We would load it on a horse drawn sled and drag
it home, trim the bottom and set it up in the tree holder. Then we would
have hot chocolate, and string popcorn to use in decorating the tree.
Mom and Dad would do most of the decorating and I would mainly watch,
although now and then I would hang an ornament.
Eventually, my Dad's health failed,
we lost both farms, and moved into the little country town nearby. It
was a tough adjustment for me because I was used to living mostly in
the wild, by myself, as an only child. My dog and I spent hours and
hours alone in the hilly Kentucky fields and woods of the farm. Now,
suddenly, it was all gone and I was stuck in the big (to me!) city.
But, eventually I adjusted, made
friends, and Christmas was still a wonderful time of year. And I found
that the kids on my street also liked to spend hours and hours roaming
the fields, hills, hollows and woods of the area.
I found, in my new environment,
the job of cutting a Christmas tree and bringing it home fell to the
kids of the families. And we made a grand to-do of the thing! We usually
went in a group of about six or eight; we each took our dogs along,
we each carried snacks, an ax or small saw, and a rope to drag the tree
home. We bundled up to our ears to protect us from the cold and headed
out into the snow-covered wilderness to find the perfect tree. We all
lived in smaller houses with eight foot high ceilings so, naturally,
we all looked for twelve foot high trees.
Bears and wolves hadn't lived in
our area for a century, but we still kept on guard for the odd angry
bear, or the ravaging wolf-pack. We had no real concept of boundaries
so one farm melded into another and, as far as we were concerned, it
was all one large, untamed wilderness full of danger and adventure.
All the horses we encountered were wild and all cattle were buffaloes.
A rarer but always exciting event
would be the discovery of an Arctic Owl that had been blown south by
the winter winds. Big and beautiful, white with just the faintest gray
markings on the wings and head, these were the ghosts of winter. Upon
sighting one, we would freeze in place, all talk would stop except for
excited whispers, and we would speculate on just how far away the fellow's
home might be. Perhaps he came all the way from the North Pole, or Canada,
or Alaska . . . places that seemed so far distant to us that they were
almost in the realm of fairytale land. They were just too far away for
the young mind to comprehend. Seeing one of those owls was like seeing
a fairy. A time for awe and excitement. Then the owl would move, or
fly silently away, the spell would be broken, and it would be back to
the adventure of searching for the ultimate tree.
Once we tried to build an igloo.
But, of course, it takes a special kind of snow to make one and we hadn't
a clue about that. So, we learned if we made a huge pile of snow as
high as possible (we usually managed about 5 feet), tunneled into the
side of it and hollowed it out from the inside, it made a fairly passable
shelter from the wind. We also knew about making a small hole in the
top so smoke from a fire would go out and up. It worked well, as long
as we didn't let the fire get too big. We learned the hard way that
a big fire would melt the snow and the whole shebang would come down
on our heads which would send us into fits of laughing, sputtering,
and swearing, and things that would have given our parents heart failure,
had they known.
Eventually, we would get down to
the serious business of getting a tree and then we would often have
to drag the thing 5 or 6 miles across creeks, up hills, over fields,
and down streets to our respective houses. But what fun! And how proud
we felt when we showed our parents our beautiful tree! Never mind the
fact that there were almost always protests about the tree being too
big and too tall which always ended with a foot or two having to be
whacked from the bottom of the hapless tree, which had only committed
the sin of growing where we could find it. But in the end, it all worked
out, the trees were decorated, and some presents were put under from
aunt so and so, or cousin so and so. For the rest of the gifts we had
to wait in excruciating anticipation for Santa Claus to visit on Christmas
Our house was, in reality, as close
to being a little shack as it could be and still be considered a house.
We had four rooms, no indoor plumbing, no heated water. The house was
warmed by a Warm Morning brand coal stove. During the day a fire roared
inside but, at night, the flue was nearly closed and the fire banked
down to a pile of hot, glowing embers. I kept warm in bed by piling
old coats on myself. Of course, I was the first one up on Christmas
morning, and the house was as cold as a well digger's nose, but the
wondrous smell of fresh cedar permeated the air. The icy air didn't
deter me, though, and I made sure to create enough noise to awaken mom
and dad. Mom would rush around and make hot coffee while Dad stoked
the fire. Soon, with the combination of hot coffee heating us and the
stove heating the house, we would be warm and ready to tear into the
presents. It wasn't until years and years passed, and I had a child
of my own, that I really understood how much my parents must have struggled
to make sure I had presents for Christmas.
Then there was the luscious, wonderful,
homemade candy that my mother almost miraculously produced each Christmas
season. My paternal grandmother had been an excellent cook and candy
maker, and she had taught my mom the secrets of making little tidbits
of heavenly delight. My mother and my Aunt Edith operated a candy store
for several years. My mom used that experience to make cream candies
that seemed almost as dainty and diaphanous to the mouth as a silk nightie
to a lumberjack. They were inch thick rounds, about the diameter of
a quarter, coated with bittersweet chocolate which gave just the right
contrast to the flaky, sweet cream hiding inside.
Christmas dinner was always highly
anticipated. My mother's kitchen was old fashioned and small, but from
that place came the most delightful concoctions, and she did not fail
us on Christmas Day. Sometimes only my Dad and I were in attendance
at dinner, other times my sister and her boyfriend, my other sister
and her husband, my two nieces, my brother and his wife, and other folks
dropped by and it was a dinner of epic proportions. Roast Turkey with
dressing and gravy, baked ham (often Country Ham), mashed potatoes,
candied yams, green beans, peas, corn, fruit salad, pickled cucumbers
and onions, Vanilla Cream Pie, Blackberry Cobbler and Sweet Potato Pie.
And, of course, my mother's famous, mile-high, potato dinner rolls from
the secret recipe. I have seen three or four dozen of those rolls disappear
in one sitting.
When we lost our farms and moved
into town, my Dad was unable to work. My mom worked as a waitress earning
the grand sum of $25.00 per week that, even in those days, was a paltry
sum. Money was tight and we lived in a little shack with no indoor plumbing
or heated water. We were dirt poor.
But, my parents kept struggling
to make ends meet and provide a home and they did surprisingly well
considering their circumstances. And Southern Christmas dinners were
so grand, so elegant, so profusely filled with good food, good company,
and laughter that I was for a while in fact, far richer than many of
those with lots of money often are.
My parents are long gone now, and
people don't cut their own trees much anymore. Instead of air rifles
and fire trucks and cap pistols, kids now opt for designer clothes,
video games and computers. Kids form street gangs instead of forming
groups to hunt cedar trees and imaginary bears, wolves, and bison. We
live next door to people never knowing their names, and we pass each
other on the streets, alone and oblivious to the swarming humanity around
But Christmas is, and will always
be, special. Not because it is a religious holiday, although I think
that is a good thing, but because it became special in our childhoods
and the memories of the people, the times, the excitement and smells
of the tree, candy, and Christmas Dinner and the bittersweet memories
of loved ones and times gone by, are sealed in our hearts forever. My
memories are of a Southern Christmas, but the day is the same everywhere.
And it is still special because
Christmas seems to bring people and families together in harmony and
love. So, whomever you are, and where ever you are, I wish you all the
fond memories and joys of a very, very Merry Christmas indeed!