Holiday Greenery

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

There’s something special in the air in November and December. The light is gauzy and golden, the breeze cool and crisp, the smells earthy and tangy, and the ground crunchy with the fallen reminders of a year winding to a close. The holidays we celebrate in these last two months of the calendar year resonate most clearly in our memories, of family gatherings, childhood excitement, and joyous traditions. And even as we’re tempted to retreat indoors to the hearth during this season’s shortening days, we still are drawn outdoors, for shopping excursions, sporting events, and wintry walks.

As we’ve done now for over a decade, we herewith share with our readers in this, our final issue of 2009, some favorite passages from seasonal works, focusing on holiday memories of the great outdoors.

Christmas began when pecans started falling. The early November rains loosened the nuts from their outer shells and sent them plopping like machine gun bullets on the roof of the veranda. In the night, you’d listen and you’d know IT would soon be here…And so you lay there, listening to the drip drip of rain and plop plop of nuts, feeling something good is going to happen, something good and it won’t be long now.

“Tree-Shaking Day,” from Memory of a Large Christmas, by Lillian Smith, 1961.

Opening the gate, we tread briskly along the lone country road, crunching the dry and crisped snow under our feet, or aroused by the sharp, clear creak of the wood sled, just starting for the distant market, from the early farmer’s door, where it has lain the summer long, dreaming amid the chips and stubble; while far through the drifts and powdered windows we see the farmer’s early candle, like a paled star, emitting a lonely beam, as if some severe virtue were at its matins there. And one by one the smokes begin to ascend from the chimneys amid the trees and snows.

“A Winter Walk,” by Henry David Thoreau, 1843.

Just before Christmas a green lacy vine called running cedar appeared in the woods around Freetown (Virginia) and we would gather yards and yards of it. We draped everything in the house with it: windows, doors, even the large gilded frames that held the pictures of each of my aunts and uncles. We picked the prickly branches of a giant holly tree —the largest holly I’ve ever seen — which grew on the top of a nearby hill, and we cut armloads of pine boughs and juniper. My mother always gave the fireplace and hearth a fresh whitewashing the day before Christmas, and washed, starched and ironed the white lace curtains. On Christmas Eve my father would set up the tree in one corner of the room and we would decorate it with pink, white and blue strings of popcorn that we had popped, dipped in colored sugar water, and carefully threaded. Small white candles nestled on tufts of cotton were the last decorations to be placed on the tree.

— “Joy in Freetown,” from The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis, 1976.

Peter ran to the window and pushed the curtain aside to watch them. Arm in arm they went over the path, two black figures on the white field of snow, with stars looking down on them and the dark lines of the hills rimming them in a known world. Now they were running a little, then they stopped as if to catch their breath and Peter saw his mother toss her head quickly, then his father threw back his head and laughed. What a wonderful time Christmas Eve was, Peter thought, the world so still and everyone in it so happy.  For so many days of the year his father was serious and full of care and his mother’s thoughts seemed far ahead of her as if she were thinking of all the things she had to do ...

“Once in the Year,” by Elizabeth Yates, from A Newbery Christmas (compilation selected by Greenberg and Waugh), 1991.

The miracle of Christmas is that, like the distant and very musical voice of the hound, it penetrates finally and becomes heard in the heart — over so many years, through so many cheap curtain-raisers. It is not destroyed even by all the arts and craftiness of the destroyers, having an essential simplicity that is everlasting and triumphant, at the end of confusion.

“The Distant Music of the Hounds,” from The Second Tree from the Corner, by E. B. White, 1949.


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