Neither angels nor shepherds shot off firecrackers at Christmas, but we did, though my mother used to say every year she thought this was pagan and likely to blow your fingers off.

Fat chance, with the little firecrackers I had to settle for.

But Christmas is the season of hoping against hope -- knowing you won't get any cannon-crackers, which would make life worth living, but dreaming all the same that things will change and the world will get better. Even in those dark days there were torpedoes, which were all right because mothers thought if you didn't light it no harm could come, and these torpedoes truly made a genuine bang when you threw them with all your strength against a pavement.

The trouble with them was that if you were small you had to throw them almost straight down, to get enough force to make them go off, and the pellets from these wonders lodged like grenade shrapnel in your knees. You pay for joy; but then you pay, joy or not, and this is known early in the border country of Tennessee-Mississippi where torpedoes taught us much.

Odd that Christmas runs the clock backwards to the firecrackers of early dreams or whatever else means Christmas and a holy night; but in my town the firecrackers were angels, messengers leading back to the stable and the hay.

I was lucky one Christmas, still back home, when I was seized with the idea of making money by shooting down mistletoe and cutting holly to sell in town. But mistletoe was not meant to be sold, or not by me. It should be cut with a golden sickle, but I used a rifle, and for this defiance of tradition the gun recoiled enough to knock me out of the tree into the bayou.

I was 30 feet up in a cypress for a clear shot at a tremendous bough thick as your wrist. The girl I was fixing to marry was coming from her town a thousand miles away and I wanted that Christmas to be good. Swimming out of the bayou with no broken back, I thought the season might have started better, though I now see it might have started worse.

Christmas Eve I met her at the train and got her to my family's house in town. She had half an hour to change clothes and we went to the country in a Jeep unimpeded by sides or roof.

It does not occur to you when you're 20 on Christmas Eve that anybody gets tired, so we crossed the big river and chugged into a holly grove off the road, always warm and still. We went to the farm and looked at the dead cotton stalks and the cypress I fell out of. A good woman is easy to entertain.

A bachelors club had a dinner and dance Christmas Eve, and the girl liked all my friends, who behaved uncommonly well and only one or two got drunk and roared around, it being Christmas.

Towards midnight we left for the church, where it was the custom to begin Christmas Day. This was before the fire marshal ruled all, so the place was dark except the chancel and the windows down the aisles with five candles in each. We always sat by a window with a border of opium poppies and a big unisex angel standing on the inscription "Angels, Sing On."

The church had tie rods to keep the walls from collapsing and the aisles squeaked according to your weight. A church should creak right and smell right and this one was flawless. The wood was all black and glossy though not old, since it was all taken out when the church was a hospital for the wounded from Shiloh. So the wood was new after the Civil War. I always thought of those guys when I went in, because the morning of the battle had been so fair, the peach trees blooming, and then that night of noise and worse, in our church. Their funeral bell ushered in Christmas with such a racket (not a good bell, actually, and I always suspected iron in it) you would call it merry. Context is all, and changes the voice of any bell.

Outside the big river was there as always, alarming and reassuring at once, somewhat like Christmas that celebrates the intrusion of radiance and force from another world into a world of cold bayous and cold Jeeps, of kids without firecrackers and soldiers without arms.

Going home the sky was black but all the way you heard kids with firecrackers, annunciatory volleys over ox and stable. Angels sing on.