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Dreaming of an Old Fashioned Christmas

It may pale in comparison to today's perfectly shaped commercially grown Christmas trees, but the fragrance from a Big Island red cedar was impossible to beat !

The older I get, the more fondly I like to look back to the days when I was growing up on the family farm, not far from where we live now. I guess that’s the reason I chose a red cedar for our Christmas tree this year, instead of the traditional spruce, or fir or pine. With no dearth of red cedars on Big Island there was never any question where we would obtain our Christmas tree back in earlier years. It was lovingly selected from our pasture field, much the same way as other Big Island families obtained theirs. We couldn’t understand why other families elsewhere forked over money to procure a tree from a downtown parking lot. Our red cedars even smelled of Christmas.

Many of the decorations that went on our tree on the farm had once belonged to my grandmother. The wreaths my mother hung in each window – the same ones for the same windows each year – were similarly handed down. Year after year, the same star was used for the top of the tree. It was traditional. Angels were for other people, the same people who used aerosol snow and thick garland for their Christmas trees.

My parents seemed determined for us kids to believe Santa Claus actually managed somehow to slide down our narrow chimney, past a volcanic wood fire in the kitchen stove, and leave his presents. So much so, that Dad always left a piece of pie and a glass of milk which, of course, would be gone when I awoke Christmas morning. But then, these are the same parents who, in an effort to convince my brother of Peter Cottontail’s appearance, would actually leave partially chewed carrots and copious amounts of rabbit droppings beside his filled Easter basket.
Some of our traditions under the tree were somewhat unorthodox. For example, price tags were never removed. What if you were not satisfied with the gift and wished to return it? If the gift was a jacket, all pertinent papers including the receipt could be found tucked in the pocket, just in case it didn’t fit.

Santa Claus or no Santa Claus, my brother, Gordon, and I always hung our stockings. While the gifts under the tree were not opened until after morning milking and after breakfast, it was open season on stockings. These usually contained novelty items, and weird stuff like hammers and pliers and other things no one really wants to find in a Christmas stocking. But there were other things too. Toys, games, small books and candy. In fact, I can’t recall one gift that I ever received that didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Our turkey was expertly cut down the middle at the butcher shop – one half set aside for Christmas, and the other half frozen and lovingly reserved for the New Year’s feast. The Christmas half was carved right at the kitchen counter and heaped onto a large serving platter. The platter consisted of equal amounts of breast and dark meat, and my favourite – the neck. The dog always ate the windpipe. I went straight for the giblets, scraping off the gizzard and chomping down the heart. The liver was usually chopped up and mixed in with the dressing. No one could make dressing like my mother. It was wetter than most, and to be really enjoyed had to be served up scalding hot. Mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, home made pies – my mother worked hours preparing the meal, putting the turkey in the oven while Dad and I were busy doing the morning milking. We knew when Mother had placed the turkey in the oven as the power would sometimes shut off; the 30 amp service couldn’t handle both the milking machine and the electric oven simultaneously.

Following the meal we would pile on a stack of 78s and listen to Perry Como’s Christmas collection, and somewhere in between “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” little Jimmy Boyd would belt out his classic, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

Back in those days we weren’t ashamed to bark out a hearty “Merry Christmas !” to anyone we met on the street. There was no thought back then to taking Christ out of Christmas as the purveyors of political correctness seem intent on doing today. The trend is even reflected in Christmas cards today which can’t seem to come up with anything more exciting than “Season’s Greetings.” As traditional Christmas cards become replaced with those containing stale, unimaginative greetings, an increasing number of us will simply turn our backs on cards, I all but gave up sending cards this year and the political correctness minority has chalked up yet another victory in its unending march to destroy Christmas.

What makes Christmas at our house today so special is taking those few precious moments to reflect on the Christmases of 40 or 50 years ago, and cherishing those memories. They were happy times. As I sit there basking in the memories, all I can do is shake my head with dismay when I come across page in a local catalogue as I did recently , depicting a variety of “snow people,” and artificial “holiday trees.
So, our Christmas tree this season may not be as perfectly shaped as those bundled up for sale. It’s even a little flat on the backside, all the better to fit nicely against the support post in the centre of our rec room in the basement. The tree overnight transformed itself from a drab brown to a rich green, brought on by the heat and the water offered. The rich fragrance wafted through the entire house and suddenly we were back home on the farm again.

To all readers, a very Merry Christmas and the best to everyone in the New Year.

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About the Author: Terry Sprague became interested in nature at an early age. "Growing up on the family farm at Big Island, 12 miles north of Picton, on the shore of the beautiful Bay of Quinte, I was always interested in the natural world around me. During my elementary school days at the small one-room school I attended on Big Island, I received considerable encouragement from the late Marie Foster, my teacher in Grades 6 through 8. Her home was a short distance from where I lived and through the years she was responsible for developing my interest in birds. The late Phil Dodds, a former editor with the Picton Gazette, also a great nature enthusiast, suggested I undertake a nature column - a column I have submitted weekly since 1965. The column has since expanded to the Napanee Beaver and the Tweed News. Life has been good, and through the years I have enjoyed working with such nature related agencies as Glenora Fisheries Research as a resource technician, Sandbanks Provincial Park as a park interpreter and Quinte Conservation as a naturalist and outdoor events coordinator. As a nature interpreter, currently working from my home office, I now create and lead numerous interpretive events in the area and offer indoor audio/visual presentations to interested groups. Could one who is interested in nature have enjoyed a more exhilarating period in the work force?" Terry's website is

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  1. Louisa says:

    At least with red cedars, they are easy for anyone to get at and there is none wasted, if you really do want a tree. I was at a grocery store yesterday, and there was a sad lineup of unwanted spruces – I counted 21 – that were most likely going to be dumped somewhere. How sad and wasteful! This being our first year in our new place, a mobile home, we decided not to put up a tree. Not even a small table-top one. I do miss it, actually. Next year, I’m sure we can find just the right size of red cedar out along the roadside ditches. In fact, there’s still time to do so right now.

    My ‘Santa’ growing up always managed to not only eat the cookies and milk left beside the fireplace, but his landing footprints were well embedded in the soot (only now I realize the grill was miraculously moved).

    You have got me absolutely drooling over the description of your typical Christmas feast! Only days to go now…I bought the smallest turkey I could find, as it’s only Bill and I to eat it on Boxing Day for ourselves, but it is still huge! I too like the liver and nibbling on the neck…but not the other bits and pieces. Your mom’s stuffing sounds great – it’s no good if it’s too dry and not steeped in juices.

    Thanks for sharing your Christmas memories and traditions – it’s so wonderful to reminisce with friends.

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