was the sending of Christmas cards. Professional Southerner posts in previous years have detailed my annual search for historic and/or picturesque churches to be found around Alabama during the December holiday season. One of these structures usually is featured on the next year’s Christmas greeting.

This year’s church, Sacred Heart Chapel, overlooking Mobile Bay from Baldwin County’s Eastern Shore, is a church that dates from the 1880s.  I’ve photographed the chapel many times over the years. Until 2019, none of my images struck my fancy as being Christmas card-worthy, although the building is a lovely example of 19th Century Southern coastal architecture. Its large front porch is a particularly charming feature.

The chapel is only used for summer services. A year ago, walking along the deserted grounds, I was struck by the simple grace of the Gothic windows against the white planks of the building. Beyond the porch, the broad churchyard sweeps down to a vista across Mobile Bay, interrupted only by the ruins of an old pier from a previous hurricane.

Even before the pandemic, I had decided that the side view of Sacred Heart would be the 2020 Christmas card image. There was something hopeful in that outward view. Comes the pandemic, and I was firm in my conviction that whatever hope I saw in that particular image would be part of a holiday message this year.

The main message inside the card includes the message “Looking Forward to Christmas and the Year to Come.” And, as always, “Peace on Earth.”


The search for an image for the 2021 Christmas card is more abbreviated this year since I was not able to travel the length of the state to photograph churches and other scenes of December.

Among the tourism trails of north Alabama is the North Alabama Hallelujah Trail (www.northalabama.org/trails/hallelujah) featuring thirty-two places of worship that are at least 100 years old and stand on their original sites. Many of these are examples of vernacular Southern church architecture, others are Gothic or grander, one is a synagogue, and one is simply an open-air facility with cedar posts and a roof.

My mother’s family is from Cullman County, Alabama, — the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants who landed in Virginia and the Carolinas in the late 18th-early 19th century and settled in the frontier of Alabama soon afterward. My annual Christmas cards have featured churches from all over Alabama but I never located one in Cullman county that called out to be used. Family-related churches in Cullman around the communities of Kinney Grove, Ryan’s Creek, and Bethany – some of which were built by some of those ancestors – have been replaced by more prosaic modern buildings that don’t make the Christmas card cut.

Shady Grove Church; Cullman County, Alabama

The Hallelujah Trail features a church in the Cullman County community of Logan. A couple of weeks ago, I had the perfect opportunity to travel down to see it in person. Much of Cullman County is off-the-beaten-path and Logan seems even more remote than most. It’s beautiful hilly country with plenty of farms, pine thickets, and ponds along the narrow roads.

At the end of one particular road is Shady Grove Church, which started out in the 19th Century as pews in an arbor. The current building dates to the late 1800s. It’s a serene place on a lonely road, surrounded by the quiet of pristine forests. Across the road from the church is an old cemetery which holds generations of locals along with the remains of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies.

Shady Grove Church interior; Cullman County, Alabama

The doors to the building were locked but, through a window in the front door, the entirety of the church interior is visible. A unique touch, a hand-carved church structure, decorates the arched cove behind the pulpit. A wooden outhouse provides necessary services behind the building. Somebody had made the effort to install fresh flowers in small vessels in each window; it’s a small touch – but one that speaks to the dedication that keeps Shady Grove Church a place worthy of a remote road trip.

In activist/poet/writer Katha Pollitt’s “Plague Poem,” she muses, “Perhaps it is best that we go away now” as she considers ongoing environmental and social sins. It’s an interesting thought, but this Christmastime, I choose to hope for the best and for an opportunity to right the wrongs that plague us when we get to the end of this current spate of unfortunate circumstances.

Merry Christmas … And all hope for an amazing and triumphant New Year.

Shady Grove Church window; Cullman County, Alabama

Last Minute Shopping for Chocolate-Covered Cherries

IMG_1074   My parents’ house was quiet and last minute preps were pretty much finished by 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve when I retreated to the bedroom to reread “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote’s timeless and touching memoir of a childhood Christmas in Alabama. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that beautifully written story.

As tumultuous as Capote’s later life became, “A Christmas Memory” is an enchanting and innocent tale of a seven-year-old boy and his 60-something-year-old distant cousin making fruitcakes and homemade presents in Monroeville in Depression-era south Alabama. I saw Capote read the story live during an appearance at The University of Alabama and it is still a cherished and moving literary memory.

Capote was in his later years – he was only 59 when he died in 1984 – and his various addictions and career disappointments had taken their toll. His legendary bitchiness was definitely on view that night in Tuscaloosa as he read and commented on various passages from his career.

