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My friend Peggie Shultz recently shared some examples from her family’s collection of Christmas traditions and anecdotes and left me with the feeling that I was in the past, enjoying them with her relatives and friends.
Peggie grew up in Durham and remembers that her father would travel to the North Carolina coast each December to rabbit hunt. She recalls that her father would come back to Durham with not only rabbits but also a supply of running cedar to use as Christmas greenery in their home.
The running cedar, also known as ground cedar, crowsfoot and clubmoss, is an ancient low-growing plant that has been used for medicinal purposes and for Christmas greenery for many years. It is a hardy species that covers the forest floor in large colonies.
Peggie’s father would harvest the fragrant plant in runners as long as 10 feet and use them to make the house festive for Christmas.
She also remembers that her father found mistletoe on the rabbit-hunting expeditions and would shoot it down from high in the trees to take back to Durham to hang in the house and maybe to inspire a few Christmas kisses for the holiday.
Rabbits, running cedar, mistletoe — all were just the beginning of the family’s store of traditions and memories that Peggie shared with me on an early December afternoon.
At Christmas, her parents would wrap presents and put them under the tree without any names written on them, making the anticipation and suspense keen on Christmas morning.
Speaking of trees, their tree was mostly green: green tree, green lights, green tree skirt and ornaments of mostly green, with a little splash of other colors here and there. Is there any other color we associate more with Christmas than green? Maybe red, but green was king on their tree.
Peggie tells that she and her sister would get up in the wee hours on Christmas Day to find their parents still asleep. One year, to get their parents out of bed to open presents, the girls taught themselves to make coffee in the kitchen to entice their parents out of bed with the tempting aroma.
A charming anecdote tells of the time Peggie and her sister got up in the wee hours, their parents still asleep, of course, and saw a shiny, new bike under the tree. Peggie, in her excitement, wanted her parents to see the bike, so she pushed it into their small bedroom and could not figure out how to get it back out. She said that she was 8 or 9 years old and did not know how to roll the bike backward and maneuver it out of the room. When she finally got it outside, she rode it and immediately ran into a car parked on the street. Her bike experience that year was rich with excitement and drama, to put it mildly.
As Peggie and I were chatting about Christmas past, we were enjoying a cuppa tea and some of her incomparable peanut brittle. In our chat, I enjoyed the story of when she and her husband were just married and they lived in upstate New York. She ran across a copy of Christmas Bazaar Magazine and saw a recipe for peanut brittle. The rest is history.
Peggie fell in love with the recipe and has been making and sharing peanut brittle for the last 45 years. She said, “ Christmas would not be the same without it.”
She recited the ingredients from memory and admitted that the baking soda makes her candy a little lighter than some recipes, making the peanut-brittle experience a little more friendly on the teeth. She also said that she keeps peanut brittle in the same tin she has been using for a number of years, another element of her candy tradition.
When she and her family lived in Salt Lake City, she had Aunt Ruby’s from Enfield ship those good old Jimbo’s Jumbo peanuts to Utah, giving her peanut brittle an authentic North Carolina flavor.
One of the most delightful parts of my visit was seeing the exquisite beaded trees made by Peggie’s grandmother many years ago.
Her grandmother, a milliner by trade, must have had a sense of style and delicate handwork. After her retirement, she started designing small Christmas trees and floral arrangements made of the tiniest glass beads imaginable. She strung thousands of beads on wire and created Christmas trees and flowers, so colorful, delicate and delightful to the eye.
One of the positives about the trees and flowers is that they do not deteriorate or become faded. They are as beautiful today as the day they were made, and they can be cleaned by swishing them around in a bucket of water. The beads, much smaller than a BB, will be around for years to come. Peggie’s husband always put his little beaded tree on his desk in his office during the Christmas season when they lived in Salt Lake City.
After our pleasant conversation about Christmas traditions and anecdotes and a little comfort provided by a cuppa tea and taste of peanut brittle, I drove home with visions of running cedar, mistletoe, green-on-green Christmas trees, Christmas bikes and charming beaded trees dancing in my head.
And my Christmas spirit took flight after the telling of all those anecdotes and traditions, and it is still flying up a Christmas storm.
Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on the charms of home, school and country life.