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A White Christmas in Maine

December 25, 2000

"...and we'll be leaving Ferrisburg as soon as Chris gets off from work, but that won't be until 8pm or so" April said. "He's got the late shift on Friday." She was calling a couple of weeks before Christmas to let us know their travel plans.

"So you'll drive straight through?" I asked. "We'll figure on you arriving late."

"I'd expect around midnight or so. You said it took you about 4 hours from Burlington when you were over for Thanksgiving? Don't wait up for us. We're bringing Abbey with us - is that OK?"

"We'll leave the light on and the latch key out, but we'll probably still be up wrapping packages and stuff. Sure - bring your dog along - he's family isn't he? Besides, Happy is looking forward to seeing his buddy again."

"When will everyone else be arriving?" April asked.

"Jim and Alison and the kids are coming up on Saturday morning - they'll have their 2 dogs and the 6 new puppies as well with them. Derek is back from his ship in San Diego on leave, so you'll have a chance to see him. We still don't have a confirmation on Kim or Russ yet - it all depends on their work schedule that day. Allen and his dog Caleb may also be here in his ancient Winnebago. In any event it is going to be a full house - we're all looking forward to seeing you all again for Christmas!" I said.

"Don't forget your skis or snowshoes - we've got about 6" of nice powder snow here. I want to show you my new ski trail down back through the woods to the river."

"The Old Homestead -
Going Home for the Holidays"
Etching by Granville Perkins
from Harper's Weekly
Dec 25, 1875
The family all made it home for Christmas, and we had a fine holiday to remember for years. As I look out from the office window with the snow gently falling over the white fields and woods, I am truly thankful and content. Christmas for me is a nostalgic time, combining the celebration of the birth of Christ with the giving of presents, cutting the Christmas tree and family reunions, Christmas music and the splendor of a snowy white Christmas, and coming into a warm kitchen full of the smell of holiday cooking.

This is our first Christmas at the Farmhouse as Mainers (we were here last Christmas, but just "visiting" from Albany.) (See Years End at the Farmhouse). But this year there was plenty of time to make plans for the kids to all gather, to get out the decorations from several houses, to pull out the cookbooks for Christmas treats, and to really get into the holiday season. And we did!

Cutting the Christmas Tree

Last year, both because I was out of town, and in keeping with the brown Christmas (no snow), we had no Christmas tree. We really didn't get into the Christmas spirit. There was no family gathering. If I remember rightly, we even went out to a restaurant for Christmas dinner (what a bummer!).

This year, we started right after Thanksgiving to change that. I know that a lot of folks prefer an artificial tree, because it is no fuss nor bother with fallen needles all over the place. We even know people that swear by a scotch pine or even a white pine, fresh cut or off the tree lot, as the only "real" Christmas tree. There was one memorable Christmas in Saigon, many years ago, when I found a Norfolk Pine at the central market for our apartment - the tree and I made quite a stir, traveling through downtown traffic in two pedicabs - one for me, and one for the tree.

However, as far as I am concerned, the only Christmas tree worth having is a balsam fir. Preferably one that you have cut yourself on a "tree-cutting" outing. A Douglas Fir, a Colorado Blue Spruce, or even a White Fir will work in a pinch, but the balsam is clearly the tree of choice. Fresh-cut, it fills the house with its wonderful resin scent. The boughs are great for decorating the mantle and tabletops. Someday we'll learn how to make wreaths for the doors from them.

"Green is...the color of Christmas. For it is the prickly living boughs of the evergreens that we carry inside to celebrate. They make our mantels festive, their wreaths adorn our doors...the wonder of a Christmas tree of genuine vibrant green."

Marjorie Holmes, At Christmas The Heart Goes Home, Doubleday, 1991.

Some thirty years ago my father and I planted about 5,000 Christmas trees in the field behind their house in Taylor City, South Effingham, NH. I remember battling swarms of black flies as we tried to remember "green side up" for the bundles of balsam fir, scotch pine and red pine seedlings that we were planting.

My youngest son, Jim, remembers the tree planting in a more lasting and personal way. He was about 3 or 4 then, and had come out to help us work. He tripped and fell face forward onto the metal handle bale of the bucket we were using to hold the bundles of seedlings. He still bears the scar where the bale cut through his lower lip.

