Lowcountry Christmas makes others green with envy

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Lowcountry Christmas makes others green with envy

By DAVID LAUDERDALE
dlauderdale@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, December 22, 2012   |  854 Words  |  

You can't have a good and proper Christmas in the Lowcountry, can you?

After all, cheery old Santa Claus has never been seen in a Coca-Cola illustration wearing flip flops.

Oh, Virginia, don't believe it. All your little friends would be wrong if that's what they tell you.

Our traditions are as full of joy as the horse races the Gullah men ran on Christmas afternoons, in an era when the world outside the Lowcountry was a fading swirl on a transistor radio.

Christmas in those days couldn't be packed into a single day. It started with a trip to Savannah on Dec. 23 to buy a baby doll and candy. Then came all-night praying and singing in a watchnight service on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day was for walking across Hilton Head Island, visiting neighbors, each home laden with a lavish display of food.

Morris Campbell, now a deputy Beaufort County administrator, told a group of us the other day that he got in trouble as a child for visiting a home but failing to take some food.

Penn Center on St. Helena Island continued this month a Lowcountry tradition that dates to 1916. It produces a play with some of the same spirituals and carols from the days it packed Darrah Hall at Christmas.

Don't you wish you could have been there when Beany Newhall organized a Christmas performance in 1967 by the Universal Gospel Chorus on Hilton Head for the St. Luke's Episcopal Church? The program included "If Jesus Comes to Your House" sung by Shirley M. Greene; "Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray" led by Annie M. Bolden; "Go Tell It On The Mountain" led by Ethel Brown; "Get Away Jordan" by L.E. Allen; "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" led by A.M. Bolden; "Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometime," a solo by Julia Johnson; and "Oh, Sinner" led by Mary H. Ford.

In the early 1970s, a community choir began performing the "Messiah" on Hilton Head each year for the sheer love of it. Martha Gregory was the director, and from that sprang the Hilton Head Choral Society. The community singing of "Messiah" survives under the direction of Rusty Floyd.

Beaufort's Christmas Parade, from the days when Wilson "Tootie Fruity" Bourke led it, stepping high in his white outfit, whistle and baton, is to us as fine as the Rose Parade. Call it the Camellia Parade, if it makes you happier.

When our docks are gaily lit, some with full Christmas trees reflecting red and gold in the shimmering waters below, you have to wonder if Rockefeller Center could possibly be more beautiful.

Beaufort's boat parade draws thousands to the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, and A Night on the Town fills Beaufort's Christmas-card like downtown for the lighting of the tree.

Santa's grand arrival on Hilton Head used to highlight the annual tree-lighting and caroling in the middle of Sea Pines Circle. Now, there's a good idea. Let's load up the kids with sugar and the adults with Old Grand Dad and run around in a traffic circle at dusk. Then Santa, impersonating John Curry, would fly over at tree level, white gloves waving from a chopper.

Audubon's Christmas Bird Count has been part of our season since the 1960s. Everybody used to participate, even if they sometimes got breathless at the sighting of rare ducks that turned out to be decoys bought up North.

During his 30 years as a resident of Hilton Head, John Jakes created our own version of "Christmas Carol" with musical arrangements by Melvin Marvin of Walterboro. They even wrote a new carol, "God Bless Us Every One."

Dove Street lit up our lives with soaring decorations for more than two decades. The trick was to get out of your car and walk through this quiet, other world.

The late Dorothy Young made a magic kingdom of the corner of Wild Horse and Gumtree roads on Hilton Head. Lights ran up a 40-foot magnolia, all along the fence, even across the ground. A speaker tucked in the magnolia played Christmas carols by Lou Rawls. One of her hobbies was making ceramic figurines, and she made and painted dozens of Nativity scenes. They were in john boats, under trees, by the house. It was there that I discovered the baby Jesus was an African American, and all my life I thought he looked more like one of the Beach Boys.

And even though we had a genuine white Christmas in 1989 -- only weeks after the Lowcountry was socked by Hurricane Hugo -- it is the subtle winter tones of our warm nature that make the Lowcountry so Christmasy. Tiffany has yet to offer anything as grand as an arrangement on the mantel of long leaf pine, pecans, holly and oyster shells.

I wish for you a good and proper Lowcountry Christmas.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.