Finding Christmas in Simple Things

Reader Contribution by Deb Bisel
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In the alley behind our city house, there are yews stretching beyond the neighbors’ yards: It is best to clip them. So I fill my basket over and over, bringing the rich green boughs to the doorways, to wreaths, to pots — bringing a little of the everlasting into our home.

Each snip takes me back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, to Granny’s woods. It is more than a thousand miles and decades past, yet the experience remains a part of me. The world was small, our hilltop, Granny’s hollow. After Thanksgiving dinner, we took tow sacks into the woods and filled them with ivy, running cedar and white pine tips. The smell of earth and evergreen was on our coats and gloves.

We spread out the greenery on Granny’s porch, shaking leaves and sticks from shades of green. Then we gathered round the table with twine, cardboard, wire, and scissors. Granny cut shapes, mostly circles and crosses, and we sewed the white pine tips to the cardboard. We took wire coat hangers and stretched them into circles with a perfect hook ready-made. We wound the running cedar round, and round, and round, til the wreath was full. Ivy tips went into arrangements, in containers with a past — Christmases past, tabletops with cakes and turkeys, mantles with stockings and candles. We picked Galax leaves, too, and tucked them into the arrangements, their waxy leaves sometimes brilliant green, sometimes with a hint of red. Sweet potato pies stayed warm above the woodstove, and we took a slice now and then. Granny scooted a pot of perked coffee, half full, across the cooktop so that it was just above the fire to heat up again. This was the smell of Christmas–white pine, sweet potatoes, coffee.

We had picked up pine cones, too, and oak balls, and milkweed pods which we spray-painted gold or silver. Sometimes we left them naturally brown. Granny wired them onto the greenery. In a box way back in the closet, Granny kept ribbon and old ornaments. She took the old bows apart, ironed them flat again, and retied them. This was the meaning of Christmas — old treasures, new life. Promises.

The radio was mostly turned to WPAQ in Mount Airy. We would listen to Ralph Stanley sing “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” and Bill Monroe’s “Christmas Time’s A Comin.'” There was chatter and laughter, but an undercurrent of a stillness full, full of being close to each other, close to the earth, close to those gone before.

When I was very small and afraid at night, I would crawl into bed between Mama and Daddy and he would tell me the Christmas story to assuage my fears. I lay there curled between them and imagined Baby Jesus in Grandpa’s stable. I could see the Wise Men coming through Grandpa’s pasture, past the milk cow, past the plow horse, following the star. I thought of the hayloft, how warm it was, even in the bitter cold, how one could snuggle into the hay and stay warm. That was a good place for Baby Jesus to be born. I wanted to stay in the barn on Christmas Eve to see if the animals really spoke as the mountain tradition taught. Daddy told me we would do that one night, but I always fell asleep before we could go.

We created beauty from the ordinary. We shared our time, our talents, our hopes with one another. We found Christmas in simple things all around us.

A native of Virginia, Deb has adopted Kansas as her home. She received her BA in history at Washburn University and also studied at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Bleeding Kansas, The Civil War and The Plains Indian Wars are her areas of focus. Her book, The Civil War in Kansas was released by the History Press in 2012. As a freelance journalist, she contributes regularly to TKMagazine and She is active in many groups and is president of the Shawnee County Historial Society and co-president of the Civil War Roundtable of Eastern Kansas. She is married to musician Gary Bisel.