Column – Christmas spirit endures, including Gus’ milk punch

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, December 20, 2022

I believe in Santa Claus, and always have.

Not the jolly old elf who slides down the chimney and takes time to eat cookies before soaring through the sky to repeat that performance millions of times in a brief few hours. That Santa is irrevocably a part of the Christmas we have built, and I don’t find fault with him. He fulfills an important role in children’s lives and, for that matter, the lives of parents and grandparents who help perpetuate the multiple myths surrounding him.

No, the Santa that I believe will continue to survive, even in the midst of our materialism, is the spirit of giving that lies at the heart of Christmas. For Christians, Santa’s sack of toys is nothing compared to the gift that God bestowed on mankind through the birth of Jesus. For believers, that gift — God’s “only begotten son” — offers redemption from sin and eternal life.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The biblical story of the nativity is replete with gift-giving by mankind as well as by God. I’ve always felt the innkeeper who is often viewed as uncaring for relegating Joseph and Mary to a stable was actually a very kind person who assisted a young couple in desperate need of shelter.

Then, of course, there are history’s most notable gift-bearers, the magi, the “wise men” from the east who followed God’s sign to the stable in Bethlehem, bringing incense, gold and myrrh to symbolize Jesus’ majesty, godliness and humanity.

As generations sought ways to celebrate God’s ultimate gift of love, the purest expression they could find was the giving of gifts to those in need, and that idea found permanence in a third century monk named Nicholas.

Nicholas was a devout Christian who inherited considerable wealth from his parents, who died when he was quite young. He accepted Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He did just that and spent his life offering aid to the needy, the sick and suffering, and was especially kind to children. The church later declared him to be Saint Nicholas.

The spirit of Saint Nicholas is alive and well in our community. The numerous toy, food and clothing drives sponsored by local churches and civic organizations seem to grow stronger every year.

And the outreach isn’t confined to Christmas. If you want evidence of what’s best in our community, drop by the Christian Outreach Program’s headquarters any Monday, Wednesday or Friday and watch what goes on there. You’ll find dozens of volunteers preparing food for more than 500 needy Isle of Wight families. They also provide books for children to help give them a better start in life, disposable diapers for infants and elderly, and furnishings for people trying to better themselves on a shoestring.

Yes, Santa Claus will undoubtedly visit this week, but his spirit is with us year-round, and we are far better for it.

(Full disclosure: John Edwards is a member of the Board of COP.)


A local tradition

On a lighter note: The Twins Olde Town Café was one of Smithfield’s most prized institutions. It was operated for more than three decades by twin sisters Martha and Alice Whitley, their mother and their sister Dean Greer, and was the gathering place for generations of coffee drinkers before it closed in 2008.

One of the most cherished memories of former customers was the twins’ annual Christmas party. It was an informal affair. Somebody would donate a country ham that the twins cooked and used to make small, very tasty ham croissants. They were offered free to all comers. Twins regulars — and some not-so-regulars — beat a path to the door on that day each December.

Included in that annual event were two lightly mixed drinks, which weren’t legal because the Twins didn’t have a liquor license, but were quietly accepted as a minor infraction in tune with the season.

The late Bob Clay, a longtime daily Twins patron, brought a jug of Bloody Mary for those who wanted a taste of something other than coffee.

The star of the event, though, was the late J.A. “Gus” Barlow. Gus would arrive with a loud “Ho, Ho, Ho” wearing a wool Christmas tie that was so moth-eaten it looked as though it would fall from around his neck. He brought with him a gallon of his famous milk punch. Gus had grown up on the Barlow family dairy farm that is now the Cypress Creek development, and said the punch was a favorite Christmas treat back in the day.

Gus died in 2018, but several years prior to his death, he gave the recipe for his punch to Mac Cofer, who is also now deceased. Mac passed it on to me, and I am delighted to circulate it herewith to Short Rows readers, complete with Gus’s tongue-in-cheek instructions for mixing it.

The recipe is quite simple. It calls for three quarts of milk, a fifth of bourbon (Gus specified Jim Beam) and “about a half cup” of sugar, added to suit your taste.

The three ingredients are mixed cold and then stirred “for about an hour” to ensure that the sugar is fully dissolved.

Gus strongly suggested that you “taste as you go. It makes the time pass faster.”

So, here’s to Gus, Mac, Bob, The Twins and everybody else who helped build a legend in a tiny café on Main Street. A cup of milk punch to all.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is