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Deck the Halls

December 5, 2011
This column is an excerpt from Kirk H. Neely’s new book
Santa Almost Got Caught: Stories for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.
 

The tradition of bringing greenery into our homes at Christmas originated centuries ago with ancient Celtics. The Druids were fearful that the winter solstice, marked by the decreasing light of the sun, meant that the world was doomed to darkness. The Yule log kept the fire burning, oil lamps illuminated the house, and evergreens were brought inside to encourage the sun to return. In Celtic countries the use of holly and ivy were more common than the German custom of bringing an entire tree into the home.

Last year, as in every past year, I hoisted from its stand the Christmas tree that had graced our home for several weeks. I wrestled it out of the front door, leaving an impressive accumulation of Fraser fir needles in its wake.  Returning to the living room, I found Clare vacuuming the remains from the carpet.

I raised the obvious question, first uttered by Uncle Asbury.  Long ago, standing in the same room in the same house, he asked, “Who ever thought that cutting a tree, carrying it inside the house, and letting it dry out for a few weeks was a good idea?”

Legend has it that one cold, starlit night just before Christmas, Martin Luther brought a fir tree into his home and decorated it with candles. Unfortunately, a home with a freshly cut tree inside may offer more than just the light of Christmas.

Our good friends in the pest control business have numerous stories about unwanted critters, nestled in Christmas trees, gaining entrance into homes.  A praying mantis egg case lodged deep within the branches may breach a home undetected. Warmed to room temperature, the eggs will hatch, releasing hundreds of green insects.  Similar experiences with ladybug beetles are not uncommon. While both are useful insects in the great outdoors, they are unwelcome intruders inside a home.

When I was a boy, our Christmas trees were cut from the family farm in southern Spartanburg County.  On a Saturday afternoon several weeks before Christmas, my dad, granddad and I, along with many uncles and cousins, scoured the woods. We gathered holly branches laden with red berries and shot mistletoe loaded with white berries out of the tops of oak trees.  With a bow saw, we cut a red cedar Christmas tree for each family home.  We then loaded the greenery onto the bed of a three-ton lumber truck and made our way back to Spartanburg.

On one occasion, my dad, my brothers, and I carried a fragrant red cedar into our living room.  The family decorated the tree that night, enjoying popcorn and hot chocolate. Several days later, Mama, in a panic, telephoned Dad at the lumberyard.  It was highly unusual for my mother to call the lumberyard and even more out of the ordinary for my dad to leave his place of business.  That day though, he rushed home to haul the red cedar, decorations and all, out of the house and onto the front lawn. Our Christmas tree was literally crawling with red spiders. After spraying it with a foul-smelling pesticide, he later brought the cedar back into the house.  That Christmas, the tree’s cedar fragrance never returned, even after we hung cedar-scented car deodorizers like Christmas ornaments on its branches.

In recent years, Clare and I have continued to purchase Fraser firs for our Christmas tree.  A few years ago, our North Carolina-grown fir had a tag attached to the top, indicating that the tree had been treated with pesticides. It was certified to be insect-free, but that comforting assurance was short-lived. Within several days, creepy black bugs appeared all over the carpet and the drapes near the tree. The certified fir was infested with black pine aphids. Our aforementioned pest control friends once again came to the rescue, thoroughly spraying the tree and our living room. Bringing the great outdoors inside the house certainly has its hazards.

A woman who recently moved to the South was fascinated by the traditional Christmas decorations in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, and in Old Salem, North Carolina. She decided to grace her front door with a large grapevine wreath adorned with fresh fruit. She purchased apples, pears, lemons, and a pineapple.

With pruning shears in hand, she trudged through the woods near her home, gathering twisted vines dangling from tall trees. She spent most of one Saturday weaving the vines into a wreath. She attached the fruit and a large red bow. Admiring her handiwork, she thought her natural creation needed a finishing touch – a string of multicolored blinking lights.

The completed wreath had morphed in style from a Williamsburg Christmas theme to a New Orleans Mardi Gras motif. That front door was the talk of the entire neighborhood.

The woman awoke on Sunday morning in great distress. She was suffering from a severe allergic reaction, complete with swollen eyes and a rash from head to toe.

The physician at an urgent care clinic examined the poor woman and diagnosed, “I’m not sure how you did it, but you have the worst case of December poison ivy I have ever seen!”

The gaudy wreath on the woman’s front door had not been made from grapevines at all. It was poison ivy!

Deck the halls, but please be careful!

Kirk H. Neely
© December 2011
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