When he read “A Christmas Memory” to end the evening, however, he seemed somehow transformed. The arch bitterness left his voice and one felt like we were seeing a brand new Capote – untouched by the jadedness and later trials of his life. There were many cynics in that audience – I was one of them – and I will venture to guess that most of those in the room were Alabamians who had grown up with the story; it was my first-hand observation that none of us left the room unmoved by the power of that beautifully written memoir told in such an honest and loving voice.

On this Christmas Eve 2014, as I reread the story, I got to the familiar passage in which the narrator lists the things he would like to be financially able to give to his cousin.  “I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries …”

Then it hit me. I have seen no chocolate-covered cherries in my parents’ house this year. My dad loves chocolate-covered cherries at Christmas – the inexpensive kind you find at the discount stores. As long as I can recall, there were always boxes of them at the house, gifts from friends who know about Dad’s passion.

Some of the friends who always supplied the boxes of cherry treats are now too far away for the gift exchange. My sister-in-law and nephew always make chocolate-covered cherry mice around the holidays and this year’s batch had already come and gone closer to Thanksgiving.

For years, I would send Dad a box of the Harry and David chocolate-glazed Bing cherries until my mother confided that he really preferred the cheap cherries you could get at the drugstore.

And this year it was Christmas Eve and there were no chocolate-covered cherries in the house. I looked at the clock – 5:20 – and went in to where Mother was reading.

“Did anybody bring Dad chocolate-covered cherries this year?”

She grimaced and said “I completely forgot.”

I told her I’d be back and headed for the door. She whispered who is going to be open now? and I assured her that there were places open until 6 or later on Christmas Eve.

“Try the drugstore first,” she said.

The drugstore was crowded but near the front door were shelves with chocolate-covered cherries on sale – two boxes for the price of one.

I grabbed two boxes, wished the cashier a Merry Christmas, drove back to the house, and passed the chocolates off to Mother who put them in stockings at the fireplace.

With my Christmas shopping finally done,  the clock struck 6:00 as I went back to the bedroom and finished Capote’s story.

Food Memory: Mother’s Fresh Apple Cake

 

IMG_1122  Last night friends invited me over for dinner. As we ate Lake Erie perch, we talked about food – where holiday meals would be eaten, travel plans, restaurant favorites, and New Year’s meals and itineraries.

Food and food memory are key to everybody’s holiday traditions and powerful seasonal associations come from foods around the holidays.

Jean Harbison Journey, my mother, would be the first to tell you that she never cared to be known for her cooking. As a young woman getting married and starting a family in the ‘50s, she – like most women of her generation – was looking for convenience and ways to juggle feeding a family with her busy schedule of work, volunteering, and other activities. She was heavily engaged in P.T.A., church, and community.

Even so, she got meals on the table and there were always favorite meals and special treats that she made. None of her dishes, however, got and gets as much attention as her fresh apple cake. There are many fresh apple cakes out there but Mother’s has to be among the finest I’ve ever tasted – okay, it’s by far the best. She gets just the right combination of firmness and moisture and once somebody has sampled Mother’s cake, they always want more.

The process is a collaboration between Mother and Dad with him chopping the apples and stirring the mixture to Mother’s satisfaction. In years past, I would come to town for Christmas only to find my parents busy in the kitchen with almost a factory line in motion of putting together and baking cakes for the family meals and as Christmas presents for friends. The whole house smells like Christmas on these occasions. Sometimes I would chauffeur as Mother delivered cakes on Christmas Eve.

Oftentimes, people brazenly asked Mother to bring one of her fresh apple cakes. This applied even to doctors’ offices. Mother would have an appointment scheduled and would get a call from the office asking if she might be bringing an apple cake along. She always tried to comply.

Mother and Dad have slowed down and aren’t able to make the volume of fresh apple cakes they used to make but the cake still makes appearances on holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. She occasionally still takes one to the offices of favorite doctors and their staffs when she feels like it.

I have tried to make Mother’s recipe exactly once. The right flavor was there but the texture and form were a mess and I haven’t dared try again, although Mother gave me several pointers about what I might do differently next time. I gather that I should spray my cake pan with Baker’s Joy baking spray and have noted that on my copy of the recipe (if I ever get the courage to try it again). I also suspect that I overworked the batter and should have let it rest longer. I gave the recipe to a friend years ago and she said it took her four tries to get it tasting like Mother’s.

When my brother anchored a television news program, Mother was invited on to demonstrate how to make her fresh apple cake. She performed like someone who had been in front of the camera all her life and was told later that it was one of the most requested recipes at the station.

