If the spirit of Christmas embraces things such as love of family, togetherness, warm feelings, goodness, excitement, and faith, then my late mother was the quintessence of that spirit. Many adjectives seem appropriate when describing her love of life in general as well as the Yuletide season in particular, but to me none is more fitting that the word merry. She always had a sparkle in her eyes, breathless excitement in her being when even the most ordinary of holiday undertakings were in progress, and she constantly exuded joie de vivre.
She was merriment personified, and a goodly portion of her holiday joy found an outlet in celebrating the Yuletide season through staunchly clinging to hallowed traditions associated with decorating, food preparation, religious observances, and various ways of expressing wishes of the season. She would readily have gloried in wearing the mantle of being described as “old fashioned” at any time, and when it came to celebrating Christmas, her adherence to tradition rose to the level of pure passion.
As youngsters, my siblings and I were all in with Mom’s Christmas activities. Then there came a period in life where I tended to dismiss her enthusiasm as hopelessly outdated or something that fell a bit beneath my adult dignity. Advancing age, however, has shown me the manifest error of such thinking, and annually as Christmas approaches, a wonderful fit of nostalgia seizes a corner of my soul. I now realize that being old fashioned when it comes to this holiday is in truth never out of fashion, and with that in mind what follows are some thoughts on bringing yesteryear’s Yuletide joys to today’s world.
Although anticipation verging on sheer anxiety and unbridled excitement associated with gifts may no longer stir your innermost being or mine, fond memories associated with the season can warm one’s thoughts like a crackling hardwood fire on a bitterly cold day. Never mind the myriad worries, problems, and changing perspectives associated with realities such as earning a living, the strife of today’s world, or advancing age — Christmas traditions can and should be a magical, if temporary, Fountain of Youth for one and all. It becomes a period of a fortnight or so when the child hidden in all of us resurfaces and we are marvelously rejuvenated. Resurrection of those halcyon days of past Christmases can ring through memory’s corridors with the clarity and charm of a church bell pealing out on a still winter’s morning.
For many, arguably no Christmas memories are more powerful and poignant than the delights of what might be styled a “natural Christmas” — use of materials from the wilds for decorative purposes. My mother was frugal to a fault, and doubtless that partly explained her insistence on extensive use of materials from the natural world. After all, they were free. But she also realized that decorations using evergreen boughs, vines, berries, mistletoe, and the like had a beauty far transcending artificial “store-bought stuff.” They smelled wonderful, looked good, and immediately dispelled any thoughts of gaudiness or artificiality. Even the simple effort involved in gathering the materials had a special appeal.
For us, decorating always began with the family Christmas tree. In today’s world, obtaining a tree involves stopping at a store, viewing cut trees in a vacant lot, or retrieving an artificial one stored in the attic. Even choosing and cutting your own means nothing more than going to a nearby Christmas tree farm and wandering until spotting a tree that strikes the family’s fancy. By way of striking contrast, during my boyhood virtually everyone cut their own tree, and it didn’t come from carefully planted and pruned rows.
Our search for the perfect tree began at Thanksgiving — the opening day of rabbit hunting season. As we walked through likely cottontail habitat with our beagles, Daddy and I gave every promising tree a visual “once-over.” Those with potential would be filed away in our minds as “possibles” come tree-cutting time weeks down the road. On that grand day, always a Sunday afternoon a week to 10 days before Christmas, the entire family piled in the car and headed out. For my siblings and me there was great excitement, while Momma, whose perspective on anything and everything connected with Christmas matched the eagerness, anticipation, and joy of an 8-year-old, fell right into the spirit of things.
Along with tree cutting, mistletoe was a must. That proved a boon for me, thanks to the preferred process involved in obtaining it. In some places mistletoe grows low and can be gathered by the sack full with ease. Take a winter canoe trip down a Lowcountry river, and you’ll see big bunches of the leathery green parasite, loaded with waxy white berries, adorning trees. Along these waterways you can gather enough for a major outbreak of kissing fever in no time at all. Where I grew up, on the other hand, mistletoe was comparatively scarce. When you found a hardwood bedecked with clumps, they invariably would be high up in the tree. Yet that inaccessibility presented precisely the sort of challenge an adventurous teenager welcomed.
Basically, mistletoe could be procured three ways. Occasionally it was possible, provided one had sufficient agility coupled with a virtual absence of fear and common sense, to climb the tree. A second method was to throw rocks or sticks at the clumps of greenery. My favorite tactic, however, involved shooting it down with a .22 rifle. That required expert marksmanship, but the challenge was all part of the fun. How fondly I recall Momma’s pleasure when I came home bearing a nice batch of mistletoe. She would make over the fresh greenery as if it were equivalent to gifts of the Magi, adorn it with red ribbon, and immediately set about hanging it in likely places throughout the house.
