By Franklin Burroughs
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day in the morning, we saw — what? Three ships come sailing in? Mommy kissing Santa Claus? Ten lords a-leaping? Bethlehem, deeply and dreamlessly a-sleeping? Sleighs gliding down snow-banked roads, harness bells a-jingle, frock-coated, hat-tipping Father at the reins, Mother and children wrapped in furs or blankets, calling out season’s greetings to friends and neighbors? An immaculate landscape, a White Christmas, a Winter Wonderland?
None of the above. The images of Christmas that came to us fused and confused geographies, histories, and iconographies: the stony, semi-arid, goat- and sheep-herding Holy Land with its jumbled, inhospitable terrain; the deep-forested European north, where the dire winter cold and darkness threaten to engulf the world forever.
Through some combination of its religious culture, its climate, its pastoral economy, its topography, and its commercial genius, 19th-century New England — farms and villages buttoned up against the cold, logs blazing on the hearth, and snug domesticity — became the American homeland of Christmas, even in South Carolina, where I was raised. Our Christmas cards might have been landscapes from the Holy Land or Victorian London, but instead they mostly showed generic scenes of the New England winter. The Christmas trees that went on sale in my town were fir or spruce from somewhere up that way, never one of our indigenous conifers. In many households, the local ecology’s only contribution to Christmas was unprocessed cotton — combed out, fluffed up, piled around the base, and draped over the lower twigs of the Christmas tree to evoke snow. It fooled nobody, and nobody ever questioned its appropriateness or considered its rich historical irony.
On Christmas Day in the morning, real snow was what we most dreamed of seeing, my sister and I. We never did. It came very rarely and always later in the winter. At best, we got frost, which in that humid, swampy, alluvial country, was thick, fuzzy, and soft, and made a glittering, if ephemeral, show on the scabby, anthill-pocked lawns of the neighborhood.
My father thought some things from the world of his growing had to change and some did not. One that did not was the Christmas tree. Every December, his kinfolk in the timber business would point him to one tract or another and tell him he was welcome to cut a tree there. He chose carefully — always a longleaf pine from a pair that grew too close together, so that removing one would free the other. The limbs and twigs of longleaf curve up like candelabra, with foot-long needles at the tips instead of candles. Once cut, the tree lacks the fragrance of New England fir — it smells like pure turpentine, evoking artists’ studios or disinfectants. Even when strung with lights and hung with baubles, the tree was airy, open, and skeletal, as though a modernist repudiation of the conventional tannenbaum aesthetic.
I moved to Maine 48 years ago. It’s been a quarter of a century since our family spent a Christmas in South Carolina. Instead, we cut a scruffy balsam from our woodlot, drag it in, deck it out. A wintery vigor and sharpness, tonic in their effects, comes into the house with it, and lingers a few days. Maine often seems closer to the world I grew up in than contemporary South Carolina does. But the landscape of Christmas has turned out to be the landscape of childhood. I look out at the white Christmas we often have up here, and in the mind’s eye, I see sweetgums and cypresses at the edge of the swamp. They are draped with long skeins of Spanish moss, which create an effect of antiquity, melancholy, and, strangely, peace on earth.