20191222: Christmas Greens – Hanging the Boughs of Holly and Evergreen

Originally posted in December of 2019 for another blog. Preserved the essay here.

This is a good story about community spirit, appropriate for our Christmas season at Q Tree. Curl up with a hot coffee and join me.

Because we have a B&B, our annual holidays are little different than most families. Years and years of retirement parties, birthday celebrations, weddings, corporate events, etc., meant that the townspeople viewed our house as THEIR house, they are personally connected.

It set up a strange situation, both good and bad (not really ever bad). I live in a “goldfish bowl” where everyone knows my business, but on the other hand, “almost” everyone helps me to succeed… and often at the strangest times and in odd ways… because it’s “their house”, too. Does that make sense?

Our home is next door to the town’s school, and it’s the biggest house in town, a real beauty built at the turn of the last century. Yet, the house was abandoned for 24yrs when we bought it. Thus, a generation of townspeople wondered about the house, a grand dame, but dark and cold (and maybe haunted)…… until we moved in……. and ALL the lights were turned on.

After 6 months of a massive renovation, we opened for business in late September, with Christmas approaching. Yet, decorating such a large home was a monumental task. Women began to approach me, offers of help, wanted to work for me, because I needed help. I kept resisting, thought I couldn’t afford it, because I couldn’t afford it. Members of my local bank board licked their chops like a hungry wolves, quarreling amongst themselves, waiting for my pipedream to go bust, so they could buy my lovely home at a bankruptcy…. which only made me more determined to succeed.

There came a point were several women had …. what can only be described as….. “an intervention” …..with me. They forced their way into my lives and became a coven of girlfriends, staff members, aunts to my kids, a shoulder when I needed it, and a sort of sorority, a fierce clan of protectors. But it wasn’t just women, it was the men as well. If I needed something…. anything……. all I had to do was whisper……. and the word went out like a quiet firestorm, and suddenly….. that item would appear, often from a kind stranger, who became a friend. It was amazing, and would NEVER happen in large cities, but it did happen in small town Mississippi. I never really got used to the wonderment of it all, the kindness of strangers, but it happened over and over again.

Women bringing me things became commonplace. For instance, an old experienced gardener would show up, compliment my specific flower bed, but insist it needed “XYZ” flower in a corner, which she brought to me, usually in a WalMart sack. BECAUSE it wasn’t just my house, it was her flower bed as well, and she wanted to make it perfect. Stuff like that happened all the time.

But it was the men who were most surprising. The gentle giants surrounded me but were often silent. Cornstalks, cattails, fieldstone, river rock, cotton, clumps of daffodil bulbs as big as washtubs, Birdhouses, pumpkins, fresh field corn, and thousands of pounds of peaches, plums, beans, blueberries, and tomatoes, would suddenly appear from the ether, sometimes with a note if I wasn’t home. The bounty of their generosity and impeccable timing was astounding.

Yesterday, I told the story of the mistletoe. Mistletoe grows high up in oak trees and has to be shot down. My grandparents always had a sprig of mistletoe between the kitchen and dining room when I was a kid. Grandpa swept grandmother into his arms to dip her, and kiss her, to great fanfare at the most inappropriate times. She pretended to protest but loved it. Of course, we needed a sprig of mistletoe. It turned into an annual town hunt, at the opening of deer season, with presentation trophies (old trophies from the high school), for the biggest piece of mistletoe, which would be ceremonially hung with a big red velvet ribbon from the keystone on our wooden arch.

What I didn’t know was that the men became competitive about the Mistletoe Hunt. Mr. Elton had the biggest horse stables in 3 counties, huge farm. For months, he eyed one tree with what he was sure was a grand prize winning piece of mistletoe. His daughter told me the story…… He shot at the piece a few times and missed, but he was more afraid it would fall apart and lose berries. Mistletoe is fairly fragile. He sent a farmhand high up into the tree to manually cut it down, but that didn’t work. So, he chopped down the whole tree….. Mr. Elton won that year, an old repurposed golfing trophy, and he could not have been more proud. We took his picture. He became a legend.

One year, we were working on Halloween, and I was upset with the high prices of colorful Indian corn in the grocery store, 3 ears for $2.99. We needed hundreds of them for what we wanted to do. I whined and moaned, but was grumbling about something I could not afford. We ended up doing something else. The following year, a local farmer brought me a truckload….. he planted 5 acres of the most beautiful Indian corn, small raspberry corn as well, and bushels of brightly colored gourds. Total surprise to me. He stayed for hours, and ate chicken salad, drinking iced tea, while the girls and I fussed all over him, and assembled the front door decorations. Mr. Ralph was thrilled and told everyone in town about “his” corn. Every now and then, strangers appeared on my front porch…… to see “Mr. Ralph’s corn” and take autumn pictures with their kids.

Another year, we planned a back to school party for the local teachers. I thought a front door surround of sunflower heads would be pretty. We thought about using artificial silk flowers but that was cost prohibitive…. We mulled over our options looking for something creative, we were stuck for a good idea. Three days later, the farmer’s co-op called, it was my buddy “Pork Chop”. He said, “Your sunflower heads are here……”. Huh? I never ordered any. I didn’t know there was such a thing as ordering sunflower heads. From Pork Chop, “Well, they’re here. Do you want to come and get them or do you want me to send him to your house?” We dropped everything and rushed down to the co-op.

