Christmas in the South has a cultural connection with the outdoors going back hundreds of years. Archibald Rutledge, an outdoorsman and the first poet laureate of South Carolina, once wrote about this link in his piece titled, “Christmas in Dixie.” He said, “On the plantations I know, deer hunting on Christmas Day is as natural as a Christmas tree, or kissing one’s sweetheart under the mistletoe.” Growing up in such fashion made the holiday that much more special.
Even as youngsters, we took to the woods for decorations. All of us knew where patches of running cedar grew, a vine used to decorate mantels and wreaths. Fallen pine cones were gathered in bags and decorated as ornaments or coated with food for the birds, enticing them to join our celebration and decorate our yards. On our trips afield, we were advised to scout for a cedar tree of proper dimension to cut and drag home. Perhaps all this just served to get us out from underfoot.
After a morning of hiking and shivering, we’d slide in the backdoor of our grandparents’ basement where a fire was always kept stoked. On these holidays, there might even be a beef roast slowly simmering in a cast iron pot hung over the fire. Upon our entry on such days, we might be met by hot homemade biscuits we’d split and cover in shredded beef roast and hot broth. The fire warmed us inside and out, first with hot broth and then with low flames.
On holiday evenings, we rotated between our local relatives’ homes for more gatherings and dinners. Turkeys, gravies, and desserts fill my memories as if I were home and the smells could weaken the knees and make a full man hungry. By the arrival of Christmas, we had celebrated the occasion multiple times and created stations of leftovers in neighborhood homes we could descend upon for needed snacks.
Such holidays were a roving feast.
Perhaps equally special was the time we were granted to go afield. My grandfather was no hunter but knew the ins and outs of trapping rabbits. One Christmas holiday, he showed me how to bait and place rabbit boxes. I ran my traps and on one crisp morning, visited to find a rabbit inside. We had not discussed what to do next so I carried box and rabbit back to him. He knew the next steps and that evening we ate rabbit.
Some years later, a cousin bought a few beagles and we spent the holiday letting them chase rabbits while we chased them. No finer music exists than the baying of beagles after rabbits, unless it’s the yodel of hounds pursuing raccoons on a clear, cold night. It’s a matter of preference.
Each dog had its own voice and habit of singing. Some ran quietly until they were dead onto a cottontail while others sounded off melodically on each cold trail, as if they were there for the singing more so than the chase. These beagles led us through briars and windfalls, made us climb over hill and gully, stomping clumps to help them jump rabbits. By the end of the day, both four-legged and two-legged participants stood panting by the truck, sweaty, muddy and tired.
For others in the family, Christmas break was a time to put the boat on the lake. On windy days, we’d find a south-facing cove for shelter and let a weak sun offer what warmth it could. Ducks would veer into the cove for a rest and short break from their long flights southward. The fish we’d catch were pale this time of year as if bleached by cold water. Still, at the end of a damp cold day, we find respite back at our fire and moveable feasts.
As evening descended on those cold, clear nights when nothing clouds the sky, it was always worth one last look to understand our place in such a world. The vast expanse of sky made this small space all the more special. Rutledge must have felt much the same looking out from his plantation. He described his view in his piece “A Natural Christmas” when he said, “Stars emerge, in dewy-silver solitude; and their celestial light gleams softly on my Christmas forest.”
Merry Christmas to all.