Reflections from Clark’s Cabin: Virginia Country Christmas

Published 11:29 am Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Neil Clark


While many Christmas notions and traditions are spawned in the war-era Austrian Alps, Dicken’s Victorian Era Britain, and a little Inn in Vermont (I hear it’s nice in Vermont this time of year with all of that snow, snow, snow, snow, snooooooow . . . ), for me Christmas memories reside in 1970s rural Virginia. Of course I have many personal memories of specific toys like Stretch Armstrong, camera, and my first bb gun. There were also certain pranks such as the time my parents placed an enormous gift-wrapped present beside the tree weeks ahead of Christmas. Of course the anticipation of my youth and imagination was running wild trying to imagine what was inside – only to discover it filled with newspaper and firewood (redneck equivalent to sticks and coal I suppose). I did end up receiving the actual gift I was wanting that year, but it took me several minutes to revive my Christmas spirit after that shock.

Another part of a rural Virginia Christmas was making your own wreaths from greenery gathered from the woods. Pine, holly and running cedar were readily available in our woodlands of Caroline County. My great-uncle who was in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) taught me how to construct fresh wreaths using metal coat hangers (Do they still make those anymore?) that were plentiful in our house as they carried my dad’s work uniforms home each week. And as much as my eight-year-old eyes thought that my uncle invented this tradition, our family’s more recent Christmas-time jaunts to Colonial Williamsburg reinforce that homemade wreaths were a holiday for Virginians since the beginnings of our country.

Selecting a fresh, perfect Christmas tree has also always been on the list of favorite Christmas memories. I do believe that we cut trees off of our own property a couple of years. These were usually red cedar as they were the only species of suitable size and shape in the natural state to serve the purpose of a Christmas tree. Several years we dug balled and burlapped white pine, and adorned them with popcorn garland and tacky tinsel. After standing sentinel over the gifts and toy trains, the trees were planted in the yard becoming a long-term memorial to Christmas 1982, 84, and so on. I know many have turned to the “plastic tree” as they are pre-lit and nearly free if you pick one up after Christmas. Perhaps it is my rural Virginia upbringing, but there is something about the selection, the smell and the variation of a “real” tree which makes some of the old tree picture memories stand apart. I wonder if children of today will have many splendid recollections of their Christmas trees when all involved is pulling it down from the attic and unfolding it like an umbrella?

Though the tradition of Christmas ham may predate arrival of Europeans on the shores of the new world, the smell of smoked Virginia ham has been a fantastic tradition still held by many in the Tidewater area. Whether you use the cook at once, or the overnight method, there’s nothing like the flavor of a thin sliver of this country staple balanced with enough dinner roll to mediate some of the saltiness. A big ole box of FFA oranges provide some great natural sweetness and are a perfect compliment to country ham biscuits.

Christmas Cookies have been a more recent memory as they become ready-made gifts perfect for even those people who are impossible to shop for. I remember my graduate school years when my dear wife baked 1,800 cookies! Each friend and family member had a favorite one. Gingerbreads, shortbreads, dipped, and of course regular-old sugar cookies decorated in all styles. Although the time crunch has taken its toll on the numbers of cookies baked, many loved ones still have their standing orders placed by Thanksgiving.

Snow has become synonymous with Christmas, though most of Virginia has about the same probability of having a white Christmas as London – six percent. Perhaps that is what makes the event so special. I can not accurately recall which actual Christmas days we had snow (and the associated vanilla flavored “snow cream”), but I can reflect on many Christmas seasons where frolicking in the frozen flurries have been etched on my mind. Finding a good sled hill is challenging in central Virginia. The places where we have topography are covered in trees. This was the case in my backyard, where we did find one or two areas falling down into a swamp where the trees were spaced far enough apart to maneuver my dad’s old “flexible flyer” down through this natural slalom course. Of course the non-directable plastic discs of today would have resulted in almost a guaranteed hospital run. As the group of us only had one runnered sled, we attempted to ride any number of other vehicles down the hill. An aluminum grain scoop makes for a zippy ride, dipping and spinning like some cat-and-mouse chase out of a ’50s cartoon; however it is important to note that the handle poking up provides absolutely NO directional control, but does serve as a handy fulcrum to propel the rider in any random direction once connecting with an objects in its path be it a tree or fellow sledder on the ascending return trudge back up the hill.

Another fabulous Virginia sledding memory took place around Christmas time in Blacksburg where many a fellow Hokie can relate. Turns out the reinforced fiberglass lunch trays polished to mirror perfection by thousands of trips through the dishwasher makes a very able and handy vehicle for hurtling oneself at breakneck speed down Appalachian slopes. However, even in the mountains, finding a viable sled hill not worn-out from overuse by 18,000 teens looking for ANY excuse for procrastinating final exam study isn’t easy. However, even pre-Internet, news traveled quickly that the eighth hole of the municipal golf course provided world-record breaking speeds when re-frozen at 2 a.m. And when the lunch trays played out, greater challenges presented themselves in the form of group sledding on a plastic dumpster lid again devoid of all steering ability. Four out of five times this didn’t matter. However, when free-falling in a mangled-mass of half of a dozen humans, from 12 feet out of the sky after “catching epic air” off of a bunker disguised by the snowfall and the darkness of 2 a.m.; the realization that the ability to direct one’s path along a known course is a logical framework of thought.

Unfortunately, the bruises from that late night flying dumpster-lid-sled ride never receded before being aggravated in the Annual Civilian-Cadet Snowball fight on the drillfield. One would think that being outmanned about 10-to-1 would put the odds in the favor of the civilians. However, the time spent studying tactical warfare favored the cadets, and peltings were received by all.

Among all of these memories, nothing holds the true meaning of rural Virginia Christmas quite like the backbone of the community – the old country church. Youth groups singing Christmas carols to shut-ins. Angel Tree gifts to children in challenging circumstances.

Living nativity displays. Christmas plays and cantatas. And it is my hope that many a child (no matter where life takes them in the years to come) will have fantastic memories of singing Silent Night by candlelight with everyone down in Whoville, the tall and the small . . . Christ the Savior is born!


NEIL CLARK is an extension agent, serving as Southeast District Forestry agent and Southampton Unit coordinator. He can be reached at