We planted most of the field behind the house. After all that effort, nothing ever came of the Christmas tree farm. I moved across the country, and the trees never got trimmed or shaped. They just grew up like Topsy, and are now 25-30 feet tall. The scotch pines are over mature, and will be harvested as chips this winter when I have the woodlot thinned. The balsam fir, however, are tall, full, and straight, and are lovely Christmas trees - at least the top part of them.

The Balsam Firs
had grown tall and full
in the woodlot.
Penny and I drove over to Taylor City on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to pick out the perfect fir as our Christmas tree. Now that we have opened up the living room at the Farmhouse, there is a spot right at the foot of the stairs for a big, bushy tree. We found a perfect balsam fir near the edge of the field, which I felled. The top 10 feet was full and well shaped. I lopped off the lower branches for trim around the house. We loaded everything into the trailer to bring back to the Farmhouse.

The next weekend, Jim and Alison came up and we cut another tree for their house, and one for their friends. Being a little smarter than his old man (or maybe forewarned about the size of the butt log), Jim brought along a chainsaw. He made a lot faster work of the trees than I had done with only a bow saw that I had used on ours.

Bill Taylor, Prop.
Lighting the Taylor City Tree

"Are you folks coming for the tree lighting tonight?" asked Bill Taylor. We'd stopped off at his busy Ye Olde Sale Shoppe in Taylor City to say hello and browse. Taylor City is a small village in Parsonsfield and South Effingham divided by the Maine/New Hampshire state line down the middle of the road.

"We're planning on it" I replied. "Arlene (our former neighbor in Taylor City) mailed us some information on the festivities a couple of weeks ago. Is it going to be in the South Church like it used to be?"

"We'll start there with carols, but the tree lighting is now outside. That blue spruce next to the shop has grown as tall as the shop, and we have strung it with lights."

Ye Olde Sale Shoppe
Taylor City
So. Effingham, NH
Bill's shop was full of folks, looking and buying things for Christmas. The shop is an old two-story building that has, over the years, housed the post office, a mercantile, and been used as a barn. Bill took it over and renovated it into two stories jammed with antiques, crafts, books, toys, clothes and artwork.

A number of the neighbors had brought over cookies and cake. There was a big bowl of punch. I asked the lady dispensing punch at the back of the shop - "is that spiked or unspiked punch you have there?" With a straight face she pointed to the left side of the bowl and said "this side is spiked - that side over there is regular." "I'll have some from the 'unspiked' side" I said "I've got to drive a Christmas tree back home later." "Whatever you say" she said as she ladled out a cup from the right side of the punch bowl for me.

Penny and I wandered around, sampling cake and cookies. We found a few things to buy to add to the pile of Christmas presents. I even found a "mountain Santa" tapestry that I thought Penny might like and snuck it down to Bill to hold for me, until I could come over and get it without Penny knowing about it.

The South Effingham Church

Christmas carols
in the old church
started the holiday season
off joyfully

The Meetinghouse Singers are a Gospel Singing group of the Sacopee Valley. The group of about 25 men, women and children represent six churches in the area, and are under the direction of Betsy Wallace of Kezar Falls. This was their 10th year singing in Taylor City.

They started the tree-lighting festivities out with a program of Christmas carols. The old South Effingham Church had standing room only for the annual event to start the Christmas season. The church was build in 1820, and sits empty for most of the year - except for occasional summer services and the Christmas caroling. The neighbors in Taylor City lovingly maintain it, however, and it sparkled with freshly painted walls and pews. Everybody joined in singing the old favorite hymns and well-loved Christmas music.

Jim and Alison and Kim drove up from Wells and joined us. After the program, we all trooped up to the square for the lighting of Bill's tree. The air was crisp and the light snow underfoot crunched with our footsteps. As we drove back to the Farmhouse we were high with the Christmas spirit. It really started the season off on an enthusiastic note.

Within the next week or two we attended the Portland Symphony Orchestra's Christmas Magic show at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland. On another evening we toured the Victorian Mansion in Portland with friends Bob and Lin to stand in awe at all the Christmas decorations in this wonderful old house.

