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The Christmas Tree: Eastern red cedar

By Sharon Brown (SharranDecember 25, 2012
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About a week or two before Christmas, my Dad would say, "Anybody want a Christmas tree this year?" That was the signal for a trip up the mountain to find the very best Christmas tree that would fit into our living room. It also was the signal for those left at home to get the decorations down from the attic. But one year, no one had time to get the tree down from the mountain or the decorations down from the attic. What was a little girl to do?

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 16, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)  

The year was 1950 and I had a new baby brother, born in October.  He was not well and neither the doctors nor any health practitioners knew what was wrong with him.  My parents were taking him to a hospital in Lexington two days after Christmas and they were very sad thinking it might well be his only Christmas.  I was pretty sad, too, because even though I had wanted a kitten, I was happy to have my baby brother.  But my dad had already told me there would be no Christmas tree.  I was upset,  my brother just had to have a first Christmas tree, and I was determined to get one for him.  I went straight to Ninna.

I told her that Dad said there would be no Christmas tree, and Granny Ninna took charge.  She talked my older cousin into going up the mountainside to find a Christmas tree.  She knew I was upset about my brother, but she also knew that I needed to have a Christmas tree, not only for him, but for myself as well.  My family was too worried about the baby to pay much attention to me, so Ninna told me I could go, too,  since my great Uncle Dock had decided to join us on the tree hunt.  Our mountains were full of cedar trees of all sizes, and the folks in the mountains of southeast Kentucky always cut cedar for trees and decorations.  Those cedar trees smelled so good, and to this day the scent of cedar reminds me of long ago Christmases. Image

The morning of the Christmas tree hunt arrived, and Ninna made sure I was bundled up from head to toe.  The weather was cold and there was a light mist in the air.  Uncle Dock and cousin Carl were all bundled up, too, and they each carried a thermos filled with hot coffee.  Ninna had made me some hot chocolate and I had a small thermos for it.  We trudged up the mountain, the men both carrying an axe.  "Unca Dock, I've had my eye on a tree since last year and I know 'xactly where it is so if you'll just follow me I can take y'all right to it."  Carl spoke right up, "You're too little to know a thing 'bout cuttin' trees, now you stan' back fore you get hurt." Carl might have been several years older, but he didn't stand a chance with me. "I'm not too little to know where the tree is, Carl, you don't know nuthin' bout my trees or my mountains.  Unca Dock, just tell him I know where I'm goin and what I'm doin."  And Uncle Dock did.  I made my way right to the top of the high knoll behind our house, and there in front of us was a stand of cedar trees.  I was always tying my hair ribbons around stakes or plants that Aunt Bett needed to mark, and sure enough, in the middle of the stand of cedars, I found the remains of the ribbon I had left the year before.  "See here, Carlie, I told ya so!"

Carl said he thought the tree was too big, but Uncle Dock and I thought it was just right.  Uncle Dock and Carl worked and sweated and I think Carl might have said a bad word or two, but they got that cedar tree cut down.  "Now you might as well trim the branches off the bottom right now, Carl, 'cause they'll hafta come off anyhow," I said.  Carl grumbled and grunted around, but the bottom row of branches hit the ground.  It sure smelled good when they cut into that cedar, but I don't think Carl was very happy being bossed around by an 8 year old.

The trees that we called cedar were misnamed, but don't ever tell those who live in the mountains of southeast Kentucky.  The tree is actually Juniperus virginiana, and its most common name is the eastern red cedar.  Aunt Bett had told me many times of the legend of the cedar tree. I thought it was such a beautiful story, and one I have remembered all these many years.  She said the legend was told to her by her Native American grandmother.  I will share it with you.

A long time ago when the people were new on the earth, they thought that life would be much better if there was never any darkness. They begged the Creator to let them have day all the time, and to take away all the night.  The Creator heard them, and took away the night.  Soon the plants took over the world and the people could not control them.  They had to work too hard, and they never had time to sleep. They decided they had been wrong, and asked the Creator to change the day to darkness. The Creator thought about it, and even though all things were created in twos...day and night, life and death, good and bad, food and famine, the Creator loved the people so much, he granted them their wish for darkness.  Night fell upon the earth.  Crops stopped growing and it became very cold.  The people spent so much time gathering wood for fires, they had no time to hunt meat; with no crops they had no food.  Many of the people died.  Those who still lived once again begged the Creator.  "We have made a terrible mistake," they said, "it was perfect the way you made it, please forgive us and change it back to your way of day and night."  Once again the Creator listened to the people he loved.  Day and night became as it had been in the beginning.  Crops and animals were restored along with the health of the people.  The Creator was glad the people were smiling again, but during the long days of night, many people had died. The Creator placed their spirits in a newly created tree.  This tree was named the Cedar tree.  Whenever you gaze upon a cedar tree, you are gazing at an ancestor of the Native Americans.Image

I loved that story, so the cedar tree was always very special for me.  Aunt Bett's great grandmother was Native American, and I knew she was my grandmother too.  I always wondered if her spirit was in my Christmas trees.

