A Holiday Unwrapped

In this excerpt from We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich extolls the virtues of an upcountry Christmas.

Photographed by Sara Gray

Christmas in the woods is much better than Christmas on the Outside. We do exactly what we want to do about it, not what we have to do because the neighbors will think it’s funny if we don’t; or because of the kids, who will judge our efforts not by their own standards but by the standards set up by the parents of the other kids. We don’t have any synthetic pre-Christmas build-up — no shop window displays, no carol singers in department stores, no competition in the matter of lighting effects over front doors. At the intersections where the deer-runs cross the Carry Road, no Santa Clauses ring bells in the interest of charity. We didn’t even have a Santa Claus until last year. We thought it would be nice if Rufus grew up knowing who gave him presents and bestowing his gratitude in the proper places. So we had never even mentioned the name of You-know-who. However, a visitor at Millers let him in on the secret, explaining to him that Santa Claus is the man who brings things for little boys. Rufus knew very well that Larry Parsons brings in everything we get from the Outside. Q.E.D., Larry is Santa Claus. He still persists in this belief, which makes him perfectly happy and we hope it does Larry, too.

We don’t even have a Christmas tree. It seems a little silly, with hundreds of square miles of fir and spruce, from knee-high babies to giants of eighty feet on all sides of us, to cut one down and bring it into the house. It seems almost like vandalism to shake the ice and snow from its branches and hang them with popcorn strings and cheap tinsel. We have our Christmas tree outdoors, for the benefit of the birds, hanging suet and crusts on the branches of one of the trees in the yard.

But we do have Christmas, just the same, and since we are so far from stores and last minute shopping, we have to start planning for it a long time ahead. With no chance to shop for gadgets, we have to make quite a lot of our presents, and the rest we get from what is known here simply as the Mail Order. I give mittens, hand made by me with the initials of the recipient knit into the design across the back. These don’t cost much over and above my time, and no one in this country ever had too many pairs of mittens. For people who live Outside I try to think up things that they couldn’t buy in stores. After all, it would be simple-minded to send out and buy something, have it mailed in here, wrap it up, and send it out to someone who, doubtless, lives almost next door to the store where it was bought.

I make little mittens about an inch long and sew them onto a bright fourteen-inch length of cord, as children’s mittens are sewed onto a cord. These are bookmarks, in case you haven’t guessed. To city people who, I know, have fireplaces, I send net bags full of the biggest and best pine cones I can find, to be used as kindling. I make balsam pillows. I know these can be bought at any roadside stand north of the Maine border. But mine don’t have pictures of Indians stamped in ink on cheap pink cotton cloth, along with the excruciating sentiment, “For You I Pine and Balsam.” I collect old-fashioned patchwork quilt patterns from any source I can find them, and use them to make my pillow covers. In the old quilts, each unit is usually from twelve to fifteen inches square, and that makes a very good size for a balsam pillow. I make them, naturally, by hand, and they look very simple and expensive. They don’t cost very much either. And I do love the names of the old patterns — Star of Bethlehem, Wedding Ring, Flower Garden, Log Cabin. They have a nice homely sound. You can think of a lot of things to make out of nothing, if you have to.

But making presents isn’t half of Christmas in the woods. I’ll never forget the year the lake didn’t even begin to freeze until well after the tenth of December. We’d ordered our Mail Order, and presumably the Andover Post Office was harboring our stuff until someone could go out to get it. Finally, the day before Christmas, it was decided that an expedition should go on foot, get the stuff, and then, if at all possible considering the thin ice, drive it all in in Larry’s old Model T which was down at the Arm.

We had living with us then a friend named Rush Rogers. He and Ralph and Edward Miller and Arch Hutchins, who was working for Larry, joined forces and set off down the ice on foot dragging a couple of sleds behind them to haul the stuff in on if the ice proved unsafe for the car. They got to the Arm all right, and from there into Andover was easy in Miller’s Outside car.

Sure enough, all our stuff — we’d sold a story a short while before and were having a fat Christmas that year — was at the Post Office. In fact, since the Post Office was small and space at a premium during the rush season, our packages were all piled in the front window like a display, and the population of Andover was standing outside guessing at their contents. The Middle Dam delegation continued on to Rumford, stocked up with groceries and Christmas Cheer, picked up the mail and packages on the way back, and arrived back at the Arm in the afternoon. The mail and supplies filled the Ford to bulging. Arch wedged himself into the driver’s seat, Edward stood on the running board to watch the high-piled packages, and Rush and Ralph tied the two sleds behind in single file and sat on them. I wish I could have seen them. The sleds were hardly big enough to accommodate their rears, and they had to hunch their knees up under their chins and hang on with both hands for dear life. Arch was driving the old Ford as fast as it would go, snow and ice chips from the chains were flying into their faces, so they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and the sleds at the ends of their lines were slewing with terrific swoops. As a final touch they held their bare hunting knives in their teeth so they could cut the sleds loose if the car went through the ice ahead of them. Edward told me later that they were the funniest-looking rig he ever saw.

