Jefferson Weaver • Ghosts of Christmas Past
My mind was anywhere but on the Christmas season, although I was trying.
Work, a couple of parades to cover, and a project unfinished on Saturday that left me in such pain that I missed church on Sunday. Then there was planning for the weeks and months ahead, as well as the tractor that needs a transmission, the truck that needs injectors, and an annoying puff of smoke from under the hood of the daily driver. I had to turn down a bear hunt, and the deer were mocking me. The doves wondered if I had joined an animal rights group. My traps had long since given up hope, and were waiting to be sold for scrap metal (they tend to be dramatic sometimes).
Yet I knew I had to get a start on the next task somewhere, so I grabbed a pistol and my stick, and began walking down what we call the Beaver Cut.
Between baby goats, puppies and kittens, Miss Rhonda and I briefly – and I mean briefly – discussed not having a Christmas tree this year. We came to the agreement that such heresy was unacceptable, especially after Covid came to visit last year and neither of us could really remember Christmas. So I made my way across the bridge (also in need of repair) and set to walking.
We almost always get our trees from nature, or else pick up a sad and forgotten one at a lot on Christmas Eve. We did the same in my family until I left home and Mother and Papa decided to start visiting tree farms. It’s satisfying to me to know that a half-bent pine or half-dressed cedar destined for destruction by the ditch-cleaning utility tractors can go out in a blaze of festive glory, rather than a spray of mulch. Our trees are loved, decorated and protected, and when the day comes that they must leave, they become small animal habitat around our yard. Indeed, the tree from 2019 has sheltered at least three litters of rabbits that I know of. Others served different purposes until reclaimed by nature. I call these trees the Ghosts of Christmas Past.
So I stumped along down the Beaver Cut, looking for the right tree. It was nice to be alone for a few minutes, and hidden in that spot where there’s no cell phone coverage – but I wasn’t alone.
There were deer tracks and scat, a meandering coyote, and a spot where the resident wild turkeys have a dustbath. I saw nothing but tracks, save for one whitetail that huffed in the bushes and bugged out for the other end of the county, but their sign was all over the place. There was a broken piece of an old Coke bottle, and I found fence that needed more fixin’ than I could do with a pocketknife and a Leatherman.
It reminded me of similar tree hunts from when I was a little kid. The Old Man, Brother Mike and I would head out to a friend’s farm, stoked up on a big hot breakfast from Miss Lois. Whether it was Uncle Ralph or Mr. Vaden or Brother George or another long-forgotten farmer, we typically drove as far as possible to the “pasture behind the beanfield past where the old barn was,” or “down the dirt road beside where John and Susan used to live”. Oftentimes our host would bundle us all into his truck, and we would bounce down a rutted road to a bent gate bolstered by rusted barbed wire. There was one year where we actually cut down a full growth pine, at the insistence of the owner. My nine-year-old eyes were wide at the thought of toppling a tree that size with an axe, but our benefactor had a much more practical chainsaw. The trunk seemed like a mainmast off a clipper ship as it crashed down. It bothered Papa that we were wasting such a good tree until the owner said it was in the way. Two quick cuts at the top, and we had a Christmas tree. That tree was one of the prettiest we ever had, as I recall.
We were at that same farm another year when it began snowing. Some of my friends might not see this as a big deal, but snow in Sampson County is an event under any circumstances, especially so close to Christmas. Papa and I tromped across a crunchy field of broken-down corn stalks, hauling an axe and a bowsaw. The barbed wire—the same fence we crossed and recrossed several times through the years – was collecting icicles as we stalked, selected and harvested our tree. Papa always suffered in the cold, and looked out of place wearing an overcoat and fedora in the woods, with his oldest dress shoes. I was more pragmatic, and my mother always feared the worst in cold weather, so I was bundled in multiple layers, gloves and a toboggan cap she crocheted. I was already a tenderfoot timberbeast by that time, and knew the value of flannel and wool.
That was the same field where I lost Brother Mike’s big sheath knife the very first time he gave me permission to carry it. That knife never did turn up, even though I searched for it as we followed the same path for a few more years, cleaning a fenceline one Christmas tree at a time. Michael forgave me, but I still felt guilty.
There was no snow, ice, barbed wire or lost knife the other day when I was scouting. I did pass by the trunk of one of our first Christmas trees at Hallsboro. Something bent it at an impossible angle, and the tree grew out, then back up into a lovely little white pine. Figuring the tree couldn’t last, I harvested everything above the bend. The tree, however, had other ideas, and several years later it’s still growing.
There’s a scraggly little cedar nearby that might someday be a good candidate, but for right now it is fighting its way through the pines, gallberry and scrub oaks. It’s similar to the one I guess I technically stole from a neighbor’s property just days before the ditch was chewed down by a bushhog with no appreciation of good trees but a lucrative state contract for ditch clearing. That, too, was a last minute, Christmas Eve acquisition, but it fit perfectly in the big parlor of the old Victorian house we called home.
I never found the tree I was looking for the other day, but I did enjoy the few minutes alone. Of course, I was never really alone. I was crushed between grownups in a 1950-something Ford truck, smelling chewing tobacco and coffee and cows and chemicals and diesel fuel on a frozen pasture. I was stomping across a freezing field beside my hero, my daddy, with an axe carefully gripped behind the head like he taught me. I was aggravating my big brother as I tried to help by pulling vines out of the way. I was flat on my backside where my dog Dudley spotted a deer and tried to chase it, uncaring that he was leashed and the ground was slick and frozen.
Although the other day was sunny and my jacket a little warm, in my mind I had pink cheeks and reddened fingers where I refused to wear my gloves. I wasn’t wearing my usual broadbrim Stetson, but a handmade winter cap as warm as my mother’s pancakes pull down on oversized ears.
Even if this year’s tree comes wrapped, trimmed, shaken and sprayed, it will still have its own place of honor, its own few days of glory. No matter where it comes from, it too will be remembered, with all the other ghosts of Christmas past.