Decorating the Tree

I found the ancient tree stand that we have lugged around the country for years. It is just odd-shaped enough that I've never been able to lose it, and it was right where I remembered putting it in the barn loft from the last time we'd used it - two years ago. The boxes of tree ornaments were a bit more elusive however. I easily found the 4-5 boxes of ornaments up in the attic that I had stored there last summer. And, I remembered a couple of boxes out in the barn from the move down from Athens in 1999 (See "Bears in the Blueberry Bushes"). I found not only three more boxes of ornaments, but also a box of electric candles for the house windows not seen since our last Christmas in Canterbury, NH in 1990.

When we started going through all the boxes, we found ornaments that my mother had used on our trees in Hudson and Effingham, NH. There were boxes of glass balls that I had bought when I was "batching" it in Wichita Falls, Texas, and ornaments that Penny and I had bought in Diamond Springs, California when we lived out there. Missing, however, were the ornaments that Penny and Penny's mom had used, as well as the French and Vietnamese silvery stars that I had bought at the Saigon central market. But, there is still a huge pile of boxes in the barn to be unpacked, one by one. Perhaps we'll find the missing ornaments by the time our next Christmas rolls around.

I set up the tree in the living room at the foot of the stairs where it dominated the whole room. I strung the tree with the garlands of little Danish flags that the relations in the old country had sent over. We sorted all of the ornaments out, and decorated the tree with only a fraction of them. Some of the others Penny used to decorate wreaths, and she made up several bowls of fir boughs, ribbons and colored balls that she placed around the house and really looked nice. She spread out fir boughs and candles, until every flat surface was decorated and sweet smelling of fir. I set up the electric candles in each window of the Farmhouse, and still had a half-box of candles left over!

The twinkle of real candles
burning on the Christmas tree
is magic.
The last additions to our tree are always the wax candles. When we lived in Germany, I fell in love with the use of real wax candles on trees. They add a dimension to the tree that is magic. When you light the candles and turn out the lights in the room, the candle flames dance and reflect off the glass ornaments in a way that is fascinating.

I have a shoe box full of candle clips that attach to the branches of the tree. Each one holds a small candle about four inches long. Each candle has to be carefully placed to avoid ornaments or needles, and when we light them we are always there carefully watching. If the tree is fresh cut and green, and if you are careful in how the candles are placed, we've been able to have the magic without any problems for years.

We don't light the candles every night, but do so several times during the Christmas season. It is one of my highlights of the season - to just sit with a glass of eggnog or a tumbler of Black Bush and watch the candle flames dance and flicker on the tree.

When we were all done, we still had a big box of glass ornaments left over. Thinking that someone else could also enjoy them, rather than sticking them back up in the barn, we brought them to the Sebago Historical Society tree decorating session. There they found their way onto the tree, and were added to the collection of old stuff at the Society. One of the members described the Historical Society as "Sebago's Attic" - lots of very neat, old stuff tucked away there.

The Squirrel in the Christmas Tree

Remember the errant squirrel in the Christmas tree in Chevy Chase's (National Lampoon) "Christmas"? I always thought that this was a hilarious, but completely imaginary, happening. Not so! We had our own version, right here in Sebago.

I was making a dump run, and dropped by the office to deliver some Christmas cookies for Bob and Arthur (See "Going to the Dump"). Bob said "Did you hear about your neighbor?"

"What's he into now?" I asked. The freshest news about our neighbors always comes from the dump, or Jordan's store.

"A squirrel got into his house, and was running back and forth in his Christmas tree. The cat was chasing the squirrel up and down the tree, and Alan lit out after the squirrel with a broom. I guess he finally got the squirrel, but it was pretty tense there for a while, I hear" he said with a smile.

The imagery in my mind was beautiful - I could almost see and hear the fracas. The cat chasing the squirrel up and down the branches, ornaments swaying wildly, and Alan and the broom after them all! I wondered what was left of the squirrel, or the tree for that matter!

Penny and I were invited over to Alan and Valerie's place next door for drinks and munchies later that night. I took a squirrel ornament from the tree that Penny had found for our old dog Buffalo several years ago. We wrapped it up in a gift package, and brought it with us.

"Alan" I said, giving him the package "we've heard about your loss, and want you to know how much we feel your pain at losing such a lively companion. We've brought you something to help fill the void that you must have."

He looked at me as if I were a bit daft, but took the package. Opening it, a funny look came over his face. "Where did you hear about my squirrel?" he asked.

"I just heard it around. Besides, I've hardly been out of the house all day - we've got a house full of company."

"So where did you go when you went out?" he persisted, obviously trying to find out where the "leak" came from.

