An Outdoor Christmas
I love old movies. I’ve seen the best of them numerous times, and I pine away for those days when life was more romantic. I just saw White Christmas for maybe the fiftieth time. I always get a tear in my eye at the end. Same with It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. They bring a flood of memories of wonderful Christmases past. I love Christmas.
I remember going on the hill behind Peake’s Gas Station. Some pensioners remember Peake’s place, a long-gone full-service station. Putnam Oil offices now sit where the gas pumps filled your tank at twenty-three cents a gallon. My church youth group bought all the pine trees we wanted from old man Peake at fifty cents apiece. We sawed the trees down, loaded them onto a flatbed truck borrowed from Patterson’s Lumber Company, and took them to our church parking lot where we sold them for two dollars apiece. While we were cutting the trees, we noticed lots of rabbit signs and, after Christmas, Dad and I assailed the bunnies with beagles and a cadre of good friends.
I remember finding an old J.C. Stevens .22 rifle under the tree. I had longed for a .22 for some time and, somehow, Dad had found the few shekels necessary to purchase it for me. I was pleased to no end. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face all Christmas day. The next day, Dad and I threw our deer hides into the trunk of the car and headed toward Galeton. In those days, Smith’s Gloves of Galeton would take your raw deer hide in exchange for a pair of deerskin gloves. I’ve never found gloves that would begin to measure up to Smith of Galeton gloves since. Even soaking wet, they kept your hands warm. On that trip I took my .22. Along the way, I spied a grouse sitting on a tree limb. I asked Dad to stop and I got out, slowly stalking and sneaking toward it. I took the shot and Mr. Grouse fell to the snow. My first shot from that used .22 brought some game home—thanks to Christmas.
Just like the song’s opening lines, we were all dreaming of a white Christmas. It was that romantic thing about snow on Christmas, but it also made rabbit hunting easier. In those days, a midnight Christmas Eve church service was a must. I recall with a lump in my throat those evening services. So many times, there was not a speck of snow when we entered church at eleven o’clock. The service was one of those hour-and-a-half “high church” marathons. So when the rites ended with “Joy to the World,” it really was Christmas and the Lord had come. All the congregants hugged and shook hands and repeated “Merry Christmas” over and over. And it had started snowing. Huge flakes sailed down from the heavens just like those angels 2,000 years ago. The service, the warmth of community, and the snow made it Christmas.
The season was a time for family. My extended family always gathered at a relative’s home to kick off the holiday following the church service. The merrymaking might be at Aunt Catherine’s or Aunt Louise’s or Aunt Flossie’s place. But, after I started hunting, we always gathered at Cousin Louie’s. The festivities involved singing carols to a player piano and imbibing Louie’s hard cider. With the snow, a rabbit hunt was in the offing for the day after Christmas. In between songs and sips, hunts were organized and plans were finalized. After a couple of glasses of the potent cider, Louie insisted on frying up some eggs and venison steak so that the gathering had breakfast before the party broke up. Of course, the men gathered in the kitchen to kibbutz and to retell deer hunting stories. It was Christmas.
The season was also a time for friends and forgiveness. The Christmas I was seventeen, I had had a foolish fight with my best friend, Artie. We were both stubborn and hadn’t spoken to each other for a month. I’d been a jerk and he had followed suit. After the midnight service, before I went to Louie’s place, I stopped at Artie’s home. I had worshipped at Trinity but I knew that he would have gone to the service at St. Paul’s. I knocked on the door and Artie answered. I simply said, “Artie, I’m sorry.” He hugged me and the friendship was tighter than it had ever been. I invited him to Louie’s where he was introduced to hard cider, “We Three Kings,” and “Star of the East.” The day after Christmas, Artie and I joined my Dad and Louie and Craig for a rabbit hunt. A few days later, we all munched on fried rabbits while we watched Penn State play football. It became a ritual for a few years—bunny busting and eating rabbit at Artie’s place. A few years later, I was his best man. And that wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for family, friends, and a thing called forgiveness given freely out of love—love at Christmas.
And the time is for giving and receiving. On our first Christmas, my lovely bride allowed me to purchase a Remington Model 700 BDL 30-06 (she let me get it a month before the holiday so I could use it for the coming deer season). I got the rifle mounted and bore-sighted, equipped with a Leupold Gold Ring 3x9 variable scope, and a box of shells—all for $200. That ought to tell you just how many Christmases ago it was. Over the years, I’ve killed fifty-plus deer with that rifle, and it’s still the only deer rifle I use. Okay, forty-six years later, I need a rest for my rifle and I need to remind myself to squeeze the trigger and not jerk it.
Yes, I love Christmas and all those warm outdoor memories. May you have a happy holiday. And, to quote Tiny Tim, “God bless us, every one.”