Family’s sweet Christmas tradition survives even war

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

It’s a memory that took place in Stockbridge that today rocks a grown man to tears. But 26 years ago, for the three young children of then-Sgt. First Class Bruce and Anne Morgan, the motivation was always about the sugar plums.

Sgt. First Class Bruce Morgan, center left, holds his cards up for the camera as he and other members of his unit pass the time away on a base in Qatar in 1990. Special photo

“I cannot adequately describe how enjoyable those candies were that my mother would make,” said Matt Jenkins, 36, Bruce’s stepson and oldest of the three children. “Besides getting the gifts, no doubt, those sugar plums were our No. 1 favorite family Christmas tradition. We would beg for a taste … but Mom wouldn’t budge. … She was saving them for The Reading.”

It was the tradition of “The Reading,” as the siblings would later refer to it, that the children relished. The reading material was Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” — a.k.a., “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

“So the routine on Christmas Eve was, we’d have to get our bath and get on our pajamas,” Jenkins said, “and then late in the evening we would each get to open one gift.

“Pop every year would open this beat-up old, old, old illustrated copy of ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ read it aloud, and when he got to the part about the ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads,’ Mom would whip out her plate of sugar plums, and we could each take three. With the final line, ‘Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,’ the plate would pass around again and we could eat our last three.”

Jenkins said somebody always asks, “What is a sugar plum, anyway?”

“They are a bit mysterious and varied and there are recipes online,” Jenkins explained. “Sugar plums were just round candies, not necessarily made of fruit. My mother chopped dried figs and added chopped almonds and honey and spices and caraway seeds, rolled that mixture into balls, then coated them in sugar.”

“Each of us (siblings) have continued the sugar plum tradition with our own families, and it’s just as much fun today as it was then,” Jenkins said. “I wish I could make them the way Mom did. We’ve all said that.”

The Morgans lived in Stockbridge for 26 years, and in 2012, when his mother Anne died, Jenkins said he moved his stepfather to an assisted living home near him in Cincinnati, Ohio. This time of year, Jenkins said his thoughts return to his hometown in Henry County.

When Jenkins was 10, the family and their Christmas tradition were poised to be separated by war.

In August 1990, Morgan’s 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., deployed to the Middle East in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. By May 1991, the Screaming Eagles were home.

Morgan, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., and his wife Anne and three children had been living in Stockbridge four years when he was deployed in the fall of 1990. Stationed in Qatar, Morgan was able to phone home occasionally.

As Christmas approached, the Army sergeant told his wife he’d do everything he could to be on the phone on Christmas Eve, and he thought he could probably recite the whole poem from memory. “Mom told us not to get our hopes up that he could call,” Jenkins said, “but, the sugar plums would make an appearance anyway, and she’d read (the poem) if she needed to.”

On Christmas Eve, the agreed-upon time for Morgan’s call came and went, and Jenkins said that opening the one gift wasn’t enough to pierce the actual gloom that hung over the living room. “We’d been in our pajamas for hours, and Mom was being brave and fake-cheerful and acted like everything was normal, but I knew it wasn’t. I was scared. What had happened to my Pop?”

It was getting late, sleepy eyes were drooping, and his mother called them around Bruce Morgan’s rocking chair.

“Mom had only gotten through the first few lines when the phone rang,” Jenkins said. “It was Pop! I remember the connection was awful at first, and Mom looked stressed out that the call wouldn’t work out, but then it got better. And Pop started reciting the poem, and he got interrupted.”

On cue, over 7,000 miles away, a buddy was handing the sergeant a photocopied set of the poem that Anne had secretly sent.

“Pop couldn’t say anything for a minute, and Mom explained to us what was happening,” Jenkins said, explaining that the image of the printed poem was one token object that connected Morgan both to his wife and children, and to his own childhood, when his father had read it to him.

Jenkins himself became emotional as he tried to continue the story. “See, that book, it must have meant everything to my Pop. How loving of my Mom to send it to him as a big secret.”

Jenkins said his father’s voice was heavy but jubilant as he read to that sixth line of the poem with the mention of sugar plums. “I was so busy passing the plate around the circle that I hardly noticed that my father wasn’t talking anymore. He couldn’t. He was crying. And that scared my little brother, so Mom again explained what was happening.

“He was being handed a bag of six sugar plums with a note that said, ‘Three only, until you get to the end.’

“We still have that note. We could hear him laughing and crying at the same time. And Pop couldn’t go on, so a buddy of his, reading over his shoulder, continued with, ‘And momma in her ‘kerchief and I in my cap,’ and so on.

“Somehow my father pulled it together, a couple more joined in, it was so noisy and muffled that Mom had us crowd around the book so we could see the words. We loved it. These guys were helping Pop do what he couldn’t do alone. Then as he got to the last lines, all his buddies were reading the words over his shoulder in unison louder and louder, with that last line so loud it was a dull roar. Then they all cheered.”

The sound of the men’s enthusiasm was a sound of pure joy, he said, a slice of exaltation at their shared interruption of loneliness and gnawing homesickness. “Those men, and the looks on the faces of my family – that gave me the purest form I may ever know of Christmas spirit.”

That night, 7,000 miles couldn’t separate a family from honoring the night and the baby who’d been long-distance delivered some 2,000 years before.