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This time of year is often one of the busiest, with people hustling and bustling to get to additional activities related to the holidays, to work longer or harder to buy extra gifts for their loved ones, and the end result is we often are left with feelings of exhaustion, stress and anxiousness. Many people are blessed with a lot of close family at the holidays. Others find themselves at loose ends because they do not have a close knit family to spend the time with. Television, magazines, radio, social media – they all tell us how joyful and rich and rewarding the holidays are, when for many, it’s a time fraught with emotion.

Sometimes, you can think back on that ONE holiday memory that sticks out, not because of the big, extravagant nature of the gift you received, but of the lingering emotion, the peacefulness that memory brought, that took you out of the hustle and bustle, and back to a simpler, yet more authentic celebration.

My memory of such a moment goes like this.

I was around 9 or 10 years old and traveling with my mother in our family’s pinto to see her parents who lived in Leslie County, Kentucky. My father had to work and so my mom and I were taking them some gifts and spending the night with them. We planned on staying one night before returning back to our home to have Christmas with my older brothers and the rest of our immediate family. My grandparents’ home was tucked against the Eastern Kentucky mountainside, back in what we called the “holler.” It was coal country, and in the evenings when we would visit, my grandfather and I would sit on the front porch and count the coal trucks as they went by, and he would point out when the owls hooted just what they were really saying. In the mornings, my grandfather would bring in those big, shining lumps of coal and stoke the fire with them while I lay snug on the pull out sofa. He would come inside with a rush of cool air, and I’d raise up at the chill. He would smile at me, and I’d watch the burning glow as he fed the coal stove.

This particular year, my mom had told me on our drive there that my grandmother was feeling a little blue this holiday. My grandmother had 14 children, and now, in her senior years, I believe the silence of the house must have been painful. So, my mother and I made a pact to bring some holiday cheer to them both.

As we drove deeper in to eastern Kentucky, snow began to fall. My mom and I sang Christmas carols on the drive and talked about the things we would be doing when we got back from this visit. When we arrived at my grandparents, we took in our gifts, and I looked around. Where is your tree, I asked her? I had to put the presents under the tree! She shrugged, saying she had not bothered with one. I told my mom that we had to go get a tree, because in my child’s mind, we couldn’t have Christmas without one. My mom looked outside. The snow had begun to fall in great, big snowflakes. I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen snowflakes that large ever in my lifetime, except that day. She didn’t think we should venture out on the winding road.
I was crushed, but then I said, why can’t we go get one in the woods? My mother said well, we don’t have a tree stand, but, let’s go see what we can find. So, my mom and grandmother and I all bundled up in the afternoon, snow falling all around us, and we walked into the woods around my grandparents’ house. We walked a long time, and my mother saw a tree that seemed to be dying. It had a few branches still green, and my mother took the knife she’d brought and cut them. I had no idea what she was planning. I picked up some pine cones on our walk and soon we were back in the warmth of their home. My mother had always been so good at arranging flowers and she went to work with the branches and pine cones. She created a really lovely centerpiece of branches, and found some ribbon in my grandmother’s sewing supplies.

But something was missing. An Angel atop the “tree.”

My grandmother had these large, heavy drapes in her bedroom. I used to love to play with the tassels on them. I had an idea. I asked my grandmother if I could have the tassel and she said that I could, so we cut off the tassel, with the wide face and braid trailing from the ends. My grandmother knew what I was doing, so she got to work on her sewing machine and soon had sewn a tiny dress and angel wings. We needed a body though, so we found a wooden spoon. Turning the tassel upside down created a face and the trailing braid resembled hair. We perched the bright red tassel atop the wooden spoon and slipped on the dress and wings my granny had made. We looked it and suddenly began to laugh. It was quite a sight, this red tassel that my mom had drawn eyes and a nose and mouth on, with the dress and hastily made wings on a wooden spoon. My grandmother laughed so hard soon my grandpa was laughing too and suddenly it was the best Christmas ever. We placed the makeshift angel in the centerpiece and sang carols and began to decorate the centerpiece, threading popcorn onto string. I even had construction paper and we made a chain of rings. Soon, our home made “tree” was complete.

I’ll never forget that memory, or how the small house in Leslie County went from somber and unfestive, to filled with laughter and love, not because of extravagant gifts, but because of time, creativity, and time with loved ones. We ended up being snowed in there for a few days, and we had to postpone our celebration back at our house. Instead, at my grandparents, we played in the snow, and I didn’t care that I didn’t have any presents. I remember laughing and playing with my mom and my grandmother, and my grandpa stoking that coal fire with a twinkle in his eye.