Penny said - "Well, he's only been to the town hall, Jason's store, and the dump...."

"I knew it - the dump!" he cried.

"Well it is the best place to find out what is going on in town." I defended myself. "Anyway, this squirrel we brought is an ornament for your Christmas tree, to replace the one that is now out in the snow bank."

By this time, our other neighbors, Tim and Carol, had arrived and were wondering just what in the world is going on! Alan had to go through the whole story all over again, with Valerie adding touches - and then Alan went out to the snow bank and brought in what was left of the squirrel. We decided that he was a flying squirrel, although how he got into the house in the first place in the dead of winter was beyond us. Their cat was pretty unhappy that its playmate was gone, but I got a real strong feeling that Alan and Val weren't.

Christmas Presents - Christmas Past, Present, and Future

Penny will see something that looks interesting as a present for someone, and will pick it up and store it in a closet, or an empty bureau. Then, when Christmas comes near, we'll get these out and wrap them for folks. I'm not nearly as organized - most of my Christmas shopping is done a whole lot closer to the date.

When I found all the old Christmas decorations, I also found several boxes of Christmas presents - stored but never given to anyone. We also found some that had been wrapped with people in mind, but never delivered for one reason or another. There was a box of presents that we had sent to our Danish cousin Mette. When her address changed, the package was returned back across the Atlantic and we have had the unopened, undelivered box of presents for her for about 5 years. My son Allen's 1997 Christmas presents were in the box, as were some that we had bought to send to our Canadian cousin Emma, up in New Brunswick.

Just before the kids arrived, we dug all of these presents from Christmas Past, plus the ones we'd bought for this year. I made a big pile in the living room, and picked up each one - "and who's present is this?" I'd ask. I then started a bunch of little piles for each of the kids and relations. If something didn't fit just right, we'd move it over to another pile, for another person, or it would go back into the box of Christmas Future presents.

Some of the kids were fairly easy to buy for. April is a horse person, so apple treats for the horses and horse mittens for her were easy. Chris has a new wood stove, and the splitting maul and chainsaw chain sharpener made sense. Allen is about to embark on a cross-country odyssey with his RV making a movie, so several boxes of canned and dried road food will stock his pantry. Jim and I secretly met down at the Maine Mall one night after work and picked up a little TV/VCR for Alison to put in her kitchen, and a camera for Derek. Derek picked up snowshoes for Jim and Alison - there's plenty of snow to use them in this year! One day I was with Penny when she foolishly said that she liked some cast iron garden furniture. When I went back to Bill's shop to pick up the Santa tapestry to add to her period Santa collection, I also picked up the garden set in Cornish. I also visited with an artist in Standish and arranged to have her come over and make a new stained glass window of Penny's choice for the upstairs bathroom transom.

When we were all done, the entire base of the Christmas tree was stacked with presents, and we had our overseas packages ready to be posted. I closed up the box of Christmas Future gifts and hauled it up to the attic - where I could find it again next year!

More Dogs Than People

They used to say that Vermont was the only state in the nation with more cows than people. I read somewhere that the demographics had changed recently, and cows were now in a minority. Not that it makes much difference, since most cows aren't allowed off the farm to vote. I suppose that you could argue that this is a basic flaw in our political system, but that is a topic for a cold winters day around the fire with something warm to drink.

In our case, however, we had the dubious honor and pleasure of having more dogs than people in the Farmhouse for Christmas. Both Kim and Russ had to work, so we ended up with 8 people and 11 dogs for our Christmas dinner on December 23.

All day the entire house smelled like a bakery. Alison and Penny outdid one another in the kitchen, with a steady stream of cakes and cookies, as well as three or four difference kinds of pies. Jim did a lamb roast for our dinner that melted on your tongue it was so tender. Penny roasted a chicken that drove Happy frantic all day - he was sure that it was time to feed him, cause he could smell it throughout the house.

