Christmases forever in my mind

By Vivian Lawson Hogue

“When I compare those holidays with the bustle, glitz, and spending of today, I wistfully wish for the simpler one deep in the woods.”

Some of my life stories are twice-told tales, some more than twice. I think I can assume there are many readers who have similar recollections they share as well. What would a holiday be without them?

As I recently sorted through our time-honored Christmas decorations, I recalled uncomplicated but exciting childhood Christmases. Current long-timers and natives remember the annual town parade with a few floats, some high school and college beauties, the Conway High and Pine Street bands, and even some pre-leash law participants. Santa walked and waved. Onlookers were impressed by the high-stepping of the bands and cheerleaders, unaware that it was possibly because they marched behind the horses. Surrounding traffic and parking concerns were minimal due to a smaller county population and stay-at-home mothers, therefore fewer numbers of vehicles.

During the Christmas season, the Conway Theatre presented a special movie to about 1,500 countywide children. We stood in line to pay our 25 cents for the movie, after which a theater employee gave each of the hundreds of children free brown paper sacks of fruit, nuts, and candy. The idea, attributed to Mr. James J. Kane, was promoted by the Kiwanis Club. The sacks were filled at the M & K Grocery, a former business on North Front Street.

At home, our trek to get the annual 12-foot cedar tree was a family effort, necessitating three or four men and myself, the designated axe carrier. What would have happened had I taken a wrong turn in the woods? I was certain the concern would have been for the axe. The just-right tree would be found after an hour of walking and animated debates over height, girth, and density. Often, even after all the considerations, the discovery of a double trunk would start the search all over again.

One year, our search was halted for a few seconds by a hunter’s bullet that zipped over us. All chatter stopped. We always got permission from landowners for our tree hunts, but back then, no one wore orange vests while looking for the perfect tree. Our dad, a botanist, was rarely daunted by gunfire, bone-chilling temperatures, and sleet that strafed our faces. He nearly always found some interesting “flora or fauna” to point out along the way. I recall bringing home a cow’s long-since-bleached skeletal jawbone, always wondering if it had failed to dodge a bullet.

We never had need of a yardstick since Dad measured by axe-handle lengths. With the tree felled, two nearby saplings were cut down and threaded through it to provide handles for carrying. It was roped to the top of the car, destined to assist in celebrating another holiday. Once home, the tree was placed on an unstable wooden homemade stand, hoisted somewhat upright in the living room, and the decorating began.

The decorations I remember most even now were transparent, colored glass balls with multicolored stripes and opaque, non-twinkling, C-7 colored lights, each on wiring with wooden beads that cinched up to clutch branches. There were also rippled aluminum icicles. The later mylar version clung to your clothing as you sashayed down the aisle at church, searching for an empty seat. Available, too, were aluminum reflectors that fit at the back of bulbs to increase the effectiveness of the light. I miss the smell of those trees in the house ever since we decided to opt for an artificial one for fire safety in the 1990s.

Sometime before Christmas each year, my parents would load us into our 1939 Buick for the long ride up to Imboden, Ark., where my Lawson grandparents lived. In their 1858 white oak log cabin perched on stacks of flat rocks, we roughed it for a few of the most frigid days of winter. Their little cedar tree would be sparsely adorned with ornaments, mostly handmade. Stringed lights were not deemed necessary. If God had wanted lights on trees, he would have created them on the fourth day. They felt the same about daylight saving time, so we grew accustomed to subtracting an hour from the number of chimes of the grandfather clock on the mantle.

Sinking deep into the feather beds at bedtime was a pleasure since there was no heat in the bedroom. Any water left in the pitcher or bowl for shaving or face washing would be frozen in the morning and windows would be intricately glazed on the outside, perhaps by highland faeries. When morning did indeed arrive, we found our way to the surface of the mattress, jumped out quickly, and began throwing on clothes and shoes. We raced across the screened dog-trot to the living room, settling in front of the iron wood-burning stove with its isinglass viewing window.

The tree and family visits were our grandparents’ Christmas. The cows still had to be milked, the chickens fed, the water fetched from the springhouse, and the fire stoked in the cast-iron, wood-burning kitchen cookstove. When I compare those holidays with the bustle, glitz, and spending of today, I wistfully wish for the simpler one deep in the woods. I’m counting clock chimes in a log cabin that smells of cedar, smoke-house bacon, over-well free-range eggs, and biscuits slathered with hand-formed butter. The pre-meal grace is said first, of course, ending with thanks for the blessed reason for Christmas. Amen.

Vivian Lawson Hogue
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