Christmas memories and red-eye gravy

By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist
Mac McPhail -

As you get older memories become more selective. It’s really kind of interesting what you remember, what stands out in your past. This is especially true for me in relation to growing up and Christmas. There are certain things that stand out in my memory when I think about the upcoming holiday. And the funny thing about it is that they have little to do with Christmas presents.

I know this may sound unusual, but one of my strongest memories of Christmas growing up is the smell of red-eye gravy, the smell of breakfast on Christmas morning. My sister and I would always wake up early, real early, on Christmas morning. After the presents were opened, Mama and Granny would cook a big breakfast. Sometimes Aunt Lona and Uncle Alfred would come and eat with us that morning. I would be in the den, playing with whatever toy I got from Santa, smelling breakfast being cooked in the kitchen, and working up an appetite. The smell of red eye gravy and the rest of the Christmas breakfast would bring me to the table quickly, no matter how much fun I may have been having. Sitting around the table and eating country ham, eggs, rice (instead of grits), biscuits or toast, and jelly made for good eating. And for good memories.

Another memory is one that some of you guys in my age category can relate to: the bathrobe, the tobacco stick, and the church Christmas program. Every year our church would have a Christmas program. It would always be the Nativity story, with the children of the church playing all the parts. The girls would be the angels while the boys would be the shepherds and the wise men. Whether we boys were shepherds or wise men, our mamas would dress us up in our daddy’s bathrobes and we would use tobacco sticks for our staffs. They would then wrap a scarf or towel around our heads, and we would be ready to play our parts. You would hope all you had to do during the program was to walk in and stand beside the manger. You didn’t want a speaking part, no matter how small. The main thing was to get through the program because you knew that when it was over you would get your small paper bag, filled with an apple, an orange and some candy.

I didn’t particularly care for Santa Claus when I was young. The idea of sitting in some funny dressed, strange man’s lap just didn’t appeal to me. I knew I had to do it inorder to get Christmas presents from Santa, but I didn’t like it. After a couple of years of reluctant trips to see Santa, Mama got smart. When Christmas came around, she said that she was going to Fayetteville to shop and that she would tell Santa what Gail and I wanted while she was there. That was fine by me. When she came home she would say, “I talked to Santa. He said he couldn’t get you everything on your list because it wasn’t in his toy shop. But he might could get one or two things you wanted, and maybe, some clothes.” And that is what would happen. Like I said, Mama was smart.

Then there was the Nativity scene. Almost every year I would help Daddy put it up and take it down. First, we would load the manger on the back of the pickup at the barn and take it out and set it up. Most of the time it wasn’t that difficult, although setting the roof on top of the walls could be a little tricky. Then it was time to place the characters. And every character had a place. Mary, Joseph and Jesus under the manger. Shepherds, animals and wise men outside the manger, but each at a specific spot. Pa made sure of that. We would drive a tobacco stick in the ground and nail each cutout to the sticks to hold them up. The star would be hung over the manger, the spotlight set, and we would be finished.

Memories are good, but they can remind you how things have changed. Mama, Daddy, Granny, Aunt Lona and Uncle Alfred have gone on to be with the Lord. You can’t find a tobacco stick anywhere. But, with grandkids now running around, there are new memories of the Christmas season. There are new memories to cherish, but I can still smell that red eye gravy.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at