There were three traditions that replayed each year at my rural home—a wild cedar, fruitcakes, and a book.
The first weekend in December, we’d all pile into the battered old Ford, drive down to the Suwanee River, and hike along the banks looking for a wild cedar. The tree crew consisted of me, my little brother, Daddy, and Mother. Took us a while to find the perfectly shaped, just right height, cedar to carry home and place before our picture window.
My brother and I anticipated two gifts every year. The first was a stocking stuffed with oranges and pecans. We cracked the nuts by positioning two together in our hands, squeezing them, and picking the nut meat out. We’d toss the broken shells into the open fire and watch them flare up in a blueish flame. The oranges, taken from a case of citrus sent directly from the south Florida groves by Granny and Granddad, were the sweetest.
But the real treasure, annually, was a book. Until my brother, eight years younger than myself, learned to read, we shared a book. Annie of Green Gables, The Black Stallion series, and books by Jack London were favorites. Brother, me, and Mother read a chapter each evening beginning Christmas night. The time shared – her in the old armchair, brother sitting in her lap, and me perched on an overstuffed arm – was priceless. As time went by, and my brother learned to read, we nonetheless gathered in the evenings over a chapter. That gift of reading, of time shared, and windows thrown open on adventure, remains with me today.
Our third tradition was fruitcake. Mother, Granny, various aunts, and cousins gathered the first week of November to make fruitcakes. Candied fruit, nuts, and butter were added to a dark molasses batter while we mixed and talked family into lore. Once baked, the cakes were stored away in a large, clean lard can, wrapped in a homemade, peach brandy-soaked cloth until Christmas week, when they were given as gifts to family and neighbors.
While time has taken its toll, memories remain warm. I don’t make fruitcake nor peach brandy. There’s no wild Christmas tree. Oranges still make nice stocking stuffers. Salvaged among the glitter and commercialism, there rests a traditional fruitcake and books. Special gifts for chosen family.