By Jeanne Shannon © 2015
Online: March, 2015
Memories of a Christmas season in Dickenson County, Virginia.
First day of December. Anemic sunlight on the barren fields. Cold breezes rustle the fodder shocks. Early, early, the stars appear, and the moon; Dickenson County, Virginia, early in the 1940s.
Not long after breakfast one day in the first week of December I go with Daddy to find a Christmas tree. He hitches Molly to the corn sled. She stamps and snorts; her breath is steam. I carry Nancy, my favorite doll, and climb into the sled. Daddy rides Molly as she pulls the sled down the path by the lower barn, into the woods, and through the creek at its shallowest spot. White Oak Creek is its proper name, but we always called it "the creek." Holly bushes along the creek are glistening with red berries. We go on into the deeper woods below the graveyard, where Granny's parents and some of her brothers are buried. Their tombstones glint in the frosty sunlight.
Black pine. Spruce. Hemlock. Green among the bare branches of oaks and maples and alders. Daddy cuts a young spruce (at least that's what we called it; I think now that it was properly called a hemlock) and loads it into the sled. I ride home beside it, burying my face in its evergreen fragrance.
At home we set the tree up in the front room by the window that looks west that sees the sky turn orange, gold at sunset that sees the sign that marks the county boundary line. The other side of that sign is Wise County, where my mother is from, where her relatives still live.
Ropes of gold and silver tinsel, icicles, a big silver star that Momma has made. And three metal ornaments, flat circles with scalloped edges that make them seem like many-petal flowers – roses; one silver, one bronze-gold, and one a shimmering, glowing red. The red rose is my favorite.
Momma teaches me the words to "Away in a Manger." She had written out the words on a sheet of lined notebook paper and taught them to her pupils in the one-room school at Osborne's Gap. Now she pins the sheet of paper to the wall beside the Christmas tree, and every day I study it. Jesus as a little baby with a "sweet head" asleep in the hay is very different from the Jesus who always seemed to be nailed to the cross or preaching a depressing sermon in Sunday school lessons.
Earlier that month, Momma had looked through the Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs and ordered the Christmas treats she would give her pupils; a custom that all the teachers in the country schools observed. She sent for a zinc peck bucket full of hard candies—red, green, orange, and peppermint-striped. Somewhere, maybe from the catalog, maybe from Milburn Swindall, the local storekeeper, she got a supply of little paper bags ("pokes," we called them). When the candy arrived she and Daddy spent an evening sitting by the popping fire and carefully measuring out a portion for each child and putting it into a poke.
On another evening they studied the plays in Momma's teachers' magazines, The Normal Instructor and The Grade Teacher, and decided on one to present in the school's Christmas program. I always read the plays in those magazines, and I like the one they picked out. It's about a little boy who played a bugle to serenade the Baby Jesus.
It's the last afternoon of school before Christmas. I am at Osborne's Gap School, wearing my red corduroy jacket and pants. I don't go to school; Daddy teaches me at home, but he has brought me to see the Christmas Program. The play begins. The curtain is a white sheet draped over a clothesline. At the end of the play, the children sing "Away in a Manger" and "Silent Night." One of the seventh-grade girls is dressed in a red Santa Claus outfit and gives out the pokes of candy to the pupils.
Before this, Daddy has gone to the Norland post office at Camp Creek to pick up the packages of Christmas presents from our relatives in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia; popcorn balls and fruitcake and boxes of chocolates; ties and socks and handkerchiefs and aprons. A jump rope and a toy xylophone for me, and a big picture book of "The Night Before Christmas," Santa riding in an indigo sky behind his reindeer, Dancer and Prancer and Dunder [Dunder was the name first used for Donner] and Blitzen and the others (that was before Rudolph of the red nose joined the team). Momma and Daddy had told me Santa Claus didn't exist, but I think I had figured that out before they mentioned it.
On his trip to the post office, Daddy had stopped at Milburn Swindall's store and bought oranges and bananas and Mello-Moon candy bars; this year even tangerines and English walnuts and pecans and big Brazil nuts.
The day before Christmas Daddy goes to the chicken yard and grabs a hen and chops her head off with an axe. She flops and flops around the yard, then lies still. I hate the sight of that, but can never keep from watching when Daddy kills a chicken.
Granny and Momma pick her feathers off—probably they were checkered "dommer hen" feathers, for we had more "dommers" (Domineckers) than any other kind of chicken. They put pieces of paper into the fire in the cook stove to make a high flame, and hold the naked chicken body over the fire to "swinge" it—to singe off the pinfeathers. They boil the chicken and make dumplings. We eat it at noon on Christmas day, with cooked cushaw squash and home-canned green beans and pickled beets and several other vegetables.
Sometimes Momma would dip pickled corn out of the crock and heat it for special meals like this. Desserts are apple pie and chocolate pie that Momma made, and stack cake (gingerbread with apple sauce between the layers) that was Granny's specialty.
Years go by and we are living in a different place, in Wise County, surrounded by Momma's relatives. I am in high school now. Still the Christmas tree is decorated with the same ropes of tinsel, the same metallic ornaments with their scalloped edges, and my favorite is still the one that is like a red rose. I sit in the evening and watch it slowly turn in the little breezes from the Warm Morning heater in the living room (our new home does not have a fireplace). The light plays on it, and no fire, no light, has ever seemed warmer.
Sometime in the 1950's, Momma bought new ornaments, including little red bells with horizontal stripes. Somewhere along the way the metallic roses were lost. Maybe Momma gave them away to relatives—she loved to give more than to receive. I still have the striped bells, and when I put them on my tree in New Mexico I remember that my mother touched them. But nothing can replace that crimson, glowing rose of early childhood. I ponder the possibility, the hope, that in some other dimension, some place beyond space and time, I will see it blooming on the branches of a hemlock from the deep woods along White Oak Creek.