Christmas trees, no matter which evergreen is used, have a longer history than I realized.  The first decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia in 1510.  In 1601 a visitor to Strasbourg records a tree decorated with wafers and golden sugar twists and paper flowers of all colors.  The early trees were Biblically symbolic of the paradise tree in the garden of Eden.  The many food items were symbols of plenty; the flowers originally were only red for knowledge and white for innocence. {1}

Well, we dragged the cedar tree to my back porch where Ninna and Aunt Bett met us with one empty bucket and a coal bucket filled with coal.  Ninna had already moved some furniture in the living room so that there was a place for the tree right in front of the double windows.  I was so excited.  We brought the tree and the two buckets into the house, and sure enough the tree fit just right. Carl set the tree into the empty bucket and Uncle Dock started placing pieces of coal around it to hold it in place.  Ninna brought a pitcher of water to pour into the bucket to keep the tree fresh.  I had a Christmas tree!

My mother said, "I can't go to the attic to get the bubble lights and the other decorations.  I have to be with the baby, but you can decorate your tree with anything you want."  No bubble lights?  How could I have a Christmas tree with no bubble lights?  Aunt Bett and Ninna took my arms and walked me into the kitchen.  Aunt Bett again told me the story that I just shared with you, and she mentioned that in old times, food and flowers were used to decorate trees.  "How about gingerbread men?" said Ninna.  "We could make gingerbread men to hang on your tree."  And Aunt Bett said:  "Remember the hydrangea an' strawflowers we dried, an' how 'bout the dried grasses you picked an' the leaves you pressed to dry in your books?"

My two little ladies had just managed to bring sunshine into my life.  Ninna baked the gingerbread, and Aunt Bett and I gathered all the flowers we had dried.  I decorated that Christmas tree until every square inch was filled.  And at the top where a star usually hung, Uncle Dock held me up and in the star's place,  I hung a little blue pair of my brother's baby socks.  It was a most beautiful Christmas tree.Image  I sat on the floor in front of it, and they let me hold my baby brother.  I wanted him to see his first Christmas tree.

From that year, I only remember the Christmas tree and my little brother's illness.  But I do remember a few weeks later when they brought my baby brother home from the hospital.  The doctors had found the problem and corrected it, and for the first time my little brother smiled at me.  Not many years ago, my brother and I went up in the mountains behind the house where we grew up.  We dug up two little cedar seedlings and I told him the story of his first Christmas.  Those tiny seedlings grow in my own yard now, 400 miles away, and they are already much taller than I.  I like to think they are the offspring of my brother's first Christmas tree.

 

This story, along with my love, is for my brother, who continues to live right in the middle of my beloved mountains.

{1} http://www.christmasarchives.com/trees.html  You will find more of the history of the Christmas tree at this site.

I used this source for the accuracy of the cedar tree legend:  http://www.powersource.com/cocinc/articles/cedar.htm

The thumbnail is a photo of my seedling from the mountains, as it grows today in my yard.  The last photo was taken in the Land Between the Lakes and is an old gnarled cedar that has withstood many years.  It is about 10 miles from my home. The other two photos are from Plant Files.  Thanks to stray77 and hczone6 for the use of their photos.

 

 


  About Sharon Brown  
Sharon BrownI am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Cedar Trees dbelcher 1 9 Jan 2, 2012 7:24 PM
Yes - this is moving and beautiful. bookwormer401 1 7 Jan 2, 2012 7:23 PM
Beautiful billyporter 3 12 Dec 25, 2010 2:34 PM
Tears in my eyes! ratlover1 1 10 Dec 20, 2010 8:02 PM
Christmas tree Maria 1 8 Dec 20, 2010 7:58 PM
Red Cedars chigeritch 1 14 Dec 20, 2010 10:02 AM
History breaths into the present 7now3 1 7 Dec 20, 2010 9:59 AM
The Christmas Tree - the red cedar cottagelady 1 6 Dec 20, 2010 9:54 AM
Our Red Cedar Maryinhammondsp 1 11 Dec 20, 2010 8:25 AM
Beautiful! A story within a story! gloria125 7 26 Dec 19, 2010 4:06 PM
Bubble lights cybercrone 9 54 Dec 17, 2010 3:22 PM
a beautiful tree debi_k 13 81 Dec 24, 2008 3:19 AM
What a great article! daylilydaddy 4 25 Dec 19, 2008 5:29 AM
AHHHMy Counrty of birth.... Gitagal 1 13 Dec 17, 2008 5:39 AM
"baby socks for the star" Aunt_A 1 22 Dec 17, 2008 5:38 AM
Very Moving! BennysPlace 5 31 Dec 17, 2008 1:55 AM
Nice phicks 1 20 Dec 16, 2008 6:25 PM
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