I made up a gallon or so of gluhwein (German for hot, spiced wine), using a recipe that a Deutsche Pfadfinder leiter had taught me on a snowy camping trip in Germany many years ago. The brewing of the gluhwein is a delicate task, one that requires close attention. Here is my recipe:

Recipe for Gluhwein

One gallon of cheap red wine - a burgundy works well, as will a cabernet or zinfandel
6-8 gluhfix or mulled cider spice bags
2-3 apples
2-3 oranges
a box of cinnamon sticks
a handful of whole cloves
one lemon
one pint of rum (dark or light is fine)
one half-pint of gin
Sugar to taste

Warm the red wine in a big pot over a low fire. Taste the wine.
Add the spice bags of gluhfix.
Add a cup of sugar if too tart. Taste the wine again.
Cut up the apples and oranges. Dump them, seeds and all, into the pot and stir gently. Taste the wine.
Toss the cinnamon sticks and cloves into the pot. Stir. Taste the wine.
Add more sugar if needed. Stir and taste.
Cut up the lemon, squeeze into the pot, and toss the fruit into the pot. Stir and taste.

By now the gluhwein should be starting to steam. Reduce the heat to keep it from boiling. Get a friend to help you taste, since your palate may becoming tainted. The friend can also help you find your mouth with the spoon if that becomes necessary - depends on how much tasting you've done.
Test the rum from the bottle. Add a pint or so to the pot. Stir. Taste.
Same thing for the gin. If you're not a gin drinker, go light on it. Vodka can be substituted if you wish. Stir. Taste.
The gluhwein should now be steaming hot and ready to serve
One last time, add sugar if needed. Stir. Taste.

Whatever is left can now be served to company in mugs or small cups. Dip it out of the pot and try to avoid ladling out the floaters, although a stick of cinnamon in each mug is a nice touch.
Sit in front of the fire, and debate cows voting.

Home for the Holidays

Christmas dinner was superb - really a groaning board, with all the leaves of the dining room table pulled out. Everyone ate their fill - or if they didn't it was their own fault. We took a break between dinner and dessert to gather in the living room around the tree and open presents.

Allen's birthday is Christmas Eve, and this year he turned 35. It is easy to have a birthday so close to Christmas get lost in the pace of the holidays. He does get to open his birthday present first before everyone else opens their Christmas presents. Then, it was on to all the stuff under the tree.

The family, home for Christmas
(l-r)Russ, Kim and Matt, Allen,
April, Chris, Derek, Alison,
Jim, Penny, me.
The pile of wrapping paper grew. The dogs were running back and forth all excited. Caleb even opened his own present of dog biscuits on his own! The living room looked like a war zone when we were done.

When it turned dark outside, we lit the candles on the Christmas tree and turned out the living room lights. What a magical, warm scene. I figure that this is the first time in 15 years or more since we've had as many of the family all together at once, and it was wonderful. This was one of the main reasons for moving back to New England - to be close enough to family to celebrate these times.

A real white Christmas at the Farmhouse.
What Christmas Means to Me

The next day, Sunday, was Christmas Eve. April and Chris left for Vermont, to have Christmas day with her folks there. Jim, Alison and Derek gathered up all the puppies and returned to their home in Wells, Maine, while Allen made plans to leave on his cross-country wanderings. Penny and I were able to go to the Christmas Eve evening service at church in North Sebago. We did so with full hearts, celebrating both a wonderful family Christmas and the real meaning of Christmas - the birth of the Christ child so long ago.

Steve Romanoff of Schooner Fair expressed the sense of Christmas in these words from WHAT CHRISTMAS MEANS TO ME


All bundled up against the chill, and
Candles on your windowsill, and
Peace on earth to those who will
Believe that dreams come true,
December snow and winter rime,
These holidays that measure time,
Each precious day that you are mine
And I am here with you.

The songs we sing this time of year,
The way we'll travel anywhere
To deck the halls with love and care
Before the friendly flames,
The way we show the way we feel,
The way we share our Christmas meal
With those whose faith is just as real
Though known by different names.

Just once upon a time there came
A message from above,
Now once a year you come to find
If we have finally learned to love.

Outside the fallen snow is deep,
Upstairs I wish they all would go to sleep,
'Cause I've got hasty promises to keep
Around the empty tree,
Or they will wake before I'm through,
And there's still so very much to do,
So these are only but a few
Of all the things that you
And Christmas mean to me.

Lyrics from What Christmas Means to Me ©are from Schooner Fair's "Home for the Holidays" album (OGR8889). Lyrics used with permission. The album, as well as other Schooner Fair music, is available from Outer Green Records, South Paris, Maine. Click on the link, or call them at 888-647-6783.

Allen and Penny Crabtree

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Last updated February 7, 2001

Copyright © 2001, Allen Crabtree