Are there readers left who are weary of plastic greenery and wire-and-bristle conifers decking the halls? Are any tired of fake fruit on even historic house tables? Does anyone still long for the scent of cedar boughs and “ditch-bank” cedar Christmas trees? Most folks growing up in central South Carolina 60 or more years ago would never imagine anything but the native fresh-cut Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) used for a tree, bringing with it the fresh smell of the outdoors from the broom sage fields where it was cut.
Do any still crave smilax garlands hanging over doors and decorating the portrait of great-great-granddad hanging over the mantel, above a roaring fire lit by the remnants of last year’s Yule log? In the present time of screen addiction, perhaps a few still remember lovingly and longingly a more relaxed and less strenuous Christmas before it became “store-bought” and “store-marketed.” More fireplaces existed then and less central heat, with more gatherings around that lit hearth than before a lit screen.
Might there be any readers who think there are just too many artificial lights, recalling a time when a single candle in a window perhaps stood out just as much? After all, there is something atavistic and symbolic in a solitary light in a sea of darkness. In today’s light-polluted city sky, poor Martin Luther would likely not have seen stars through bare winter branches to inspire creation of our first Christmas tree.
Sadly, those days of less makes more are gone for most and are not likely to return any time soon in this modernistic world. Fortunately, bygone days of classic Christmas tradition are preserved in the pages of books.
Almost everyone in the English-speaking world is familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. However, Dickens gives the reader a city of London Christmas, far removed from our Carolina experience. Few Carolinians know their own Carolina Christmas carols passed down by writers like Julia Peterkin and Archibald Rutledge — to name only two of many. Both of these writers preserved through the written word a time that was more rural, less rushed, and far less commercialized.
“Time Moves Slowly”
Julia Mood Peterkin was born in 1880 in Laurens County, a few miles from the Newberry County line. In 1929, the year that she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, she was living at Lang Syne Plantation near Fort Motte in Calhoun County. She was already bemoaning the fact that in the big outside world, “something has happened to Christmas” to change it “from a time of merriment and carefree gaiety” to a day that many dread. The “obligation to give presents,” she writes, is becoming a “nightmare” to weary souls. She concludes that the strenuous, forced effort to be happy “makes many honest hearts grow dark with despair instead of beaming with good will.”
In her A Plantation Christmas, she conveys her thankfulness to live in a place that was behind the times and had “remained from the beaten track of that thing we call progress.” At Lang Syne, unlike much of the rest of the world, “time moves slowly” and “we remain faithful to the old-fashioned ways.” These, she declares, must be defended against any force that “tends to destroy them or lessen their brightness.”
First of all, around her, “individuals are few, so each counts for much;” and “hours are long and quiet and time is abundant.” She then goes on to give what amounts to a Christmas rhapsody of the sights, sounds, and smells of a life lived on the land. She describes the Christmas cakes soaked with sweet homemade scuppernong wine and wrapped in oil paper to “ripen.” The details of the well-stocked pantry reveal a self-sufficient world of plenty even in the midst of the Great Depression. Sausage and long strings of red peppers hang in the smokehouse. Hogs fatten on acorns and on the peanuts, sweet potatoes, peas, and corn left in the fields when the crops are gathered. All eat well, and nothing is wasted. The sound of axes rings from the woods as the woodpiles grow in every backyard. The fragrance of boiling cane syrup rises up in the steam from the vats. The mills clatter as they grind grits and cornmeal. Sweet potatoes have been baked, hay stacked, and corn stored safely in the barn.
Broom sage is gathered before the frost for the next year’s supply of brooms. Some of these are bound with split oak to make welcomed Christmas presents. The country store stays open later than usual and people linger, “since printed words are scarce … spoken words are all the more precious.” Old tales are retold and present problems are “measured by old-fashioned wisdom.” In this world, “age has precedence” and children are trained to “listen quietly” to the wisdom passed on in the old stories and not to expect to be the center of things. Banjos and guitars “plucked by work-hardened fingers add music and encourage the singing and dancing.”
Peterkin goes on to describe getting Christmas trees and holly from the woods in days “golden with sunshine” and the earth “covered with acorns,” sharing that sometimes autumn was generous and allowed roses to bloom on Christmas among the fragrance of tea olives and late-flowering gardenias.
She recounts the hunters going out to the hunt and the mingling on the earth of the tracks of turkey, deer, bobcats, foxes, and raccoons. Since a “festival without feasting would be an empty thing,” the hunters provide a bounty of game to supplement the farm fare.
Her description of Christmas Eve is incomparable in the annals of literature: “As the first stars twinkle out, the whole world becomes radiant with a light which does not come from the sky, because once, long ago, the Star of Bethlehem shone just so above the manger where Christ Jesus was born. The fields lie quiet, the hills away over the river are folded with hazy blue, and the hearts of human beings beat softly because He who would heal the sick and raise the dead and make the sinful sinless was born on such a night.”
