Deck the halls with boughs of holly! And don’t forget the re-runs! Hope you enjoy this one of Christmas in a simpler time. Hope you’re having a magical season!
This is about the time of year that, for many years, my sister and I would take off for our long, once a year walk through the piney woods of the neighboring farm where we grew up in north Florida. Since I was six years younger and “the puny one”, my job would be to “lookout” for people–more specifically interfering grownups–while my sister scouted around looking for the perfectly shaped eastern red cedar to grace our living room for Christmas.
It wasn’t often that she included me in her adventures–that privilege was usually reserved for my brothers, nearer her age and older–so for several years it was one of the rare times I felt connected as a sibling. Most of the time, she had little use for a snot-nosed little sister who had come along and snatched away her notoriety as the only girl in the family. Naturally it was a highlight of my year, and even though there was a sense of urgency that kept my stomach in knots during those quick and yearly excursions, I didn’t call it stealing. I guess that’s exactly what it was.
Prior to these years, neither set of grandparents nor my family ever had Christmas trees as far as I can remember. And it wasn’t until my sister was old enough to take care of the details herself that we enjoyed one in our house. Even though my father was tight fisted with his money, if anyone could make him relent, it was me and she knew it.
So she would whisper to me what to beg him to buy the next time we were in our Uncle’s general store in Providence. That’s how we came to own one strand of exactly seven lights, and one box each of silver icicles and angel hair that we re-boxed and re-used every year. Our other decorations we made ourselves–from yarn-wrapped dried hickory pods or pinecones–and colored glass balls salvaged from used Christmas corsage available in McCrory’s dime store for around 50 cents.
Our neighbor planted white slash pines. They take about 30 years to reach saw-timber size, but trees should ideally be thinned out at an earlier stage and sold for use as pulpwood. On a good site, a well-stocked stand of slash pine can also produce about two cords of wood per acre per year. It was a good investment if you had a lot of land or didn’t like to do a lot of work, so there were acres of it growing in the two to three miles distance along a country road between our home and his.
There were also several big NO TRESPASSING signs posted along the way, but for some reason this was where all the best red cedar trees grew wild, scattered in an around the growing pines.
On the appointed day my big sister would take my hand in one hand and a handsaw held close to her front thigh in the other, and we’d sett off together on foot. To casual passers-by, we were just two sisters out for a walk on a Saturday afternoon. After we’d walked a distance where the trees began to grow thicker, we’d climb over a barbed wire fence, and disappear among the trees and begin to breathe a bit easier in our cover of foliage.
“There,” I’d say when I spotted my first cedar tree. Then, seeing another possibility, “No, there!” But my sister had her own idea of what constituted the perfect tree. When she found it, even if it was five- or six-feet tall or more–as it usually was–she would select the top 24 inches or so to saw off, leaving behind the carcass of a headless tree. She knew we couldn’t have managed getting a larger one back home. Even if we could have, we neither had lights, or icicles, nor angel hair enough to decorate it. She always had a penchant for insisting the smaller the tree, the prettier and more magical it looked.
Passing cars or trucks were usually few, and always far between along that country road, so we’d stand the tree upright against the barbed wire fence if we saw any coming into our view. We’d wave at whoever was driving by, and continue down the road after they were gone.
Once we were safely back home, we’d “root” the tree in wet sand in a small tub we used for washing feet. Then we’d set it on a small table in the middle of the living room window. Then we’d go to the barn and dig out the small but growing collection of Christmas decorations we hoarded from year to year to see what the rats had left intact. Being the oldest, of course my sister took control of the decorating. She put the lights on first, then she’d point to where I could hang each of the ornaments, and together we’d carefully drape the silver icicles evenly over the tree–until the very ends that were too short to drape. I’d fling those on and let them fall where they may. Decorations were far too sparse to leave any off. When everything else was done to perfection, my sister would pull the angel hair from its box, and stretch it very carefully so that it enshrouded the entire tree.
When she finished, we’d plug the lights into the wall socket, then wait for darkness to fall so we could go outside and see how it looked to anyone driving by. From outside, the lights were enveloped with tiny halos–very like those around the virgin Mary’s and Christ child’s head in nativity scenes. Every year for what seemed like my whole childhood, though on reflection I know it couldn’t have been so, she and I created this magic again and again.
Naturally, then, my sister is on my mind every year around this time, especially since she died of breast cancer in March of 1995. She was only 59 years old. For many years since then, I’ve tried to scheduled my yearly mammogram during the month of December. I like to think it’s what she would want me to do now that I have a tall plastic tree to decorate each year now that it’s practically impossible to steal trees anymore. And while it’s beautiful with the fancier decorations I’ve collected between the years passed and now, a part of me has to admit it that plastic Christmas tree doesn’t hold nearly as much magic as those tiny little trees of long ago.
I love this story of your childhood. I can almost feel the butterflies in your tummy as you went to capture your special tree.
Likewise, Grannymar. I’ll always remember that story about little Elly and the turbulent times in Ireland. I heard it first on an audio portion of your blog, and I knew then and there that Grannymar was very special. Have a lovely holiday.
I love this story — then again, I love all the stories of your childhood!!!!!
Funny how childhood and growing up seems so much easier looking back from this end of my life. Thanks for writing.
You are able to make those memories so clear. I wish we all knew times like that. We would be better for it to appreciate the simpler less commercial life style of those days. And not just at xmas but all year. Have a wonderful Holiday! sue
We try very hard, but it isn’t easy. Christmas really is all about the family and reunion and hope for the future for us. Thanks so much for your acknowledgement!
This is a beautiful story. The picture is magical all by itself.
Purses. I wear a backpack now that my hands are so funky. I took it off to get my debit card out, and I left it at the checkout stand. My brain is going faster than my hands. Darn it. So now I keep my thin wallet in a front pocket, I can leave the back pack on, and the debit card goes back in the pocket when I am done. Thanks so much for caring.
You know how to make me feel good, Mage. Thanks!
You have more than atoned for stealing Christmas trees. Your story is delightful. Walter has a stolen Christmas tree story which I will share with you. His father, Red, was a policeman in a local borough. On Christmas Eve, Red would drive to a closed Christmas tree lot and sort through the trees that were not bought because they were too dry, deformed or ugly. He’d select the best of the worst, toss it into his police cruiser and take it home. It wasn’t exactly a Charlie Brown tree, but it was close. Christmas is a yearly milestone, and we tend to remember this holiday clearly as we mature. Love those memories!
I take it Walter grew up in a depressed neighborhood too? Or was his father just a curmudgeon? You’re quite the storyteller yourself, or is it that you have weirder relatives than even I do? 😀
You’re a great story-teller. I love the images you bring to mind. Yours is a storybook childhood, at least for me: all strange and different, from my dour Jewish upbringing to the completely urban setting. Thank you for a great read.
Thanks Ruth. My writer friend Jim Peyton used to tell me that it was when my stories were about my family and the community where I grew up that my writing came to life. Must be that I was trying to make sense of it all. Isn’t that what we all do as we grow up and old?
What a beautiful rendering of a tender story. I couldn’t help but think of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” – that you can now view on You Tube, by the way. I have never seen it but I used to read parts of it to my 7th graders. If I were still in the classroom, I would ready your story to them instead. I love it.
I also love reading comments from your followers. They represent a delightful variety of cultures and viewpoints. I want to adopt them all. Merry/Happy Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a blessed New Year’s to you all.
Thanks so much, Ranae! The picture does lend a nice setting, don’t you think?