When Clay Aiken
returns to his boyhood home in Raleigh, N.C., for Christmas this year, mom Faye Parker will pull out all the usual stops: She'll whip up batches of cow patties (thin fudge-and-oatmeal cookies) and sausage balls (ground pork and cheddar cheese wrapped in Bisquick dough)—both southern traditions. She'll prepare a pre-Christmas dinner for 30 to 40 family members and close friends. And she'll ready the porcelain nativity scene for her son to arrange on the living room bookcase. "That's my favorite part of Christmas," says Aiken. "It has become a holiday that is more about Santa than Jesus. That's not how it should be." On the other hand, the 25-year-old singer did such a good job playing Santa last year, he'll have a hard time outdoing himself. Flush from his breakout album Measure of a Man, which sold 1.7 million copies in 2003, he surprised his mother by paying off the mortgage on her house. The occasion, however, was bittersweet: It was the first Christmas the family had celebrated since the 2002 death of Aiken's stepfather, Ray Parker, who raised him and his brother Brett, 18, a U.S. Marine. While Faye and Clay reminisce about past holidays with Ray (whom he called Dad), they laugh when recalling his attempts at decorating the front of their house. "We had to have the tackiest yard," Aiken says. Other memories include family taffy pulls, when "we would cook the taffy, then take it outside in the cold to pull it," Aiken says. "My mom almost ripped my arms off." Parker remembers things differently. "You weren't doing it right," she insists. "You needed to pull it hard, like a chain saw!" This year Aiken will ring in the season with a Christmas album, Merry Christmas with Love (the title track is a song he sang in high school choir), and his first book, Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life (Random House). "It's a collection of stories about people who have taught me something," he explains. "My mom always told me to pay attention to the lessons, whether they came from something bad or something good." Meanwhile, since buying his own house in Los Angeles this fall, Aiken has enlisted (who else!) his mother, a professional interior-design consultant, to help him decorate it. "I keep telling him not to buy everything now and to leave some things for me to get him for Christmas, " she says "Now he has so much money I don't know what to buy him."