The ice was really too thin to be safe. It bent and bowed under the weight of the car, and rolled up ahead of them in long flexible swells. But Arch followed the rules for driving a car on thin ice — keep the doors open, go like hell, and be ready to jump — and they got home all right, only a little late for supper.

Then started one of the most hectic evenings I have ever spent. First, everything had to be unpacked; and when the Mail Order packs, it packs, what I mean. Corrugated board, excelsior, paper padding — they certainly give it the works. We decided that Ralph would do the unpacking in the back bedroom, with no lamp. He could see enough by the light through the open door. We didn’t want any fire on Christmas Eve, and all that packing material around loose was definitely a fire hazard. Rush would assemble all of Rufus’ toys that came knocked down — and that year most of them did — but first he had to put the new batteries, which were in the mess somewhere, into the radio so I could hear the Christmas carols.

I would re-wrap packages prettily. I started out with our present to Renny Miller, a five-cell flashlight, which we thought might come in handy for him. A flashlight is an awkward thing to wrap neatly, but I did a fairly good job and went on to the next thing. Rush was back of the chimney doing something to the radio wires, and in a minute he said, “Hey, Louise, where’s that flashlight of Renny’s? Lemme have it a second, will you?” I unwrapped, let him have it a second, and wrapped it up again.

I’d barely got the bow tied satisfactorily when a yelp came from the back room, “Good-night, there goes a box of blocks! Hey, Louise, lemme have that flashlight of Renny’s a second, will you?” I unwrapped it, let Ralph have it a second, and wrapped it up again. The back bedroom, I noted in passing, looked as if a brisk breeze had swept through it. I wrapped up the snow gliders we’d got for the two younger Miller children and looked around for Rush. He had disappeared, so this looked like the opportune time to tie up the mittens I’d made him, and the checked wool shirt that was Ralph’s present to him. I got out a suitable piece of Christmas paper and some silver cord.

Then came a rapping on the window, and in the glow of the lamplight I saw Rush’s face, framed in icicles and spruce branches. He didn’t look like Father Christmas, though. He looked like a man in distress. “Hey, Louise, I can’t see a thing out here by this aerial. Bring out that flashlight of Renny’s a minute, will you?” I unwrapped it again — carefully, this time, as the paper was getting a little shabby at the creases ­ and took it out. In passing through the back room I observed that the brisk breeze had risen to gale velocity. I could still see the top of the bureau and of Ralph, but the bed had been drifted under. I held the flashlight while Rush did whatever he had to do. We went back into the house and turned on the radio. A very satisfactory rendition of “Holy Night” rewarded us. I re-wrapped Renny’s present, decided it looked pretty moth-eaten, undid it, got fresh paper and ribbon, and did it up again.

“Holy Night” changed to “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and I listened with pleasure, wrapping up presents, while Rush started to put together Rufus’ bounce horse. As the music came to an end, I woke up to the fact that Ralph had been shouting for some time from the back room. “Hey, Louise! Bring that flashlight of Renny’s.”

Before we went to bed that night I had wrapped that darned flashlight nine times. I had become a much better flashlight wrapper by midnight than I had been at seven o’clock.

At midnight we had some sherry and crackers and cheese. Because this was Christmas, Ralph had a raw egg in his sherry — which I think is barbarous — and Rush brought me a magnificent treat — Camembert cheese, which Ralph considers equally barbarous. We were exhausted and silly and we had a lot of fun. It was the best Christmas Eve I ever had, in spite of the flashlight.

Bald Mountain Camps Resort in Oquossoc, where these photographs were taken, is a favorite destination for those wanting to spend Christmas in the woods of western Maine the way Louise Dickenson Rich did  — with the benefit of a few amenities, like maid service, that she didn’t have. Located on Mooselookmeguntic Lake, the nineteenth-century sporting camp was purchased by the Philbrick family who executed a major renovation of the fourteen cabins and main lodge in 2009. A blazing fire keeps the lodge, which is decorated with animal mounts and antiques, cozy and warm, and there’s always a good chance that Christmas will be white.