We all have certain rituals that make Christmas, Christmas. For me, it is taking a long walk through a forgotten place, a place where no one has been for a very long time. As a teenager growing up near Stone Mountain, Georgia, I was able to cut through the woods behind my subdivision and find myself on dirt roads, roads with names of the families who once lived there such as Biffle and Young. The trees of the forests have gone bare and the only signs of life are honeysuckle and evergreen shrubs. Old homeplaces sigh as they pass into the leaves, leaving behind a fallen chimney, a trash pile of glass jars, or rusty farm tools. Abandoned barns where I used to sit with friends lean sideways, about to fall. Why do I love these places so much? Why do they call to me and say, “This is Christmas”? Perhaps because my mother had it, too. That sixth sense. She loved the Truman Capote story, A Christmas Memory, about a young boy who went out with an elder friend to gather pecans. Their gift, each to another, was handmade kites.
This year I went to a piece of land where there was once a house that sheltered me and my growing family for seven years. The house had burned to the ground a year or so after we moved. I went looking to gather white pine branches that were once at arm’s reach, from pines that hosted a hammock where my son and I would swing, and I would listen to his thoughts about the world. The pines were now huge. The needled branches, three stories high. Non-native invasive privet had taken up residence across the once-open back yard that lead down to a private lake. Usually uplifted by my winter wanderings, I felt defeated.
But then, from the north, a dark shadow swooped across the land like a hawk. Its head was large and its body stout. It landed high in the branches of a tree, a tree that for years I had looked out upon as I raised a small boy and wrote my first book and had once seen a sleepy racoon slowly emerge from its hollow at sunset. I had to move, walk to a different vantage point to be sure. It must be an owl. And then it took flight across the pond and I knew. It was an owl, even though it was daylight, just past noon.
The land is advertised for sale and had a sign that proclaimed, “Under Contract.” I went on to gather what greens I could from a few low-lying branches from the pines in the front. I found some native holly and clipped red berries from a thorny pyracantha. This year, as I wandered among the old forgotten places, I realized that some of the places where I have lived and thrived are joining the ranks of those forgotten places.
At Christmas, as we celebrate that the world is full of great and wonderful things, we know somehow, amidst the sparkling lights, that it’s the little things, the secret, quiet things that happen just for us, that truly make it Christmas.