I completely embrace my hillbilly roots over the holidays. Before erecting a tree in my urban bungalow or exhuming the cards I bought on clearance the previous year, I crank up Christmas, the Oak Ridge Boys’ 1982 album I grew up listening to on vinyl. I consider it the group’s magnum opus. While making cookies, my sister and I squealed when our mother pulled out the record player, running laps around the kitchen island until the arm hit the wax and began blasting track one, “Jesus Was Born Today.” The three of us favored bass singer Richard Sterban, who punctuated many verses with a bellowing, long-drawn-out word, in this case “Biiiirthday.” We froze, roared in unison, and continued mashing red and green M&Ms into the dollops of batter my mother had spread on a sheet pan.
Our mutual second favorite was “Christmas Carol,” which depicts the life of Carol Johnson, an old woman who belted holiday songs year-round while shaking a janky tambourine and soliciting spare change.
We also owned Christmas on cassette tape to accompany the 20-minute trek to town as well as nighttime drives in search of tacky lights. Where I’m from, cheesy outdoor Christmas spectacles are hard to find. The houses sit hundreds of feet apart and often far from the road, up hills, and behind trees. If the Harmons stuck a six-foot-tall blow-up Santa in their front yard, passersby likely would miss it. My parents spread streetside cheer by draping a red bow over their mailbox. Lining the roof with lights was futile since only the cows next door could enjoy them.
We typically traveled 13 miles north to what had become a countywide tourist attraction. The flat, open pasture offered an unobstructed view of a pink Spanish-style home and the long stretches of jolly decor that blazed on either side. The property glowed like a football stadium from a distance. When we turned onto the road, we always found a line of cars coasting at five miles an hour. Those who didn’t want to rush parked in a nearby ditch. Once we hit the edge of the installation, we blared track 11, “Mary Christmas,” about a woman’s much-anticipated yearly pilgrimage home. I can’t tell who cooed it: a brother or lost love.
A classic manger scene juxtaposed the ensuing electrical chaos. A motorized Snoopy in a green scarf waved at us in slow motion. Santa stayed lit while his reindeer blinked on and off, feigning movement. Sparkling dolphins arced over an inflatable ocean. Luminous lollipops rose from the ground like weeds. Radiant stockings swung from the branches.
Some people glorify the past into something it wasn’t, but that isn’t the case with my childhood holidays. Those years were perfect. When I listen to the Oak Ridge Boys’ Christmas, I transport to my parents’ ‘80s BMW and feel the cookie batter in my hands.