Nov/Dec 2019Old-time ChristmasText by Jim Casada, Photos by Nancy Lee
Natural decorations can make your Yuletide traditions more meaningful.
Possibly, advancing age explains a portion of the nostalgia which seizes a corner of my soul every year around Christmastime. While boisterous anticipation verging on angst and unabat-ed excitement associated with gifts no longer stir me, fond memories of Yuletides past warm me like a cheery hardwood fire on a bitterly cold day.
One of our state’s most quotable writers, Havilah Babcock, understood the magic of harkening back to youth from a distance. "Boyhood," he wrote, “improves with age, and the more remote it is, the nicer boyhood seems to become.” Though December celebrations of my boyhood lie decades in the past, elements of those halcyon days ring through the halls of fond memory with the clarity and charm of a church bell on a still winter’s morning.
My recollections are as vibrant as they are varied, but none looms more meaningful than the delights of what might be styled a natural Christmas, which, for me at least, includes the use of materials from the wilds for decorative purposes. My mother, who had an exceptionally difficult childhood as well as reaching adulthood in the depths of the Great Depression, epitomized the spirit of the season. She loved giving and receiving gifts, and simply thinking about the culinary wonders she wrought for the celebratory feast sets my salivary glands into involuntary overdrive. Year after year, Mom would pronounce, sometime late in the day on December 25, "I believe this is the best Christmas ever."
She cherished every moment of the season — caroling, church activities, visits with extended family, rides about the countryside to look at displays, and cooking her myriad of Yuletide specialties. Nothing, though, provided her more pure pleasure than decorating. Frugal to a fault, she insisted on extensive use of materials from the natural world. Momma rightly felt that decorations from the wild, whether greenery, berries, mistletoe or numerous other items she used, had a beauty far transcending artificial “store-bought stuff.” Moreover, the materials employed in her decorative scheme enjoyed two additional virtues — they cost nothing but gumption, and gathering them fostered meaningful family togetherness.
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 from the attic. Even “real adventure” means going to a Christmas tree farm and wandering until spotting one which strikes the fancy. By way of striking contrast, during my boyhood virtually everyone cut their own tree.
Our family search for the perfect tree began at Thanksgiving — the opening of rabbit hunting season. 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. On that grand day, always a Sunday afternoon a week or two 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 eight-year-old, fell right into the spirit of things.
Yet tree-cutting was but one part of the decorating process. Mistletoe was a must, and it loomed large in Mom’s overall decorating scheme. That proved a boon for me, thanks to the 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 one tree after another. It will be at a height where you can ease a canoe under it and pick 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, and invariably when you found a hardwood bedecked with clumps, they would be high up in the tree. Far from that being a cause for dismay, inaccessibility presented precisely the challenge a teenager welcomed.
Basically, there were three ways to procure mistletoe. 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, more commonly employed because finding climbable mistletoe-bearing trees occurred infrequently, was to throw rocks or sticks at the clumps of greenery. Sticks with some heft and size were preferred as they increased the likelihood of producing satisfactory results.
Wreaths and Crosses from Nature
More than a decade ago my brother and his wife, on a whim, took a Christmas season woodlands walk near their home and, while strolling, gathered snips from a wide variety of plants which caught their eyes. Afterwards, they assembled the assorted vegetation to create a lovely wreath. The end result so pleased them that their wildwoods gleaning and subsequent decorative crafting became an annual tradition. In time though, thanks to listening to the Bluegrass Cardinals sing “From Cradle to Cross to Crown,” wreaths gave way to Christmas crosses.
Much of what they gather, and it varies appreciably each year, is commonplace — broom sedge, ragweed, sumac berries, leaves from hardwoods and more. With some effort and a good dose of creativity, however, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The 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” which becomes, first through display and then through photos, “a joy forever.” Perhaps their experience might inspire others to find distinctive ways to celebrate Christmas through nature.
NOTE: The frame for the cross is two pieces of one-by-two inch pine mitered to fit together flat. The materials can be stapled or glued to the frame.
My favorite tactic, however, involved shooting mistletoe. A .22 rifle in the right hands was perfect. It required expert marksmanship to cut away a nice bunch of mistletoe right where it joined a tree limb, but that challenge was no small part of the fun. The “sport” became even more delightful if three or four boys were involved, each trying to outdo the other in demonstrating shooting prowess.
