African Americans have always honored the traditions of family, food, song and spirituality. So Thanksgiving and Christmas are ripe with memories that bridge our past to the present. Traditions bind families and friends, creating a connectedness that transitions even life itself. Experts say that it is also during these activities that family beliefs and values are transferred as children witness the importance of friendship, unity and sharing.
My grandfather, Sanford Echols aka Daddy Sanford, was born in 1902. He grew up during a time when most Blacks still lived on farms or in small communities. In the South segregation, frequently reinforced by the Ku Klux Klan, was the law of the land. As a result, life and death for Black folks, to a major degree, was determined by one’s level of common sense and capacity to successfully navigate this system. Church was community and, for many, the Bible was the only book in the house. Consequently, Daddy Sanford was solid in his knowledge of scriptural values, promises and expectations. He was also a gifted and respected speaker. Threaded with biblical concepts and sound judgment of basic universal principles, and soaked with fire and authority, his prayers reduced even the most cynical to tears. Weakened from cancer, he had moved from the family farm in Tennessee to live with Mom. When that sacred day finally arrived, knowing this would be the last time, we crowded into the room to be washed in his blessings.
Even after I married, because my husband’s mother was deceased, holidays were still spent at Mom’s. The focus was never gifts but the joy of each other’s presence. Starting around Thanksgiving through Christmas, she liked to remind us, “When I was a child, I got fruit, nuts, maybe a doll and a pair of shoes for Christmas. Mama baked pies and cakes for relatives and friends who would come by. Once you get older, your life centers around your children.”
Some referred to Mom as the Christmas lady. She had an infectious excitement about the season. Even after her husband Honey died, she managed to recruit someone to frame the house with twinkling lights. Something delectable was usually cooking or waiting whoever stopped by. Hot soup, molasses cake, chicken and dumplings from scratch, black-eye peas, teacakes, strawberry peach cobblers and, of course, pineapple coconut cake were my favorites. My daughter Ikita remembers the mac and cheese, and the Dutch girl cookie jar that was always empty by day’s end.
Listen. Establish your own family traditions. These occasions may be the only times we see some relatives. Include friends and people who are alone. Plant the seeds for warming memories. You will someday reminisce with deep appreciation about these precious times.*
*Originally published in BW50+ MAGAZINE, November-December 2010 issue. Reprinted, with tweaking, in response to popular requests.