Christmas At The Buzzards
The long, winding lane was well trodden by Ox's great Shire horses' hooves and the runners of his sleigh and farm sleds. There was always an empty box stall for Bucket-head Bess in the barn which was decorated with sprigs of ground-pine, well above the horses reach. I could not help pausing for a moment to admire the huge, gentle creatures gazing at me in quiet curiosity over their stall doors. Their long manes and feathered legs were brushed shining clean and their tails swept the golden straw of their bedding. They nodded and nickered softly in greeting, seeming to understand my apology for not petting each of the soft, steaming noses turned expectantly toward me.
Crossing the bridge over the ice-crusted stream, I sped up the path toward the huge log cabin that was the Buzzards home. The broad plank door was crowned with pine boughs and tall, thick candles stood in every window, ready to send glimmering welcome into the night should any weary traveler pass by in search of shelter.
As always, before I reached the door, it was flung open and several of the children came running out to meet me.
"Katylou be here for Christmas." the little ones, all taller than I, called out merrily. "You'm in time to see the tree brought in. You kin hep us trim it. Come see the cakes. Come taste the cookies. Come watch Mammy make the Christmas Pie." and I was dragged, willy-nilly into the warm, cheerful heart of the family.
"Welcome, Katylou. Roxy, lay Katy's wraps away in my chamber." Clorinda engulfed me in her arms for a quick hug. "Hannie, get the poor child a warm drink. She must be froze, riding all that way in the cold."
Sitting at a corner of the table with my cup of warm milk and a handful of delicious cookies, shared by the twins who tried to tell me everything they were doing all in one breath, I watched the bustle of baking, brewing, and other preparations going on around me. Foremost was the magical concoction of the wonderful Christmas Pie.
A large (everything in this gigantic household seemed extra large to me, used as I was to my six-foot father and uncles) a large milk-pan had been lined with pie crust and filled with Clorinda's spicy mincemeat. Beside it on a clean towel lay an assortment of trinkets; a thimble, a gold ring, several silver and gold coins, and other small metal charms. These she poked into the filling here and there before covering it with a lattice crust.
"When we cut it on Christmas Day, Mammy tells our fortunes for the next year from what we find in our piece." Roxy explained.
"Hit's an old custom." Clorinda added. "We always had a Christmas Pie back home t'other side of the mountains."
Just as the pie was placed in the oven, Nimmie flung open the door with a ringing cry, "Here we come with the tree, Mammy. We got us the biggest, bestest one ever."
With a gust of cold air and a flurry of snow, in came Ox, the stump of the tree high on his massive shoulder, followed by Nate and Sim bearing the tall tree's tip-end.
"Welcome, Katylou. Happy Christmas." Ox boomed in his glorious deep voice, shaking the snow from his hair and beard. "We're proud to have you hep us with our tree ifn you care to. Git the wood and hammer, Nate, till we git hit standing straight as hit did in the woods. Now, Rindy, don't fuss. We'll not spoil your baking with our piney tree, lass."
Soon the tree stood in the corner farthest from the heat and we all suffered agonies while Ox and Nate trimmed off bits of branches to tidy its shape.
"Oh, not so much, Pappy." "Nate, not that piece." "Oh, Pap, ye cut too much." but he hadn't and the tree soon stood ready for its finery.
Roxy brought out a box of ornaments, mostly home-made from bits of silver paper, red ribbons, hand-carved birds and animals, pine cones, strings of popcorn that had been the labor of several evenings, and a few precious glass balls from the general store. Candles were mounted in metal holders but would be lighted only briefly when the whole family was gathered to admire them.
I was happily lost and jostled amid my large friends who laughingly assigned me to do the lower branches since I was "sech a leetle thang." We hung and draped and rehung and redraped until everyone stood back, glowing and satisfied with our work. The tree was splendid! We gazed on it with awe and wonder until Clorinda exclaimed: "The Christmas Pie! I plum forgot. T'will be burnt to a cinder, I vow."
But Mz McCoy had been watching and it was withdrawn, browned and steaming with mouth-watering aroma, from the oven and carried away to the pantry to cool and ripen until time for cutting. While this flurry went on, Lonnie disappeared, returning shortly with a bundle held behind his back.
"Pappy and Mammy, I got a gift for us all and I'd like to give it now, ifn you please." He laid the bundle on the table and slowly unwrapped it. "I been working on it ever since the Church Christmas last year. I got the notion we should have our own Christmas scene, liken. I done it slow and careful, Pap, like you taught me to, and Katylou's Grandsir heped with a few of the hard bits. I hope you'uns be pleased."
Lonnie set out the carved figures of a creché, unpainted, but lovely in their simplicity. The animals, a donkey, two cows, and several sheep, were especially well done. The people in their flowing robes and the tiny Baby in his rough-hewn crib held a quiet beauty of their own. Ox laid an affectionate arm around his son's shoulders and Clorinda wiped away a tear with her apron as she turned to clear a small table to hold this new treasure.
Some bits of wood were found to make a stable. The younger children watched wide-eyed as Lonnie arranged his gift. Then the sweet strains of an old Christmas hymn rose from the strings of Sim's violin and we all sang together. "Away in a manger, no crib for his bed..." followed by carol after carol until Clorinda and Ox sang the Cherry Tree Carol with the rest of us just listening.
"Good lands, tis supper time. We must eat, then Ox, you take Katylou back down the track to the Big Farm. Scurry 'round, Roxy. Yes, Katy-child, you may help set on the dishes. Scoot, you boys to the chores, hurry now."
Salt pork frizzled in the pan and the potatoes Mz McCoy had put on earlier boiled nearby. There was succotash and slabs of fresh-baked bread to sop up milk-gravy made from the pork drippings. Sweet, golden butter, sour pickles redolent of dill and spice, shimmering apple jelly and an ocean of warm, frothing milk as well as strong black coffee and both dried-apple and blueberry pies and walnut cake topped off the meal.
Roxy had whispered in my ear of gifts, home made and store bought, that were hidden away against the coming of Santa Claus. Later, as Ox rode ahead of me down the lane in the cold winter evening, I thought of the merriment that would ring through the log cabin on Christmas morning. I also smiled to myself over the bundle of gifts waiting at the Big Farm for Ox to carry back up the lane.
I snuggled into my warm trundle bed that night with a comfortable, happy excitement that soon faded into deep peaceful sleep. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and all was right, bright, and cheerful in the Buzzards' and my world.