The “watchnight meeting” begins and cows are left unmilked with their calves because on Christmas Eve night all mothers, whether beast or woman, in churches or in stalls, “want their children close beside them when they kneel at midnight to pray to the great Father of us all.” The Christmas Eve service lasts all night long in Peterkin’s telling until the “morning star rides high in the sky and the Christmas sun rises shouting in the east.” Christmas spirituals are sung in the yard in the early morning.
Christmas lasts the week ahead. Every night brings invitations to “Christmas-tree parties” at both house and cabin. Plantation neighbors hold open house until New Year’s Day. Peterkin’s unforgettable memoir ends with the dying of the embers of the Christmas hickory backlog and her rejoicing that she is once again “spared to pause and wonder over that strange miracle we call life.”
Peterkin was the first Southerner and the only South Carolinian to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. She died at Lang Syne in 1961 and is today remembered in American literature for her truthful, non-stereotypical depictions of rural life. A Plantation Christmas remains her priceless Christmas gift.
“A Day of Frolic”
Perhaps South Carolina’s most well-known and best-loved author, Archibald Rutledge, also left a bounty of Christmas stories that brings less complicated and elemental holiday celebrations to life. Rutledge was born in McClellanville in 1883 and spent most of his life at the family plantation, Hampton, on the Santee River. Fortunately, the best of his writings on the holiday appeared as a collection in 2010 as Carolina Christmas published by the USC Press. In the introduction, Jim Casada notes that although the time of simpler days and ways is gone, reading Rutledge’s works is to visit a time and place of wonder.
Some of the anthology’s highlights are “My Christmas Birds and Trees” (1928), “My Winter Woods” (1919), “Christmas with My Colonel” (1936), and “A Wildwood Christmas” (1942). Perhaps the best is “A Plantation Christmas” (1921). This memoir recounts the holidays at Hampton when Rutledge was a boy; and, although it is written in prose, “A Plantation Christmas” is akin to poetry. Rutledge writes that the typical Christmas morning reveals “all the dim sweet plantation steeped in færie light … the golden broom sedge fringing the fields; the misty river rolling softly; the sleeping trees jeweled with dew; the uncertain pearly sky — all these have a magical look. A silvery silence holds the world divinely, in virginal beauty.” While Peterkin focuses more on the holiday’s social aspects, Rutledge’s great love is nature, the fields, woods, and waters of home during the season.
Rutledge notes that on the plantation, Christmas day itself is not associated in any way with church services, but is instead “a day of frolic” with loud and joyous celebrating. Firecrackers and rifle booms punctuate the day. There is always a deer hunt. He writes that on all the plantations that he knew, “deer hunting on Christmas day is as natural as a Christmas tree.” It begins with the hounds coming and waiting at the door for the hunters to finish big breakfasts of grits, venison sausage, cold wild turkey, and beaten biscuits with homemade orange marmalade.
Like the good host that he was, Rutledge writes that he hates to describe a meal without offering the meal itself. For the record, however, he recalls a typical plantation supper with “snowy pyramids of rice, brown sweet potatoes with the sugar oozing out of their jackets, wild turkey, venison, pork fattened on live-oak acorns, and pilau … a dinner by candlelight, even though the daylight lingers outside. Twilight falls as we come to the nuts and raisins.” Then the Christmas gathering forms “a great semicircle before the fire, and we rehunt the chases of that day, and of many of the long ago.” Present also are several of the older hounds who have the privilege of the dining room, and “their presence on the rug adds reality to our stories … Had they the power of speech, what they could tell us would be well worth the hearing.”
Watching over them all is a frieze of antlers on the wall, for no plantation home is without its collection. Rutledge recounts a custom rigorously adhered to that “no deer horns must ever leave the place.” Such a frieze in the dining room, he says, fills it “with woodland memories” and recalls the hunts, hunters, and hunted of long ago.
After the final tale around the fire long into the night, Rutledge wanders out on the great portico to think over what a glorious day it has been and to see the risen moon “casting a silvery glamour over the world.” Accompanied by certain great stars blazing, the live oaks shimmer softly and “the magic of the night is abroad.” He envisions the deer coming out of their coverts “delicately to roam the dim country of the darkness.” Joyous peace descends, “the peace of human hearts at Christmas,” for “beauty and love and home — these are of peace; these make that peace on earth that Christmas in the heart alone can bring.”
In the hands of this master, readers may relive an old-time Carolina Christmas and be transported back a century to the fragrant winter woods of an earlier time. Rutledge was a prolific writer of more than 50 books during his long life. He died at the age of 90 in 1973. South Carolina honored him as her first poet laureate, and his poetry was collected in 1960 and 1996 as Deep River — volumes well worth seeking.
Through the words of Peterkin and Rutledge, an old-time holiday, before it became “store-bought,” can be had simply for the reading — and a little thoughtful slowing down.
Dr. James Everett Kibler, Jr., keeps his traditional Christmas with a cedar tree cut from the fields of his Newberry County home.