Updated: Apr 25, 2022
By Roy Barrette, 1981
Edited by Shannon Butler
In most of the country, about Thanksgiving Day, the first vagrant airs of approaching Christmas are witnessed to by the swaying of colored lights strung by utility company crews across High Street, Broad Street, Main Street, or whatever the principal business thoroughfare in your town is called. In my youth Thanksgiving Day was an occasion when family members gathered together and ate themselves into a semi-comatose condition after they had attended church. The church service got them in the mood as the altar steps were piled high with all the brightly colored fruits of the field and garden. Nowadays, Thanksgiving seems to have been jockeyed by chambers of commerce into the position of lead horse for a continuous spending spree stretching from late November until after New Year’s.
Where I live, happily, it is not quite that way. Not yet anyway. Here, the first signs of Christmas may be detected in the sudden appearance of ancient trucks piled high with undecorated Christmas wreaths lurching around the corners of the narrow roads. Or the load may be simply brush headed for somebody’s dooryard where it will serve as a supply depot for the members of the family who are engaged in “wreathing.”
Wreathing is not a pastime for pale hands, pink tipped and certainly not in a class with embroidery, or making lavender sachets out of odd pieces of silk rescued from the ragbag. The work begins by getting brush out of the woods, which is a cold, sticky, rough job. Experienced wreathers say the spills (which is what the needles are called hereabouts) stay on longer if the brush has been subjected to a couple of frosts. Sometimes the frost turns into snow, which makes the work tougher, and lugging the brush out of the car or truck calls for strength and sure-footedness. Our woods are not like the Black Forest, all combed and orderly. I usually allow my neighbors to cut brush on my place which, except for the fields someone cleared by hand long ago (and one I cleared more recently with a bulldozer), is pretty much as the last ice age left it, studded with boulders as big as a henhouse down to little ones perfectly calculated to cause you to slip and break your ankle.
Balsam fir wreaths are preferable to those made of spruce. They smell better and the needles hang on longer. The fragrance is the thing, though. I send a few south to my unfortunate friends who live in Florida in the winter and the first comment in their “thank you” letter is that they were enveloped by the fragrance of the Maine woods the moment they opened the box. Houses where wreaths are made are filled with the odor of balsam too, but they are filled with something else, and that is, spills. After you have put together a few hundred wreaths on the living room floor you will find needles still around when you do your spring cleaning.
Out here on Naskeag Point and in a hundred remote “Dunnett Landings” (remember Sarah Orne Jewett and The Country of the Pointed Firs?) like it along the coast of Maine, we escape the commercialization of Christmas to a great degree. I don’t claim we are as we were two-hundred years ago when Saddrach Watson ran his store here on “The Point,” and presumably sold rum to the Indians, but there are no more houses or people than there were one hundred years ago. True, we now have to go fifteen miles to Blue Hill to buy our rum, but we make do, and there are still a few apples around if you enjoy a slice of apple floating on the top of your steaming hot toddy.
I don’t know of any great lighting displays, though most houses have a few candles in the windows. Twenty years ago, shortly after I came here, I lugged a ten-foot spruce tree in from the woods and planted it between my house and the barn. For a long time I deco- rated it with colored lights at Christmas. As the years slipped by, I found I needed extra strings of lights until finally I accumulated eight or ten. Decorating that old skunk spruce got to be quite a chore, but I kept it up because my neighbors in the village brought kids down on the crisp winter nights to gaze upon its fountain of color. You have all heard the story of the boy who lifted a calf every day on the theory he could keep it up indefinitely as he would grow stronger as the calf grew bigger. It didn’t work out that way. The calf grew bigger faster than he grew stronger. Finally my spruce did that too. It is not as tall as a redwood, but I now have to look up at it from my bed- room window. The only way I could string lights on it would be by getting the fire laddies to do the job. They would, I am sure. I am the one who gave up. Now I have a dozen wreaths all gay with red ribbons on the panels of my white picket fence. True, you can’t see them at night except as they show up in the headlights of your car, but people enjoy them during the daytime and that is what Christmas dec- orations are for, isn’t it?
