The holly tree stood alone in a little clearing. It was as if the clouds had parted and a ray of sunshine pierced through the pines to illuminate it just for us. Resplendent with its emerald leaves and bright red berries, it was the very picture of all that is Christmas.
Granny had sent Baw and me to cut down a Christmas tree for the house. We’d gone to the barn to get some tools, and set off out into the woods to find the perfect tree, Baw carrying the heavy axe and me carrying a little saw. I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.
It was one of those typical South Alabama December days — warmish and humid. The air was thick with the smell of pine and dampness. All the trees had lost their leaves except the pines, and when the wind blew you could hear it whispering through the trees before you felt it. The gray clouds skittered by overhead causing dappled shadows on the pine straw beneath our feet.
We started down our usual trail, the one that wound past the old pear tree and headed back to what we called “The Circle” because ultimately, if you followed what passed for a road, you’d wind up right back where you started. We walked and talked and looked for deer tracks and other interesting things like that. We wandered all the way to the back of our property where the branch was.
The branch is one of my favorite places. It’s in a low spot, more swamp than stream, and if it’s been raining, you can hear the water tinkling though the carpet of leaves. It’s very peaceful and usually a few degrees cooler than it is in the other parts of the wood. It’s largely inaccessible by foot, so it seemed wildly mysterious to me then and now. In a sea of pines, there are hardwoods in the branch.
Baw and I had passed any number of little fir and cedar trees, but none seemed right. Too tall. Too short. Not enough strong branches to bear the weight of the ornaments we’d made by sticking beads, and sequins, and ribbon on to styrofoam balls. Probably couldn’t hold the gold foil star on top.
But it was at the edge of the branch when the clouds parted and God showed us the beautiful holly bright against the winter gray day. We couldn’t bear the thought of cutting the whole thing down, so Baw just sawed the top out of it. Together we half carried half dragged the holly all the way back to the house, him toting the heavy end and me trying to wrestle the light end. It was no mean feat either, because hollies are as prickly as they are beautiful.
Celtic legend says that if you bring holly inside during the dark winter months, fairies will hide from the cold amongst their thorns and, in their gratitude, will later on show kindness to all who live in the home. The Druids also believed that the evergreen holly represented life and health during the darkest months of the year and that it symbolized peace and goodwill.
Let me tell you what, though, when Granny saw us toting that holly tree into the house, goodwill was not what we got. Nor was peace. She was not happy at all with our nontraditional choice of Christmas tree. I figured it was because she hadn’t seen it like we did — with a chorus of hallelujah angels and a spotlight straight from the heavens. Admittedly, it didn’t look quite as impressive in the living room of her house, but Baw was not to be deterred.
Into the stand it went. The decorations came out of the hall closet. We put the lights on that holly, and the ornaments heavy with their beads and glitter, and the garland, and the tinsel. We put the gold foil star on the very top. Finally, we put the tree skirt around the bottom of it, plugged it in, and stepped back to admire our handywork.
And it was grand, just like Baw and I knew it would be. And Granny did love it, just like we knew she would. And the fairies must have brought great favor to our home because a merry Christmas was had by all.