Another decorative material Mom always welcomed was tips of limbs from honey locust trees. She disarmed the plentiful thorns by tipping them with colorful gum drops, thereby making an unusual, attractive eye-catcher. If a few gum drops mysteriously vanished thanks to depredations of greedy-gut youngsters, she quietly replaced them. In keeping with the season’s good will, she never complained about missing candy.
Mistletoe and gum drop trees were simple, elegant, and required little time, but some other Yuletide favorites required considerable effort. Prime examples included wreathes and table centerpieces made from natural materials such as hazelnuts still in the husk; cones from hemlocks, various species of pines, and other evergreens; sweetgum and sycamore balls; milkweed pods; old wasp nests; small bird nests, and the like, all applied to a wooden base with careful use of a glue gun.
Sycamore and sweetgum balls could be dipped in a flour-and-water mixture and then dried to give them a miniature snowball-like appearance or spray-painted silver or gold. Another approach focused on decorations fashioned exclusively from nuts — hazelnuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, butternuts, and chinquapins. For visual variation, Mom always included some hickory nuts and acorns still in partially opened hulls.
In keeping with the Christmas colors, the female form of holly with its bright red berries was invariably an important part of Christmas decorating. It was fashioned into door hangings, used as edging around doors and windows, spread atop mantels, featured in tandem with candles, and more. Looking for a berry-laden tree was a standard sidelight to the search for a perfect Christmas tree.
Cedar was another widely used evergreen. Cutting cedar branches adorned with plenty of small blue-green berries, then partnering them with holly, pyracantha, nandina, bittersweet, or other berry-laden plants was another means of turning to nature at Christmas. Mind you, Daddy wanted no part of cedars as our Christmas tree. Their shapeliness notwithstanding, he maintained that dealing with them during the decoration process, given the way they stuck and pricked the skin, wasn’t worth the trouble. On the other hand, he readily acknowledged that using cedar for other decorative purposes brought a pleasing aroma to the house.
Making garlands of popcorn for the family tree using corn we had grown, shucked, shelled, and popped was another seasonal ritual. It provided double fun because some of the popped kernels would be salted and buttered or blended with molasses to make popcorn balls. Never did finger-licking seem more enjoyable than during this marvelously messy process.
Frequently, nonedible parts of game animals were fashioned into wall hangings or centerpieces for the festive holiday table. While the necessary materials weren’t available in my youth, great conservation comeback stories have changed things on this front. Deer antlers blended with greenery can be lovely, and the same is true of a pair of wild turkey fans partnered with greenery as a dining table centerpiece. Wall or door hangings featuring intermingled sheds, feathers, white-tailed deer tails, honey locust pods, and the like are another possibility.
The overarching point of all this is a reminder that two or three generations ago, folks turned straight to nature’s rich bounty when preparing for Christmas. The end result was simple beauty and seasonal connection with the good Earth. That link to the outdoors was an integral, important part of life throughout the year, so it was only appropriate that it figured prominently in Christmas celebrations.
Consider putting some of the past in Christmas present. Decorative touches are but one of numerous options. Foodstuffs, for example, cry out for attention. In my family, a December without three or four of Mom’s applesauce cakes, made the weekend after Thanksgiving and tucked away in a cold room to be anointed weekly with a few dollops of apple juice while flavors mixed and married in a magical way, would have been unthinkable. Every family likely has similarly revered dishes, and they can become a part of the annual celebration. So too can special religious activities, singing, hosting a party or open house, and much more. Give some thought to what has been especially meaningful to you and yours over the years, and you have a running start on creating your own enduring and endearing version of an old-fashioned Christmas.
My brother and his wife have added a delightful wrinkle to their annual family celebration of Christmas, one which likely will grow and strengthen over time as it is embraced by their children and grandchildren. Each year, a few days before Christmas, they take a woodland stroll and gather any materials that happen to catch their eyes as they wander. Using these items, usually 25 to 30 different types of vegetation collected with an eye to color, shape, or being a bit unusual, they craft a vegetative cross atop a wood frame. It is a practice redolent of reverence and respect for the bounty of the land that reflects the deepest meaning of the season. It is also something our mother would have loved.
Much of what they gather, and it varies appreciably from year to year, is commonplace — broom sedge, ragweed, sumac berries, fallen leaves, cones from conifers, and the like. With modest effort backed by a good dose of creativity, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Their invigorating walk in the woods gathering nature’s offerings and rending from them a lovely seasonal symbol has become a tradition. It also offers, in English poet John Keats’ words, “a thing of beauty” that becomes, first through display and then through photos, “a joy forever.” Perhaps their experience will inspire others to do something similar or find their own distinctive way to celebrate Christmas through nature.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who is the author of some 20 books and the editor and compiler of many more. His latest work is Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir.