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Ashton Lee’s Christmas Gift

The Cherry Cola Christmas author reveals his quirky Mississippi holiday tradition.

cherrycolaxmasI grew up in a very large, extended Southern family in historic Natchez, Mississippi, a city known for its 300 years of architecture and hospitality. It also has its share of eccentric characters who provide fodder for anyone aspiring to be a writer. In many ways, it is a writing laboratory for those with an ear for dialogue and the ability to appreciate and recall memorable scenes, happenings and family traditions. I plead guilty to paying attention to that last sentence all the way to finding a wonderful New York agent and multiple contracts with a major publisher. My current works from Kensington Books, known as “The Cherry Cola Book Club” series, is chock full of such remembrances — reworked to protect both the innocent and the guilty.

As we once again approach the Christmas season, I am reminded of a particular family tradition that I have gone on to incorporate in one of my earlier novels. I’m not certain when this particular family tradition started, but when my brother and I were growing up, our parents told us that the proper way to greet people the moment you saw them on Christmas day was to say to them very fast “Christmas gift!” The object was to say it to them before they could say it to you. That meant that the phrase was frequently garbled and always accompanied by unrestrained laughter afterward. It was a ‘gotcha’ moment without the stress that a real ‘gotcha’ moment sometimes brings to the table.

It was also permissible to spring this phrase on someone over the phone. Thus, if a family relative was out of town and called long-distance, they could lie in wait for you to innocently answer, “Hello?” And then, aha, “Christmas Gift!” followed instantaneously. Score one for them, followed by the insane laughter. Writing the phrase on a Christmas card, however, does not qualify. The tradition requires the vocal effort to be validated.

AshtonLeeOver the years, I have tried to figure out what “Christmas Gift!” is supposed to imply. Does it mean that the loser must provide the winner with a present? In many cases, however, there was likely a present already wrapped and under the tree for close family members who ‘played the game.’ My brother and I always tried to trap my parents, which generally netted us a .500 result. Because the tradition came from our mother’s side of the family, Mama was tough to beat and very quick on the draw. We were especially ‘easy pickins’ when we were very young. As we got older, we occasionally got the best of her. Daddy was a softer target because he hadn’t grown up with the practice and was less invested in it emotionally.

But we continue to be Christmas Gift-ers to this day. My niece learned from the best, and she is now teaching her daughter (my great-niece) how to get those words out before anyone else does. Perhaps you will find this story amusing enough to try it yourself on Christmas Day with friends and family. No cheating, though. Christmas Eve doesn’t count.

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