Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas with Grampa Mac

Grampa Mac watering the "young cattle"
circa 1957

Young Road after snow.
The short walk to Grampa Mac's farm.
Photo by Larry [my father] 1999

My grandfather's farm house

My Grampa Mac's holiday observances were homespun, simple.
Perhaps they were echos of rituals from happier years before my grandmother's too-early death
or invented simply to please me and my younger sisters.

Schools of the 1950's let out for Christmas vacation a good week or more before Christmas Eve, a sensible practice in a time when mothers stayed home and "kept house."
In winter there was a precious hour or two between noon dinner and the beginning of afternoon "chores, " time enough for Grampa, with me at his heels, to make a slow and deliberate way across the road, through the wooden gate and down the hill past the ice-clad pond. 
Beyond the plank bridge which crossed the  frozen brook we traversed an expanse of rough pasture.  It was low ground, bordered to the north with a bit of marsh and trodden into permanent hummocks by the feet of cattle.  The hummocks bristled with remnants of browned grass, crackled ice lay in the shallow depressions.
Grampa picked up the small wooden sled I had been towing and carried it dangling from a mittened paw until we reached the rounded hill below the "woods" of beech and maple.
Halfway up the hill path we stopped to take note of the spring in its fenced enclosure and to look back at the house and barns crouched quietly in the snowy landscape.
Our destination was the edge of the woods where ground pine trailed, shallow rooted, and easily harvested, coming free with shreds of darkly frozen maple leaves caught in its green whorls.
We needed enough greenery to create two wreaths, one for the white storm door on Grampa's front porch and one for my parents' small new house just along the road.
Grampa lifted lengths of the pine, cutting some of the stems to make sure that no patch was picked bare.  I handed him the shorter vines which I could pull  from the cold-stiffened earth.
We stumped along unhurried, noting the tracks of rabbit or fox, the little sled jouncing behind. 
The lengths of pine wound around Grampa's arm grew to a tidy bundle .

Our woods had none of the hemlock which grew thickly a few miles away, and there were only two pine trees.  Scattered here and there along the hillside and in the pasture were small irregular red cedar trees, prickly and aromatic.  Grampa cut two of these, one destined to be set up in the parlour and the second designated as "the cat's tree."
The small trees were lashed to the sled with lengths of baling twine and we began a slow descent around the face of the hill, following the "cowpath" down to the brook that narrowed as it reached the hollow below the sugar house.   My feet in their clumsy overshoes felt heavy and cold and I floundered in the deep snow that had drifted over the rutted track.
Grampa stopped, untied the cedar trees and motioned me to sit on the sled. When I had settled myself, legs stretched stiffly forward, he bundled the trees into my arms--fragrant, scratchy against my cold cheeks.
By the time he had hauled me as far as the stand of shagbark hickories I was restored and ready to tramp  at his side, through the thickets of prickly ash, along the rail fence, across the bend of the brook and up the hill where the farmhouse waited with its promise of warmth.
The dooryard and the barns were already swathed in blue shadows.  The shape of the round hill was blurring in the dusk as the sun slid behind the dark trees of the woods

photo from a web search for "trailing ground pine"

A day or two might pass before Grampa Mac announced that we would set up the trees and make the wreaths after evening chores.
On his way in from the barn he gathered up the lengths of trailing pine which had been heaped on the front porch and dumped them down on the livingroom floor near the wood burning stove.
Through out our leisurely supper the vines warmed and thawed, letting loose of the debris of frozen twigs and leaves, melted ice forming small puddles on the floor.
Grampa pushed aside the vines and did a cursory mop-up, reached down the Prince Albert tobacco canister which held lengths of saved string, neatly wound on cardboard tags.  Two coat hangers were bent to almost perfect circles and we began the slow process of winding and tieing the greenery. We had no styrofoam or straw wreath "forms", no glue gun. We had little in the way of skills suited to the task, but at the end of an hour we had two rounds of greenery, each topped with a lop-sided red plastic bow.
The two prickly cedars came in from the snowbank by the shed, each nailed to a wooden  stand.
My uncle Bill had produced the box of Christmas decorations which lived for most of the year in the spare room closet, contained in a large black box held together with twine.
The label on the box pictured a violently orange sun setting behind a field of snow and the firm black lettering proclaimed that it had once held "union suits" worthy to be worn in the frozen reaches of the far north.
The ornaments were old.  The strings of tinsel were fragile lengths of soft downy white, there were "icicles" fashioned of the same plush material.
There was a string of lights for the parlour tree and baubles whose bright colors were chipped.
The cat's tree, set up in front of the Larkin desk in the living room, was draped with paper chains and some small plastic bells.  The idea was that the cats who came and went should confine their curiosity to their own tree.

The Christmases of my childhood have melded into a  collage of school programs, of cookie baking, choir practice.
My grandfather's Christmas preparations took him no farther than a brief shopping trip to the local department store where he bought warm socks and gloves for everyone on his list.
My Christmas grew and expanded as the years added more activities and responsibilities, music to be learned and performed, gifts to make, meals to plan and prepare.
No memory is more cherished than those December afternoons when I trudged behind Grampa Mac to bring home a sled full of greenery for our home made Christmas.

Sinews of green in the stark December landscape,
Tangled threads unraveled from a dropped skein;
Tendrils which have wreathed the rough hillside
Beneath July sun, weathered autumn rains,
Now crisped with sugar-sparkle of snow.
Plucked up, wound like hanks of rope over my
grandfather's blue barn-frocked arm,
Piled in springy coils on a wooden sled.
Sinews of green twined about a bent coat hanger,
Red plastic bow perched like a captive cardinal.


  1. Simple, heartfelt and completely enthralling.

    Thank you.

    What a great start to the day.

    You have a good one too!

  2. What a wonderful childhood you had, and you remember and describe it all so well.

  3. Lovely memories, I didn't leave near one set of my grandparents and the other set were strange to say the least.
    I always enjoy your stories and memories of your Grandfather Mac
    Have a very Merry Christmas!

  4. How synchronistic is this? Yesterday, Tam and I made our annual trip to pick greenery for the Christmas wreath, which she is making as I sit typing this . . .

    What happy memories you have of this same simple ritual.

    We don't use styrofoam or finicky bitsnbobs from shops, but just make a wreath base from woven willow wands, and wind the ivy and whatever else we have found, over that base.

  5. What sweet, old memories of Christmases past!