WE EXPECTED Uncle Ed to be in a good humor due to the approaching holidays. He could play Santa when he wanted to but he didn't offer to help us find a Christmas tree, just sat in the doorway chewing tobacco.
Snow was three feet deep and it was hard to lift a leg up and down in it but we traipsed around, looking for a white pine.
Coming back, we warmed by Uncle Ed's fire.
"Did you all decide on one?" he asked.
"There's none to find," we sighed, "none but that big pine in front of you."
It touched the horizon in height, gracefully moving in the winter wind. Many a bird and chicken took had roosted in it and a soft roar was about it now from the winter air.
"You wouldn't part with that one, would you?" we asked. "It's so tall . . . if we could just have the top out of it . . ." Uncle Ed looked up at the pine, scratched his head and put his hat back on. The body of the tree was large as a huge fence post. "No siree . . . you ain't topping that one," he said. "I ain't looking out on no stubbed pine after Christmas."
We moved toward the door. "Going so soon?" he asked. "We gotta find a tree, even if it's just a cedar," we said. "But we really did want a white pine."
I started off with the ax holding it sideways. We left Uncle Ed in the doorway and had gotten halfway up the hill.
"Wait!" he called. "Come back here! You all really want that tree don't you?"
"Can't take it from you," we sighed. "You look at it all year."
"Well, but younguns don't have Christmas but once a year either."
"Tell you what. If you can chop it down and drag it home you can have it."
Gleefully we got busy with the ax, making the stump near the ground, and there Uncle Ed was laughing at us trying to chop in the snow. We got it and it landed in his doorway when it fell, clumps of snow and all.
"Go near the middle now and cut it," he suggested "and don't leave no limbs laying around." He had two fine posts left off it plus a little extra firewood and now he was laughing again at us heaving it uphill. Dragging was easier on the other side, but Uncle Ed watched us making that trail over the snow and we had given him a new window on the horizon. Difficulty set up again at the house - the tree was taller than the ceiling. It took two or three draggings back to the chop block to get it right but we finally nailed it up to the rafters and put the tinsel on. Granny was amazed when she found Uncle Ed had given us that tree near his house. Uncle Ed always came over for Christmas dinner, but this time she was going to bake his favorite, a black walnut cake with candy icing on it, plus having chicken and dumplings.
I can see Uncle Ed now coming down that snowy road walking in his up-and-down fashion, his long beard and mustache sagged by the ice like he was decorated for Christmas too. Except in those little ice crystals were traces of tobacco juice, because it was so cold you couldn't spit without it freezin' too. But we loved Uncle Ed in spite of his style of life.
And if you think mountaineers just wear beards and long hair as a style, they do it in the wintertime to keep their face and ears warm. And kids in the hills get used to the smell of chewing tobacco.
Santa had made his round as he always did in the Appalachians at our house. It had been a long morning. Gramp had gotten up a 3, gone out and saluted with the 12-gauge, waking everybody else up, and I had trotted to the fireplace to get my stocking full of goodies which were oranges, nuts, raisins and candy and little windup toys that fell over when they needed rekeying.
Pots and pans had been busy in the kitchen; the dinner had been prepared in advance. From the cellar came the red cherry wine we had made from cherries off Uncle Ed's mountain (and I had helped pick them standing up on the hill. It was easier to reach the tree tops there than climbing up below) and there was my contribution too, a glass of ground cherry preserves I had made from wandering the fields. When plates were pushed back in the dining room Uncle Ed got his thinks for the tree.
"A good uncle to do that!" Granny remarked.
"Shucks, that was nothing," Uncle Ed said. "Them kids worked to get that tree down. I was gonna chop it down anyway. Come spring I'm putting a road up that way and the tree was smack dab in the way!" A silence fell, you could hear the tinsel on the tree. It looked like Uncle Ed had let us have it to get it chopped down. We still had to respect his convictions. In his estimations a kid worked for what he got. It was still a Merry Christmas. Laurel leaves hung on the doorways and windows, and the tree was to remind us forever of that Christmas because all of us were never together again for one. Only I had the thought that Christmas was not over. It wasn't for me, because there would be Gramp's Christmas.
The one he said was on the Old Calendar, yet to come in January. Then, in true Christmas style, the cattle lowed at midnight in tribute to the Christ Child and somehow Santa got back down the chimney and refilled my stockings. Uncle Ed didn't observe the Old Christmas, just the new one. Gramp would laugh about old Raw Hide getting after mean kids but I never saw him. I never saw Santa either, but to tell a kid in the hills there is no Santa Claus would be like trying to convince him roofs didn't have the snow on them. He is lesser to doubt, too, if you can stand up under the fireplace arch, and when you are there you can trace the Milky Way across the sky. You know Santa can go there too. The cold lights coming from stars are like street lamps for him, and what kid in the Appalachians hasn't seen th Aurora Borealis? It's no flock of geese in the hills honking the horizon in wintertime. It's Santa Claus if it's near Christmas. I asked Uncle Ed once if he believed in Santa. He said yes. To kids it wouldn't be Christmas without him. It was our tradition to give gifts then, but the ones most unexpected we cherished more. There was always candy in my stockings but the little bag Uncle Ed gave me was like getting an extra present from Santa Claus. He didn't tie up the poke, just twisted it around on top to keep it closed, and even when I was older he'd bring my little poke of candy. You didn't get wrapped bars then, it was all in long sticks, or little pillow bars, you didn't break a tooth trying to chew. That's the kind that went on Granny's walnut cake too.