Experiencing a Southern Christmas

NPR's Farai Chideya gets a crash course on Christmas, Southern style, from David Barnette, author of The Official Guide to Christmas in the South or If You Can't Fry It, Spraypaint It Gold.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The South is known for its unique way of doing things and Christmas is no exception.

Mr. DAVID BARNETTE (Author): Many a newcomer has asked what can be spray painted gold? The answer is anything that can't give you a gift or be deep-fried. Spoiled fruit is a perennial favorite, sometimes literally as oranges shrink little from year to year. Pineapples, once a sign of Southern hospitality, need only 30 seconds under the nozzle to be worthy of Graceland. Magnolia leaves go from green to gaudy; even plastic Santas faded from years of El Nino become magical again with a Midas glaze. A new and sculptural trend is to spray paint extra caramel-crusted gourmet apples. Apply a liberal coating of gold and attach a golden angel to the top of the stick with hot glue. Two, anchor a mantle; three, make a display worthy of a Fairmont lobby. A lone golden apple makes an excellent gift for a mailman or substitute teacher.

GORDON: That's David Barnette reading from his book, "The Official Guide to Christmas in the South: Or, If You Can't Fry It, Spray Paint It Gold." He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya about celebrating Christmas Southern style.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So you say no place celebrates Christmas like Dixie. So what exactly do you mean by that?

Mr. BARNETTE: You know, people in the South, below the Mason-Dixon line, do things just a little bit over the top.

CHIDEYA: So give me an example. You talk about spray painting things gold, everything. What are some other hallmarks of Southern Christmases?

Mr. BARNETTE: Well, you know, especially in the Deep South, there's not really snow to create that holiday landscape. So there are a couple of different ways that the South might go a little bit overboard with that. One is, when it comes to decorating the front yard, you know, some of the more tasteful things don't really go over so well because the idea with the front yard is you want to slow down the traffic. The ultimate compliment is if you can get a pilot to fly over and report your yard as a forest fire, if you have that volume of moving lights in your yard. I think that very often we can take the cues, too, from used car dealers as far as creating a little bit of curb appeal.

CHIDEYA: Now what do you mean by curb appeal?

Mr. BARNETTE: Again, you just want people to slow down, you want them to stop in front of the house. If you have anything in the yard that's animated. Like a few years ago, the grapevine deer came out that had the little tasteful white lights, and they were very polite and sat in the yard and nobody really slowed down for them. But once those things became animatronic and started moving, now they're show-stoppers.

CHIDEYA: So, basically, if your electricity bill doesn't go up by 500 percent, then you're not doing your job.

Mr. BARNETTE: Exactly. You want to cause a blackout.

CHIDEYA: What about dressing for your office party, something like that?

Mr. BARNETTE: One thing that we struggle with, too, is how to dress in a way that looks festive and seasonal when it might not be all that cold. So there's certain things that might give different messages. For instance, the amount of jewelry that you're wearing can say a little bit about what the real estate market is doing, especially if you're down in an area where the real estate market is booming on the coast. Certain types of jewelry might indicate a profession. For instance, the lightbulb jewelry almost always says `teacher,' and you want to make sure you get the right gift for the teacher.

CHIDEYA: So you've got your house all decorated with these lights, you're wearing your best flashing jewelry to your holiday party, what should you do about gift-giving, specifically regifting?

Mr. BARNETTE: Ah, regifting. You know, when Scarlett came down the stairs wearing the curtains, she really set the standard for the South and recycling. And if you don't believe in reincarnation, you have to kind of follow a gift bag around the South just to see how far those gifts can go. The problem is that I think in the South, people tend to give gifts to everyone we come into contact with--the mailman, the plumber, the minister, half the choir members. So you have to have something very advanced, like maybe UPS' tracking software, to keep track of who gave what so you don't end up regifting the original giver.

CHIDEYA: Well, what you could do is just spray paint it and then give it back to the original giver.

Mr. BARNETTE: Then they'd never know. And one person you don't want to mess with is the dance teacher in town because everybody ends up regifting. It all kind of comes to a peak right there at the dance studio and if you want your little girl to get a solo next year, you got to get her something original.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you this. Do you think Southerners will find your book funny or will they get all huffy and offended?

Mr. BARNETTE: You know, it's one of the great things I think about the South is the ability that people down here have to really laugh at ourselves and the things that are done that are a little bit different. I think it's almost a sense of pride in doing things a little bit differently and having a community spirit.

CHIDEYA: And finally, what's one of the biggest differences between let's say a Southern Christmas and one celebrated in New York or California?

Mr. BARNETTE: Well, certainly, I think that casseroles are going to have a much bigger chance of showing up in the South. Basically, I think if you can put anything together with Velveeta, some canned soup and sprinkle fried onions on it, you know you're in the South.

CHIDEYA: That's good eating. And that's David Barnette, author of "The Official Guide to Christmas in the South." Thanks for your time. Merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

Mr. BARNETTE: You, too.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

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