Allene Smith Harper has lived in Lithonia her entire life, even attending the historic Bruce Street School. We talked to her about her childhood in Lithonia in the 1940’s and how she celebrated the holidays growing up. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
On holidays in Lithonia when she was growing up:
Well, when I was growing up, you know, it was in the time where we were not as free as we are now, so we were limited to what we could do. But we always found a way to celebrate. We did a lot of decorations for our houses, and we would visit each other during the Christmastime. Mostly, when I was younger, we just would go from house to house and eat, share food and things like that. As I grew older, we started letting the children do things, but the City of Lithonia was very decorated, it was pretty. They even had the decorations to extend out Rock Chapel Road (it didn’t just sit right in the City of Lithonia).
…my family would go to my grandparents’ home down in the country at Thanksgiving, [where] we cut a (Cedar tree) Christmas Tree out of the woods, bring it home put it in a bucket of water from our well and save it until Christmas. Then we would put the tree up and decorate it with homemade chain from construction paper, string pop corn to decorate the tree, and any other decoration that we hand made.
All of the churches would have Christmas programs and Christmas pageants and we would have a real live Christmas tree in the church, and we’d pile up – all the members would bring gifts and we’d put them all under the tree…Each child would have a, we’d call it a Christmas speech. It would be a recitation and we worked really hard to learn those speeches. And some of us would get up there and forget the speech and they would start crying and the parents were trying to help them. Some of them would get up there and they’d just say it right through fluently. And that was so exciting. And after all of the speeches and everything was over, all of the singing and all of that, they would call each person’s name in the church, because people would bring gifts for their families, put them under the tree. And they would call out that name and someone would bring your gift to you and you would see how many gifts you would get. And then the community would also, those who had cars would get in their cars and we’d go through the community, sing Christmas carols and give out Christmas baskets to the elderly.
On the Christmas speech:
It was a recital, and we called it the Easter – I mean Christmas – speech. We did them at Easter and Christmas, so we did Easter speech during the Easter and Christmas speech during the Christmas. And some of what we said, “What are you looking at me so hard for, I didn’t come to stay. I just came to tell you today is Christmas day,” and stuff like that, it might be something else, you know. But it was very exciting to watch the kids all go up and try to recite their recitals that they had to do.
I can’t remember any of them now I had to recite. I sure don’t. And the first one, normally, that you do is the one that I just said. All the little kids would, that would probably be their first one. But as you get older, you know, they would give you longer pieces to say, so I don’t remember what mine was…that was a beautiful time.
On holiday family traditions:
My mother did a lot of cooking. Even myself, after I got older, would do a lot of cooking. Recipes like sweet potato pie, four or five different kinds of cakes (German chocolate, pineapple, chocolate, red velvet, fresh apple cake). And what we would do was cook these cakes and we would put them in a big box and put apples in the box with the cakes that were supposed to keep them moist. And when someone came by to visit us, then we would pull out the cakes and we would give them a piece of cake, and that’s how we shared our food.
The menu was normal: collard greens, ham, the turkey if that’s what you wanted, mac and cheese, all the old-fashioned recipes. Collard greens, of course, and that was the type of cooking we did. The dressing, you had to have the dressing. Those were the type of things we did with Christmastime cooking.
Buttermilk pie – that was an old tradition that my mother would make. And ambrosia. Those were two things that she would make. Now, back then, you know what, they didn’t really use a lot of recipes. They did what you call, make something you just dump it in, what you thought would go in it.
On celebrating the holidays today:
We usually have a, what we call a Christmas gala. And we look forward to that, and that is what I am looking forward to having when we go back into our new center [the upcoming East DeKalb Community and Senior Center at Bruce Street, currently under construction].
I have loved the life that I have had here in the Lithonia area. My husband Howard L. Harper Jr. and I raised both of my children here, Vance L Harper and Dejee M. Harper Mercier, right here in Lithonia area. I’m proud all of my town and the life that I live an experienced during my lifetime.
Ms. Harper shared two family recipes with us, which she learned from her Mother, Essie M. Smith. Check out the instructions for butter-milk pie and crackling bread below, then give them a try! (Click on the recipes to enlarge)