Years ago, when my grandchildren were little (they are grown now with children of their own), they used to come to Maine for the holidays and I always took them to the barn on Christmas Eve. There is something particularly appealing, even to non-Christians, about the story of the Christ child lying in a manger. I guess there is not much of a difference between my barn on Naskeag Point and the one in Galilee two-thousand years ago. Joseph would recognize it for what it is. Family barns (not big commercial establishments) are pretty much the same all over the world. There is the same hollow sounds of stamping feet on the barn floor as you open the door; the same scram- bling as the cows rise to greet you; and the same barn smell, that may be offensive to some, but is a pleasant thing to a farmer. People who work the land are alike too. I have a better understanding of a small- holder in England, or a Central American Indian plowing his rocky hillside with a crooked stick than I do of a city man in London with his striped pants and a top hat, or a trader on the floor of the stock exchange in New York.
My purpose in getting the kids to the barn on Christmas Eve was so they could see the cows kneel to the Savior as they do, momentarily, when they rise clumsily to their feet, hind legs first. It was always so mysterious; the dark, shadowy, cobwebby barn, with just a little hay dust shimmering in the air. I always took an old-fashioned lantern with me (a flashlight as a spare) and hung the lamp on the same hook as my predecessors in office had hung theirs on a hundred years ago. There were deep shadows in the corners and when I said, “Be quiet!” the only sounds were those of the breathing of the animals and their restless movements. My cows are gone now but the barn remains awaiting new occupants. Everything else is the same, and who knows, if the world continues on its present course, we may all be glad to get back to the times when eggs came from the henhouse, milk from the family cow, and wool from one’s sheep.
There are no stores around the corner in our rural community, but my neighbors do take their kids to the “city” (Ellsworth, population 5,000) for a little Christmas shopping. They don’t go often, no more than a couple of times. A Christmas shopping spree is still an adventure. They set off with Mother—Father is usually working— and make a day of it. They have lunch (a hamburger or a hot dog, or a pizza, of course) in one of the half-a-dozen eateries; make forays into all the shops, each time piling their purchases in the back of the car; and finally, everybody tired and all their money gone, make their way home thirty or forty miles in the early darkness which falls here by four o’clock at Christmas. On the drive home they pass houses, far spaced for the most part, which have a few Christmas lights swaying from little trees to be glimpsed through the small-paned windows. In Maine you don’t need a large display to let the world know what is in your heart. There are no spectaculars like the Rockefeller Center tree or the one on the White House lawn. The few beckoning red or green flashes, blinking in the windy darkness like the running lights on ships, carry the message just as well.
I will never forget the evening when my wife and I drove to Stonington to attend a joint meeting of school committee members. It had been a stormy week and the forecast was snow for Christmas. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with our local geography, Stonington can be described as a Maine coastal village—working not tourist— built on a solid granite hillside that pitches steeply down to the har- bor. To get to it from the mainland you must cross a high bridge over Eggemoggin Reach onto Little Deer Isle, then over a long causeway not much above sea level to Deer Isle, then the full length of the island to where Stonington looks out over a gaggle of small islands to Isle au Haut and the Atlantic Ocean.
It was dark when we started, but we had no trouble until we reached the causeway, which had been flooded at high water. The ebbing tide had left ice floes here and there the whole length of the road. Already a truck was using its snowplow to shove the larger pieces back into the ocean. The chore was not a straightforward job because the causeway is lined each side with big granite boulders and the floes had to be eased through the open spaces between them. Anyway, with ingenuity and patience we got across. It took a while and the car was not too warm, but when we climbed the hill on Deer Isle and I began to see candles in the windows and a few colored lights here and there, I felt rewarded for our efforts. The moon came out, too, and I have seldom seen anything more beautiful than the combination of twinkling lights, dark water covered with ice floes, and the high bridge silhouetted against a sky of hurrying broken clouds.
I am going back for another look this Christmas. A new Christmas, but the enchantment will be the same. The moon and the ice floes have been around since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, older than Christmas, and are about as close as I shall come to touching the hem of the robe of immortality.
Roy Barrette was a columnist, author, and writer who lived on Amen Farm in Brooklin. This essay originally appeared in Down East magazine, reproduced in Shannon Butler's All is Calm. All Is Calm is a look at the lives of Mainers during the holidays from the mid-1800s, to the Great Depression, to modern day. Spanning nearly 200 years, these stories show that while Christmas traditions and trends may be changing, the warmth, gratitude, and humility of the Maine spirit is evergreen.