We were twelve women, hugging and loving on a kind farmer, genuinely grateful, and our affection was a powerful force. Again, a whisper of a request went out, and a benevolent farmer, another county over, brought in a whole truck load, ready to dry, with seeds, and still had yellow petals. It was a gold mine….. and the birds… loved them. Walking through the door was like a Disney movie with all the birds around. When his wife died a few years later, the girls and I made the flowers, returning the kindness.

Sometimes we needed strange things. Once, we needed BIG acorns, for Christmas wreaths and decorations, preferably with the caps on, like the thumb-sized ones when I was a kid. Our house is surrounded by oak trees but we have small puny acorns. I mentioned it casually…. and forgot about it. About two weeks later, I was standing in the kitchen when one of the girls came back and said, “There’s a bunch of men here to see you.” I wiped my hands and went out front. In front of me were six of the dirtiest Marlboro-looking-men I’ve ever seen. They were so handsome they practically took my breath away, tall, rugged, strong men, but they were FILTHY and the image of them standing in our pristine parlor was a perfect picture of contrasts.

The smallest one, who was probably 6’2″ with deep blue eyes, spoke up, “Are you Miss Daughn?” I nodded, and could hear the girls giggling behind the archway like they were still in high school, looking at the guys….. He grabbed my arm a little too tightly and leaned into me in a whisper. For a flash of a moment, the thought of being ravaged by this man in my parlor was strangely appealing…… He said, “We found your tree.” I was confused. “What tree?”, I said. He replied, “Your tree with the big acorns, it’s a white oak. I looked it up, and we found one, plenty of acorns for you.” Shaken from my trance, I was thrilled, “Really?!??” The girls came out from behind the arch to join us. He was a lumberman and they were clear-cutting land nearby.

He said, “You have to come now though, because they’re cutting this afternoon. We’re only in town for lunch.” From one of the girls…. grinning from ear to ear……”We’ll be happy to make you boys some lunch and then follow you out to the land where the tree is.” And…… we did….. baskets of acorns, enough for years of supply.

The whole thing was bizarre. Six lumberman, completely unknown to us, removed their boots to dine at my table….. They looked like Knights of the Round Table who just completed a quest, for BIG acorns…… The chance of our meeting was even more noteworthy. Not only had our desire for big acorns gone out into the wind like a quiet firestorm, but strangers, handsome lumbermen, took the time to look up the SPECIFIC KIND of tree needed, and then, spent weeks looking for the particular tree we needed. Amazing…..no, THAT would never happen in Manhattan.

But nothing was better than the Yew, Holly, and Douglas Fir delivery.

I had it in my head that every corner where your eye falls, there should be something which was Christmas related but not overly fussy. With over a dozen artificial Christmas trees in the house, we still needed another layer, the fresh greens, rosemary, and the smell of Christmas. We did baskets of fresh greens, dozens and dozens of baskets, big and small. To get enough greenery, we cut down an overgrown boxwood at Grandma’s house, pilfered her magnolia tree with minivans full of greens, raided her neighbor’s holly bush, stripped another neighbor’s nandina berry bushes, cut down a 60′ tall cedar tree…. but we really needed Douglas Fir, mixed pines, and more holly. We needed the kinds of conifers which don’t grow in Mississippi.

Buying fresh Christmas trees was too expensive, but we went to the tree lots to negotiate. One lot manager told me to come back on Mondays. They often had a stack of branches, from trimming the trees up, and I could have a little bit. Back home, the parties we booked were requiring our raw materials, but the house was only about 1/4 finished. We needed MORE pine boughs, the pretty stuff, …. when Mr. Fred’s semi-truck arrived.

Mr. Fred was an over-the-road truck driver, the kind of wonderful man I would never have met in my former life. He was in his mid-50’s and had a Santa Claus belly. His wife was the aunt of one of our staff members. He returned from a run to…. I can’t remember where, but he came home “empty” which was unprofitable and unusual for a truck driver. Therefore, he brought us trees and bushes. Some were chopped down, but some still with the dirt on their roots. When he opened the back doors of the truck, small birds flew out. It was a miracle.

For days and weeks, we used the greenery Mr. Fred brought us. We had enough to be lavish with our stash. For years, Mr. Fred brought me pinecones, long and thin ones from California, big fat ones from Florida, and reindeer moss from the side of the road in Missouri, because he thought we would have fun playing with them. Mr. Fred was our Santa Claus.

In later years, Big T, hoped to replicate the bounty of natural greens for Christmas. Yet, he was returned to our home by a local constable with a good sense of humor. The forefathers frowned on trimming of their trees in local Boston, but allowed him to keep the boughs…. and they were beautiful. He loved me….. best Christmas gift, ever.

Is it odd, that as the years tick by, the Christmas gifts of gold and diamonds fade into the background? Yet, I long for the gifts of Indian corn, pumpkins, BIG acorns, rosemary, holly, and evergreens.

Indeed, the kindness of strangers is simple, heartfelt, long lasting, and priceless.

Merry Christmas.

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