A remembered Christmas: The tree, the dinner, the love
By Bill Shepard
I remember Christmas! Doesn’t everyone? It is the time of year when the old become young, even if only in spirit and memory. The tinkle of a silver bell, the glisten of mistletoe or the red ball of holly, each hold the power to set the mind in motion and turn back the clock of time. The path traveled does not have to lead to finery or renown but to a place on memory lane that holds valuable jewels of yesteryear, memory and Christmas. I remember Christmas! A time and a spirit shared with two older brothers, two younger sisters and loving parents. In those Christmases of long ago, we had the best that poverty could afford – a glowing fire in the fireplace, the warmth of love that filled the small house, and the thrill of knowing that everyone was loved. I think the best thing about Christmas in those days was not what we would receive, but what we would do. Excitement filled the atmosphere around us, as preparation was being made for the one-time-a-year special day. This excitement usually started at school and in the merchants’ stores as the latter began to display their merchandise (nothing like what we see today, but different than what we had seen all year). The teachers in the small red brick schoolhouse began to arrange their bulletin boards, depicting the time of year. In the stores, hard candies would make their appearance for the first time since last Christmas. The oranges and apples and nuts that disappeared last year would suddenly reappear in the windows to make our mouths water, as we hungrily looked at them. The Sunday school attendance in all the Village churches would show a remarkable increase as those whose names were found on the rolls at Christmas would receive a large bag of fruit on Christmas Day. My name would always appear on at least one church roll and if there was an afternoon Sunday school available, it was usually found there too. There were no artificial trees in those days, so every family would have one from the forest nearby. I think going to the forest to look for a Christmas tree provided more fun than what we found under the tree on Christmas morning. Often the older boys of the village would cut trees to sell to those who could afford to buy them. Of course, we never paid the landowner for the trees we cut, so the 25 cents that was usually charged for the tree was all profit. Finding the right size and right-shaped tree was difficult. Often, we would cut several before we finally decided on the one we liked best. Cedar trees were hard to find, especially one that was shaped just right, so we usually settled by cutting the top from a larger pine tree. Once the tree had been decided upon by all members involved, it was taken home, nailed to a crude board for a stand and was placed in front of the window. A small string of lights held over from last year would be stretched across the part of the tree facing the window. The rest of the decorations consisted of Christmas cards from last year that were received from more well-to-do relatives from away. Oh, the fun that was ours as we stood in the small street in front of the house and shared our tree with all the boys and girls in the Village who would come to see it. I recall the last tree my father erected in the old house. I remember how humble it looked and the feeling that crept over me, as I first laid eyes on it. It was in keeping with tradition. “There must be a tree,” he said to my mother and so there was. He had gone to the forest and unable to find the tree he wanted, he cut some cedar branches and tied them together to look like a tree and then decorated it. Mother said that Dad had said he couldn’t stand to see Christmas come and go and not have a tree in the house for the grandchildren who would be coming. One of the things joyously anticipated by the boys was the big bonfire built in the open field on Christmas Eve night. For days, all the boys of the Village would gather cornstalks from the fields and wood from the forest so that by Christmas Eve there would be a supply that would last all night. This was one of the few occasions we could stay up all night. The money we had earned from chores such as cutting wood, selling yard brooms and Christmas trees had been spent for firecrackers and sparklers. Now and then some of the older boys would have a few cherry bombs. These were the loudest of all and considered too unsafe for the smaller children. As darkness began to fall, the fire would be lit and boys from all over the village would start gathering in, all bringing their arsenal to be used later. Sometimes there would be sweet potato roastings, especially if there was a field nearby. All through the night we would sit by the fire, sing songs, tell jokes and occasionally an older person seeing the fire would come down and sit for a while. We always enjoyed having an older person come by; they usually added a little more excitement to what was going on. Looking back, wonder if they regretted that they could not be young again and join the childish fun we were having. Along about daybreak, the excitement would really begin. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. When first streaks of dawn would appear, we would all spread out over the Village like a blanket of fog, popping firecrackers on all the porches as we passed by. The bang-bang of the firecrackers, accented now and then with the boom-boom of a cherry bomb, and soon lights were coming on all over the Village. There would be no going back to bed after this; it would be a long day. In our house after Mom and Dad had shared the delight of watching us children get acquainted with our new toys which usually did not consist of very much, Mother would go to the kitchen and fire up the big stove and Christmas dinner was on the way. Dad would go to the smoke house and soon return with a big ham or piece of backbone from the last hog killed. In a little while, the kitchen would really have that Christmasy smell! There would be a feast like we had not had for a long time, and it would be a long time before we would have another. By noon, we would have all tired ourselves down and worked up an appetite of a horse, so that when the call was made, “Dinner is ready,” we would not have to have a second call. Gathering around the big table, Dad would say the blessing over the food, and we would all dive in to satisfy our appetites. There would be plenty, and we knew how to enjoy it. There would be many days that I would look back upon this day, but once it was gone, it wouldn’t return until next Christmas. Yes, I remember Christmas, doesn’t everyone?