An old island Christmas in the Lowcountry
By Ford Walpole
Images courtesy of the author.
Christmas is a magical time for children — and adults. We remember traditions and isolated events with equal clarity. For me, Christmas included the usual traditions shared by most, but that special time was influenced by the Lowcountry sea island environment that reared me.
Picking out the Christmas tree is an exciting activity for many families. For my own family, Clark Griswold’s approach in “Christmas Vacation” hits surprisingly close to home. We did not get our tree from a lot of pre-cut trees or even the more exciting method of visiting a choose-and-cut farm. Our approach was still more primitive.
On a Saturday morning — back then only about a week before Christmas — we all got ready to go hunting for a Christmas tree. After a big weekend breakfast, my parents; my brother, Jay; my sister, Calhoun; and I donned wool coats and hunting jackets. As the youngest, I was always curious as to which jacket would now fit me with the passing year.
We went to the barn and picked out rubber boots. My father always kept a dozen pairs of boots, stacked into each other in old monogrammed wooden tomato boxes. These black rubber boots seemed slightly more substantial than tractor inner tube rubber, and they usually had flesh-colored soles and toe coverings. Hoping you chose a pair that didn’t leak provided an added element of mystery.
In those days, it was always cold when we went hunting for the Christmas tree — or at least that’s how I remember it. We all loaded up in the cab and bed of Daddy’s Ford F-100 pickup. We drove through the fields to the bank at the edge of the marsh and walked through the marsh to an island on the place. The island is covered in tide a couple of times a year, so beyond broomstraw, cassina bushes and a hopelessly doomed occasional pine tree, the island is a home for eastern red cedars and stunted live oaks that were their current size during my father’s childhood.
On this small island or along the trek to it, we usually could find a cedar suitable for a Christmas tree. Some years, we cut the top half of a tree that had grown too large. Other years, we cut a large tree and removed the top, resulting in a full tree that better resembled a mushroom. Another time, we sawed a tree that had grown back from a stump of a past Christmas tree; the shapely cedar only possessed a trunk for a quarter of the way up. We always had indigenous cedars, except for one year in which we found a fully formed loblolly pine growing in a recently fallow field of marginal cropland.
Though we sought wild, untended Christmas trees, my mother did not lower her standards, for the tree that was the focal point of our living room during that season. One year, we cut, set in the stand and brought into the house three separate cedars before she finally settled on an appropriate tree. The first two did not go to waste, though; my grandmother and a cousin were thankful for their fine Christmas trees.
My grandmother was an artist who painted in oils, and she was never particular about the quality of her Christmas tree. I think she considered the project something of a challenge. She would attach branches from other cedars onto the tree to improve upon its sparse shape; these branches were held in place with wire; affixed beneath them were water-filled tin cans.
For me, the only difficulty was getting her tree steady and secure. My grandmother did not care for modern-day stands, or rather, she did not see the need for one. Instead, we placed her tree in a galvanized bucket full of bricks and soil. At the top, we tied string to the trunk and fastened it to hidden tacks on the back side of molding. My grandmother loved to remind us that during her own childhood, the Christmas tree was put up and decorated as a surprise for Christmas morning, and it was lit by real candles.
After the tree was decorated, my mother sent us back out to the woods to break cedar for the Christmas wreaths. We needed full greenery without much branch and preferably cedar that boasted small blue berries. To shape the wreath, she began with the top ring of a wooden bushel basket and wired numerous layers of cedar to it. She accented the wreath with popcorn from invasive Chinese tallow trees and red berries from cassina bushes. For a time, grapevine wreaths were fashionable, and we pulled wild muscadine vines for those projects, but in our home, such desolate wreaths were never worthy of decorating the front door.
Added inspiration for preparing the house came from our annual Christmas party and caroling. The caroling tradition began when my father bought an old school bus to transport people who worked the farm. He painted the First Baptist School bus orange and carried a number of island couples to a Clemson football game. That Christmas, and for many years following, my parents hosted those families and their children to travel around our end of John’s Island to sing Christmas carols to elderly families.
Our island rector, Rick Belser, brought his guitar and led us in the singing. Most of the time, we sang along the way to caroling destinations. In the early years, we traveled to the home of Dorothy and John Bryan before continuing on to Legareville to see cousins Rosie Hay, Lyd Hay, Winnie Hay and Mary Hay. We also visited Harold Jones, my grandparents Adelaide and Ben Walpole, Aunt Cornelia and Uncle Genie Walpole, Aunt Ditty and Uncle Horace Walpole, Aunt Carmen Walpole, Aunt Rosa Williams and Cousin Kay Williams, Aunt Lou and Uncle Frank Jenkins, Cousins Lila and Bryan Walpole, Cousin Lena Legare and Cousin Lil Grimball.
The bus was eventually decommissioned, and one year, we took a hayride in a farm truck. But every year thereafter, as the number of carolers began to grow, we loaded onto a 40-foot hay wagon pulled by a John Deere tractor. Since we spent much of the night en route, we returned home from caroling to a simple supper of bowls of chili, hot dogs prepared on a PDQ cooker and dessert.
Left, the hay wagon, circa 1985. Right, here we come a-caroling.
Of course, many of the Christmas carols were spiritual hymns, and looking back, I now realize the entire experience was a spiritual one. Even at a young age, I was aware of the significance of riding among family and friends on the hay wagon at night as we traveled on dirt roads through working farms beneath the moonlight. From the wagon, you could absorb two images, both of which were indeed intertwined: On one side, you saw the venerable hosts standing on their front steps and waving; on the other, you looked beneath live oaks laden with Spanish moss to the waters of the Abbapoola Creek or Stono River.
Not a Christmas season goes by that I do not reflect on and smile about my childhood Christmas traditions. Of course, as a child I was excited to open presents, most of which I no longer recall. My favorite gifts remain my memories of hunting for the Christmas tree and singing carols together to our neighboring extended family.
The island was more isolated back then, yet people were much closer to one another. Life was simpler. I was a carefree boy without the responsibilities I now shoulder. But this season reminds us to shed our oft-imagined burdens and realize our blessings. Singing “Silent Night” while resting on hay bales was an appropriate way to celebrate the birth of a child who spent his first night on earth on a bed of hay.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.