Christmas traditions endure, evolve, fade

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Christmas trees, for many of us, have become our three-dimensional family albums. On their branches, brought out for display once a year, are tales of family growth, loss and love.

I insisted for many years that our Christmas tree must be green and native. That meant it had to be a red cedar, personally cut down on some Isle of Wight farm thanks to the generosity of a landowner.

When we were living in Northern Virginia in the late 1960s (the Navy had sent me there), we became quite nostalgic for a live tree and drove out toward Manassas into what was then a rural section of Fairfax County. There on a hillside were dozens of red cedars in a broom straw field. We stopped and asked the landowner if he would consider selling one so that we could put it in our apartment for Christmas. He asked why we were living in Arlington and after learning we were a military family, said his trees were not for sale. However, we could take our pick with his blessing.

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We did, and still have photos of our oldest child, Beth, then a toddler, holding the handsaw.

We went back the next year and took the owner a fruitcake. He said he’d been wondering if we would come.

Once back in Smithfield, we thought there would be an endless supply of cedars. There were not. For several years, the Smithfield Bypass right-of-way was a source. The bypass was new, cedars were prolific and small, and VDOT was not unhappy to see a few young trees thinned each year.

As my insistence on cedar trees became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible to fulfill, I acquiesced to having a “bought” tree from a tree farm, but again, we cut it down.

We have now resorted to plastic. I say that with some embarrassment — but not much — for along the way, I have come to understand that “the tree” wasn’t nearly as important as what was displayed upon it. And the smell of cedar is no less refreshing when it comes from branches tucked into mantels and shelves.

No, it’s the ornaments that matter, and they matter a lot.

There are traditions here that predate us. My mother loved to tell of Christmas trees in her family home just north of Surry Courthouse. Each Christmas Eve, a cedar tree was brought into the house and decorated with what few “bought” ornaments the family had plus others handmade. Then, little candles were placed in tiny holders that were clamped to tree limbs and her father carefully lit them with wooden matches. This after a bucket of water had been drawn from the well and brought into the house as a safety measure.

After she, her siblings and parents had admired the tree for a few minutes, the candles were carefully extinguished, not to be lit again.

One of those candleholders has hung on our tree for many years until it went missing this year, but hopefully will turn up again someday. It’s been a reminder of a family tradition now more than a century old.

We also have a handful of the blown glass ornaments that she carried with her into marriage and a new life in Isle of Wight more than 80 years ago.

Then, there are the delicate lace snowflakes and little angels crocheted by Anne’s grandmother and given to us soon after we married more than a half century ago. She also made elaborately decorated Styrofoam tree balls and they too are scattered about.

There are, of course, ornaments made by our children and photos of them as well as grandchildren in little frames. There’s a tiny, plastic reindeer that was given me as “my” ornament when I was probably a preschooler. His little antlers have long since been broken off and lost, but he retains his place on the tree each year.

For decades, an increasingly bedraggled cardinal nested in our trees. It finally lost its head and was retired, to be replaced by a newer model, feathers intact.

And atop it all is the angel we bought for our first Christmas tree “away from home” all those years ago. She too is becoming a bit time-worn, but she continues to preside proudly over the rites of a family Christmas every year.

This Christmas will be much quieter than in most years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Christmas ornaments, a bit of greenery and the presence of immediate family will make it special nonetheless.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is