Friday, January 29, 2010

Folklife Fridays: Decoration Day


Decoration Day

Some call it Homecoming, but it was always called Decoration Day at the small church in our community.

Decoration Day at the church was the highlight of summer in my world. The church house was just pews and pulpit, white boards with a wasp-infected high ceiling. From the time school closed in the spring until it resumed in the fall, the church was the core of our social life. We endured the fire-and-brimstone preacher until the last Amen; then the fun began. The congregation met only once a week, and each time was an event.

In the last week of scorching and simmering July, a week-long revival service began, not necessarily because we needed reviving but because that was the week revival meetings were held. Decoration Day was the fourth Sunday in July, a glorious day that kicked off the revival events.

Early in the day, the adjoining cemetery exploded in red, yellow, and blue crepe paper flowers. Everyone came, even folks from the Church of Christ congregation who did not usually associate with the Baptists. The primary purpose of Decoration Day (all teenagers knew this) was to show off new dresses and shoes. Church leaders had long since accepted that young girls in their finery could not be contained in the stifling church house; a formal worship service wasn't even attempted.

During my thirteenth summer, I got my first high-heeled shoes for Decoration Day. I was all legs, stumbling and unsure as a newborn calf. I can see me now; scratched and sunburned from farm work, strolling from cemetery to church house in my fine dress and high heels with the other girls. The guys hung out on the hoods of their cars, cigarettes dangling, too cool in their new jeans and white tee-shirts with rolled-up sleeves. They were strategically positioned to admire the girls as they promenaded past. Some dared to whistle. Prime time for strolling was from ten to twelve.

Just before all hope was lost, noon arrived and someone announced that it was dinner time. The women had risen with the Sun and prepared fried chicken and veggies from their garden. In baskets and boxes they arranged their food; banana pudding and tea cakes that were made the day before, tomatoes and cucumbers to be sliced just before eating, and sweating gallon jugs of lemonade and sweet tea. It was acceptable for men to transfer the food from their car to the picnic tables; they were not actually preparing food, thus it was no threat to their manhood. Starched tablecloths covered the tables, and then the feast was spread.

When the sawmill board tables were groaning with food, the crowd would become silent. Someone, usually a visitor known for his lengthy prayers, would be asked to bless the food before we could partake. We stood there, with blistered feet and sweat streaming between our budding breasts, while prayer was offered for the food, Aunt Louise, children in Africa, corn and cotton crops, and a great variety of other needs. A collective sigh of relief arose with the final Amen. Paper plates were stacked high with food, and we sought a place in the shade to eat. There was no place to sit; one stood up or sat on the ground among the ticks, chiggers, and unknown creepy creatures.

Decoration Day was scheduled to continue with singing throughout the afternoon, but things wound down rapidly after dinner was over. Stuffed and hot, we just wanted to be somewhere cooler where we could lie down and rest. Fatigued families climbed into cars and went home. Later, rested, we would begin talking, segmenting the day into sections to be savored for weeks to come. After eating a brief meal of the leftovers from dinner, we would find the energy to climb back into the car and head for the first revival meeting.