JACKSON, TN – While visiting Jackson one evening on my recent journey, I passed by the “New Southern Hotel.”
When I was a kid, it was a stretch to call the old hotel “new,” as it was built back in 1927. But even in the sixties it was still a grand place, at least for Jackson, Tennessee. It was also the venue for The Jackson Sun’s annual Christmas Party.
In those days, the Sun was family. It didn’t matter what department you worked in. Sure, there were personalities at the Sun that clashed. But we were family.
And the Sun celebrated as a family.
There were the annual Fourth of July picnics, held at Highland Park. As I recall, the picnic was organized by the front office folks. The picnic was a chance to kick back and enjoys hot dogs, hamburgers and all the fixins, and since it was held at a park, there was plenty for us kids to do.
There was no celebration for Thanksgiving. But shortly before each Thanksgiving, the Sun would have one of the local meat companies in Jackson bring out a refrigerated truck filled with hams and turkeys. Employees would head out to the truck and make their selection for their Thanksgiving feast.
On Thanksgiving Day, the Sun did something I have never seen elsewhere.
The Thanksgiving newspaper was always the big issue for the year. Most of the printing was done with pre-runs. That’s the same process used for the Sunday paper. Usually, by Wednesday, the pressroom of any sizable newspaper would begin to make advance runs of the less timely sections. The Sunday comics would be one of the first. A “Living” or “Society” section would be an advance run. And, by Friday, the Classifieds would be wrapped up.
The same was true for the Thanksgiving issue.
On Thanksgiving Day, a skeleton crew would be in the newsroom, getting those last-minute stories. A small crew would be in the production departments to get the last “live” sections off the press. After that, it was the job of the mailroom to assemble all the pre-printed sections along with all the inserts for the Christmas sales into one large newspaper.
Since quite a few of the newspaper’s staff had to be away from their family for a least part of the day – the press run was as early as possible so that, with any luck, most would be home in time for lunch – the newspaper would hire a catering firm to serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
There was always a lot of food left, and that was on purpose. It was for the employees that were single, or had no family at home. Everyone was encouraged to take plates of food home with them, and the catering company brought plenty of spare paper plates and aluminum foil to wrap up the extras.
The big event each year, though, was the Sun’s Christmas Party.
The earliest ones that I can remember were at the New Southern Hotel. A large buffet was put on. In the December 6, 1963, edition of The Jackson Sun, this was how the dinner was described, “Here guests served themselves from bountiful platters of fried chicken, ham, assorted seafoods and an abundance of vegetables, salads and relishes.” The story also tells us that “Albert Stone (publisher) served as the event’s genial host as, standing with the company’s gracious president, Mrs. Clarence E. Pigford, and with Mrs. Stone, he invited all and sundry into the Read and New Southern Rooms which had been opened wide to accommodate the long and lavish buffet table.”
Compare the writing style above to what we have today.
The story goes on, at some length, telling readers of the people who performed at the party, and it goes on to list the names – the names of every Jackson Sun employee and every family member that was there.
When the evening was concluded, the ladies were encouraged to take the centerpieces on the table home with them.
Before long, the New Southern fell on hard times, and the dinners were moved to Lambeth College. The location changed, but they were still the same grand affairs.
When I went back to work in newspapers in the eighties, some of them still had Christmas parties, but they were not the big events like we enjoyed at the Sun.
In the mid 2000s. I went to work for a newspaper in southeast North Carolina. There, for the Fourth of July I would crank up the smoker and make barbecue. We would all chip in and buy some hamburger meat and hotdogs, and a couple of the production staff would bring their grills and we would put on quite a feed, and we always made a point of inviting all the other departments to enjoy the food with us.
About half of my crew were from Mexico and other countries in the region. I don’t think they were treated to anything like this at the other places where they worked. It took a little convincing to assure them that they, too, were part of our work family.
May 5 is the Independence Day for Mexico. You will know this as “Cinco de Mayo.” Our Latin crew told me that they had something special planned for May 5. They sure did.
When I came into work that day, the Latinas were already preparing the tables. The first thing I noticed was a couple of 5-gallon jars filled with an off-white liquid.
It was Horchata, a recipe of rice milk and spices. It looked like eggnog to me. I’m no fan of eggnog, but I had to give it a try since I had a lot of ladies who had cooked all night eager for me to give it a shot.
It was good.
The Latinas put out quite a table, I can tell you. Homemade tortillas. Pico de gallo. Enchiladas. And a few things I thought it not best to ask about, but it was all good.
This newspaper there did not put on a Christmas party. I think of the departments gathered on their own at some restaurant or bar to celebrate.
I spoke with my crew and asked if they would like to put on a Christmas feed for the entire newspaper. They were in. They were excited.
I visited with the publisher about having the newspaper chip in a few dollars. Even a measly fifty bucks. Something. She told me that corporate had turned down spending anything on a Christmas party. I met again with my crew. Everyone agreed. We would do this on our own.
On a day just before Christmas, we took over the lunchroom and laid out a spread like the room had never seen before. We not only had the traditional American Christmas foods on the tables, but also the traditional Mexican Christmas offerings. I was proud of the production staff as the employees lined up for the feast.
I stood near the door, letting everyone else file through. I wanted to see the smiles, and I also enjoyed watching the second and third passes through the line. As I stood there, the publisher came up and told me what a great turnout it was, and how much my crew had lifted the spirits at the paper.
As I talked with her, I noticed, over her shoulder, the two top executives for the parent company, which was based in Connecticut, had flown down to eat at our tables.
The publisher could see the blood vessels on my forehead popping. It was all I could do to keep from giving them a piece of my mind as they made their way through the line, enjoying the food that was brought in by their employees, many of which could barely mange to put food on their tables.
The publisher gave me a look. I kept quiet. I’m glad I did, as that was not what our gathering was about.