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Discover Mid-America — December 2007

Christmas traditions

by Doug Bratcher

Tradition happens when people enjoy an event or activity enough to try it again. Add to that Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary definition of tradition as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example without written instructions.”

Here are a few of the traditions handed down to me from my grandfather, C. S. Bratcher (1891-1983), a pastor in Kentucky for over seventy years, over fifty of those years in the county seat of Union in Morganfield. KY. He passed along traditions from his own upbringing in rural Kentucky.

In the 1930s, C.S. purchased land, which he used for farming and for building a home, a place where we gathered for holidays. My family was fortunate to live in a house right behind his.

The first days of December sparked thoughts of Christmas and all the associated chores the holiday demanded. Gathering mistletoe to hang in doorways and from the ceiling light in the living room was one of the first traditions of the season.

We took an old single-shot .22 rifle down from its perch in the workroom between the kitchen and the outside door. If we needed shells, I walked to the hardware store and bought a box of shorts, long rifle or hollow points for fifteen cents. My grandfather and I then took off in his black Ford toward the river bottoms in search of the green parasite found in the top of tall cottonwood trees. Our goal was to find a bunch of mistletoe full of white berries the birds hadn’t yet discovered. Shooting down the green bunches was a challenge. A well-aimed shot in the center of a cluster broke the stems loose, causing the mistletoe to drop at our feet. We gathered all we could carry and headed across the frozen field toward the warmth promised by the old car

As Christmas grew nearer, we hunted Christmas trees and greenery for garland and wreaths in an old farm field near Lock and Dam #49 on the Ohio River near Uniontown. An old two-story brick house stood in the field facing the river. According to popular lore, a steamboat captain built it for his wife to watch the boats go up and down the river. I explored both floors of that old house more than once while thinking about the souls who had lived there. A large Bois D’ Arc tree with scattered hedge apples beneath it stood near the house. “Dad” explained the tree was commonly used by the Indians to makes their hunting bows. The French named the tree while fighting along side the Indians during the French and Indian War in the 1700s against our colonial ancestors.

We sought three young cedar trees with perfect sloping shapes. Although many cedars dotted the highway road banks, the perfect tree was hard to find, and we needed more than one.

One tree for our house, one for my grandfather’s house, and a large one for the church made a bulky haul for the trunk of the old black Ford. With a chopping axe and a saw, we harvested trees and looked for some mature branches dark with blue berries to use over the fireplace mantel. After pulling and dragging it all back to the car and tying down the day’s bounty as best we could, we turned toward home.

Christmas cards came from friends, family and local retail stores. Dad strung two lines of black-waxed string between the front door frame and the door facing that led into the hallway. He hung Christmas cards on the strings so all could see his colorful card collection. The cards were easy to pick up and read, with all the messages about Christmas — none of the “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” — but each one about Christmas and the Christ child. Christmas was always about the birth of Jesus in our family. Christmas to us was a celebration characterized by rejoicing.

Preparations for the Christmas program at the church included making treats. Dad would get several small brown paper sacks from the grocery store to fill with goodies: an orange, some English walnuts, filberts, almonds and pecans along with a few Brazil nuts in each sack, and some with candy, too. Brown plumps of chocolate-coated sugar candy and red candy canes, with white twists of stripes, completed the treat sack. The evening concluded with the appearance of Santa Claus to distribute the treat bags.

We waited until Christmas Eve to bring the tree inside to decorate after we’d secured it in a metal red and green stand with turn-screws. Lights and decorations were removed from the storage box in the attic and checked carefully. Colored liquid inside the lights bubbled up when they got warm, creating the illusion of candles that were traditional lights on trees long before electricity. Long and shiny icicles hung from every branch. Tree garland was a rope of shiny tin foil. Popcorn strung by a needle on sewing thread and scalloped around the tree added a touch of white to the colorful decorations. We were then ready for Christmas Day.

Christmas Day brought all the family together for a stuffed goose or baked chicken dinner. We held hands around the table as we said a blessing penned by Albert H. Hutchinson in the 1930s. In unison, we prayed:

For all the blessings of the year
For all the friends we hold so dear,
For peace on earth, both far and near,
We thank thee, Lord.

Oyster dressing was always on the table, along with other staples like mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberries, green beans, baked apples, sweet potatoes and pies of many sorts.

Once we’d all eaten way too much, we moved to the living room to hand out presents. Santa would call down the chimney with a HO, HO, HO, which caused me to bolt outside to see if I could spot him on the roof.

He was always faster than I and nowhere in sight. When the presents were handed out inside, I got a book. Each Christmas, the book was inscribed “From Dad, Christmas 19__.” The book and a candy cane were my presents. My mother often remarked, “The pretty tree is a fine gift to each of us.”

Merry Christmas to all!

Doug Bratcher and his wife Jan own Bratcher Cooperage in Liberty, MO.


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