Why Sweet Tea for Christmas?

Over the years, this delicious beverage became the cornerstone of her family’s holiday celebration.

by - Posted on Oct 15, 2020

Tonya May Avent. Photo credit: Jim Graham

When I think of Christmas, I think of family. Preparing for the holidays brings back so many memories of my favorite childhood gatherings with all my siblings and cousins in one place at the same time in New Jersey. Memories like the tree topped with our brown-faced angel in white, and the sweet tea my aunt Chrissy made to welcome everyone together in celebration of the birth of our Savior. There was no better time to be a child.

The dismissal bell at school on the day before Christmas Eve kicked off the festivities. I could hardly wait to get home. I’m one of five: There’s Tyrone; Terri; the twins, Tina and Toni; and me, Tonya. On December 24 we’d scatter to different parts of the house to wrap in secret what we had chosen for that night’s Pollyanna gift swap, the regional equivalent of a White Elephant exchange. All the cousins gave a gift and got one in return, but the game’s stringent rules made it unforgettable.

The cousins drew names out of a hat after Thanksgiving dinner, and my siblings and I hit the mall soon after. If I pulled out the name of one of my female cousins or a sister, choosing a gift was simple—a bracelet, earrings, socks or a nice scarf. If I got one of my male cousins or my brother, I’d usually settle on a big bag of candy or a game, something he wouldn’t have bought on his own. The $10 that Mom and Dad gave each of us was our spending limit.

We clutched our gifts tightly on the drive to the home of Aunt Johnnie, my mother’s eldest sister. Mom was the youngest of five daughters, and throughout my childhood Christmas Eve dinner was always held at Aunt Johnnie’s.

We’d rush inside, eager to see who was already there. Every time the doorbell rang, we’d run to answer it. During all of our running around, ducking hugs and kisses from aunts and uncles who might slow us down, we could smell dinner cooking, good Southern soul food. Turkey with stuffing, a pork roast and a big ham. Potatoes, carrots, rice and gravy, greens, string beans, canned cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese—and Aunt Chrissy’s sweet iced tea, just waiting in its elegant crystal punch bowl.

I once asked Aunt Chrissy, “Why sweet tea for Christmas?”

Iced tea wasn’t something we came across often in the North, especially in the winter. She told me it was the most special drink her big family could afford in those earlier years. Since then it had simply become tradition.

My maternal grandparents had moved from Georgia to New Jersey during the Great Migration in the early 1940s. They wanted to escape the segregation and discrimination they faced and searched for better economic opportunities. After my mom and her sisters moved out of my grandparents’ house and got settled with families of their own, they all made their homes within 15 minutes of where they’d grown up.

It was no wonder to me that the bonds of our African-American family were so strong. In college I minored in Black American studies and read voraciously about the chattel slave experience of forced family separation. I learned that enslaved people who worked outside a home were often given passes during the holidays and might be granted permission to visit family members who were within traveling distance. But besides Sunday visits that allowed relatives in close proximity to stay connected as best they could, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day was the only time family reunions between separated relatives were even remotely possible.

My family believed in keeping close. Before we’d dig into our Christmas Eve meal at Aunt Johnnie’s, we’d stand in an unbroken circle, the grown-ups bowing their heads respectfully, we kids peeking out between half-closed eyes, wondering if the prayer would ever end. Then we would fill up our plates and go for that sweet tea. We had to dip a delicate teacup into the big punch bowl and pour a serving into our own glass. One of my aunts would put a towel under the punch bowl so we’d make less of a sticky mess. Still, we felt very grown-up serving ourselves.

After dessert we finally got to our boisterous Pollyanna gift exchange. That left us ready to settle in front of the TV to watch a Christmas movie or play party and board games. And we still had Christmas morning at home to look forward to, dashing downstairs for that first glimpse of the presents Mom had sorted into five piles—one for each of us.

Much has changed since then. Christmas Eve gatherings are at my house now, but we are never without Aunt Chrissy’s sweet tea. She was the second eldest of the five daughters, the only one who didn’t marry or have children. She took care of my grandparents in their later years, took up hosting our Sunday family dinners and was always available to help anyone who needed it. She remains in charge of the sweet tea. It’s the cornerstone of our Christmas celebration, and sugar is only the beginning of its sweetness.

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