It is a perfect cake for dessert at any meal and is always a favorite for breakfast. Mother is a teetotaler and I would never dare do it, but I suspect that this would be a great cake to drizzle with a bourbon-based sauce.

As Christmas quickly approaches, I’m sharing Mother’s recipe with my highest recommendation. I’ll tell you up front that even if you follow the recipe to the letter, I doubt that it will match hers. But it will still be delicious and memorable.

Jean Journey’s Fresh Apple Cake

 2 1/2 cups plain flour

 2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup oil

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring

3 cups apples, chopped (Mother usually uses tart apples)

  1. Combine and mix all dry ingredients.
  2. Add oil, eggs, and vanilla.
  3. Mix well by hand.
  4. Add chopped apples.
  5. Mix well. If dough is stiff, let it stand for a while and mix again.
  6. Pour mixture into a tube pan.
  7. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes.

 

“… a brief meditation …” : Why I Mail Christmas Cards

IMG_0444   My Christmas cards went in the mail on December 1. I started designing my own Christmas cards over a decade ago and it has become something many of my correspondents seem to appreciate. And expect.

I looked forward to receiving and looking at Christmas cards when I was a child and many of the people who sent cards to my parents every year were people I never met but felt I knew from the stories my mother would share about them each December when the card arrived. Genevieve O’Brien in Chicago, Christine Allen in Georgia, and Doris and Bill Fuller in Fort Worth are among the annual cards we received without fail from people I never met. When I was grown and out on my own, I would send Christmas cards as often as I could but sometimes work schedules or finances would make it prohibitive.

From a very young age I had set opinions about Christmas greetings and Christmas décor. For example, I am a Southerner and never quite understood why so many Southerners would buy into the Madison Avenue version of Christmas and send out pristine snow scenes and winter scenes depicting images that were not part of my reality of the season growing up in Alabama. I have traveled and worked all over the country and I have had white Christmases a few times. But the Christmases of most of my life have been bracing Alabama Christmases with a chill in the air and no snow. Actually, I’m not a fan of snow and have never once dreamed of a white Christmas.

A number of years ago I decided to design my own Christmas cards and feature photographs that represented December in the South. I developed rules: 1) The photograph had to be taken during the month of December and 2) the photograph had to be taken somewhere in Alabama. Those are the only hard and fast rules but over time most of the photographs have been of old country churches I have discovered around the state. A couple of times the image has been landscapes around Mobile Bay where I try to spend some time each December.

The only exception was in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t design the card that year; instead, I purchased museum holiday cards with a detail from a still life of a bountiful holiday table which somehow reminded me of good times on the Gulf and in New Orleans.

I developed rituals: I try to get my card to the printer around October 1 each year. I start signing and addressing the cards by November 1. On December 1, my cards are in the mail. Over time the mailing list has gotten quite large. Most of the people on my list don’t send cards anymore. For me, however, it’s a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances all over the world. Some of them are people I may never see again but I like to keep a connection. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and the Christmas card list is something that keeps me in touch and grounded.

Most people who know about or receive my Christmas cards are grateful and look forward to them each year. Someone might ask if I’ve picked next year’s image yet or they’ll send me a new mailing address to ensure that they won’t miss this year’s card.

But occasionally someone will grouse “I don’t know why you do it. Who has the time? It’s so expensive. And so much trouble.” Here’s my response: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I do it because it gives me pleasure. I look forward to it. I want to do it.

With each card I sign and with each address I write on an envelope, it’s a brief meditation on that recipient.

When I first moved to Huntsville, there was a lady, Grace Clark, who lived in my apartment complex. We didn’t see each other often, but whenever we did we’d have a very pleasant conversation. I added her to my Christmas card list. She never mentioned my cards but when I moved from that apartment to my house I kept sending Christmas cards to Mrs. Clark. A couple of years ago, when Christmas was past, I received a note from a woman I didn’t know. She was Mrs. Clark’s daughter telling me that her mother had recently passed away. She told me that when she was going through her mother’s papers, she found a stack of my Christmas cards. Mrs. Clark had saved each one over the years.

If you don’t have time to send Christmas cards, I totally understand. I’m busy too. I have no time for Facebook and Twitter. We each choose what we have time to do.

This year’s image, by the way, is St. Luke’s Church (c. 1850), a cedar church in Cahaba. Cahaba is a ghost town and state park now, but it was Alabama’s first state capital from 1820-1826.

Happy Holidays.IMG_0456