My modest armory — a single-barrel Savage Model 220A shotgun, a well-worn Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and a slingshot — didn’t run to the luxury of a .22 rimfire. However, a good buddy owned one, and he was quite happy for all of us to take turns shooting so long as we sprung for our own ammunition.
When several of us got together, we would take turns shooting, tease one another about misses and brag about hits. I fondly recall Momma’s pleasure and her special knack for making me feel good when I came home bearing a nice batch of mistletoe. She would make over the fresh greenery as if it was equivalent to gifts of the Magi, decorate it with red ribbon, and hang mistletoe in likely places throughout the house.
Along with a plentitude of mistletoe, Mom always wanted several honey locust tree clippings. 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. On the other hand, other family favorites involved considerable effort. Prime examples included wreaths and table centerpieces made from natural materials such as hazelnuts still in the husk; cones from hemlocks; various species of pines and other evergreens; sweet gum and sycamore balls; milkweed pods; old wasp nests; small bird nests and the like, all applied to a wooden base with careful use of glue. Sycamore and sweet gum 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. All carefully crafted items of this type gave Momma great pleasure, always drew favorable comments from visitors and added appreciably to the overall festiveness of our home.
Yuletide Foods from the Natural World
Festive foods and bountiful meals figure prominently in my boyhood memories of Christmas. At the forefront of foods I loved were desserts featuring black walnuts from the wilds. Hard earned, what with gathering, drying, removing the hulls, cracking and painstakingly extracting the meats, walnuts made a wonderfully tasty difference and were worth every bit of effort they required.
One of my favorites was Momma’s applesauce cake. She always made them for Christmas during the Thanksgiving holiday. The ensuing month or so would see them stored in a cold area (usually the unheated downstairs bedroom) and periodically anointed with a few tablespoons of apple cider or a dollop of wine to keep them moist. This combination of aging and moisturizing produced a delectable cake which was soaked through and through with toothsome goodness. A slice literally glistened with moisture and tasted heavenly.
Momma’s Applesauce Cake
1 cup butter
2 cups sugar
4 cups flour
1/3 cup cocoa
4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons allspice
2 cups raisins
3 cups applesauce
2 cups black walnut meats
2 teaspoons vanilla
Pinch of salt
Cream butter and sugar. Add applesauce and remaining ingredients a small amount at a time, stirring by hand as you do so. Bake for 50 minutes to an hour at 350 degrees. Check with toothpick to see if cake is done (toothpick will come out dry).
Another approach to holiday decorations focused exclusively on 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. There were always plenty of black walnuts on hand waiting to be cracked, since they figured prominently in a number of scrumptious holiday desserts, while other types of nuts would be gathered throughout the fall whenever Momma took a “crafting notion.”
In keeping with the colors most prominently associated with Christmas, she-holly (holly comes in male and female forms) with its bright red berries was always an important part of Christmas decorating. It was fashioned into door hangings, used as edging around doors and windows, spread atop mantles, featured in tandem with candles and more. Looking for a berry-laden holly 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 these clippings 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 family tree. Although they often feature ideal shapes, he maintained that dealing with them, 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.
Running cedar (also known as ground cedar) likewise found its decorative place. This ground cover, found widely in woodlands, was easily gathered. It almost always occurred in large patches, sometimes covering a half acre or more.
Making garlands of popcorn for the family tree using popcorn we had grown, shucked, shelled and popped was yet 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. This was a marvelously messy process, and never did finger-licking seem more enjoyable. While snacking, you could string popped kernels with a needle and sewing thread.
Frequently, non-edible parts of game animals were fashioned into wall hangings or centerpieces for the festive holiday table. Deer antlers blended with greenery work quite nicely in this regard, and a pair of wild turkey fans placed end-to-end make a nice oval atop which to place holly or other berry-bearing greenery. Wall hangings featuring intermingled sheds, feathers, white-tailed deer tails, honey locust pods and the like were also possible.
The foregoing offers a mere sampling of natural items suitable for holiday decoration, and as these approaches suggest, two or three generations ago folks turned straight to nature’s rich bounty for much of their Christmas preparation. 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 the outdoors figured prominently in Christmas celebrations.