A CHRISTMAS REFLECTION – THEN AND NOW
By Richard E. “Rick” Dennis CPP
Freelance Writer and Author
Copyright 2020 – All Rights Reserved
December 4, 2022
As a youngster growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, I lived in a plush valley located between two mountain ranges. More specifically, the valley was located between Oak Mountain and Double Oak Mountain. Both mountain ranges are spurs of the Appalachian’s and located in Shelby County, Alabama. During this era, the valley was known by its Native American name; Fungo Holler; as it was aptly called, was a principle farming community as was making bootlegged (home made) moonshine whiskey. Notwithstanding, I was fortunate to be born into a family and community where Christmas was the most celebrated holiday of the year.
My grandfather; Papa Johnson, and my grandmother; Jeanette Dennis Johnson, owned a two and a half room wooden farm house in the valley. However, the farm house wasn’t without its draw backs. More specifically, the house was barren of: Indoor plumbing, running water, or electricity. Water was drawn from the well outside and carried into the house by bucket. The house was heated by wood and coal in a cast iron pot belly stove and my grandmother Jeanette cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a wood burning stove.
The half room was Grandmother Jeanette’s sewing room where she crafted clothes, pillow cases, and what not’s on a manually operated singer sewing machine. In addition to clothes my grandmother also made quilts on a quilting board. Clothes washing and bathing took place in a number three wash tub. In the early 1960’s, electricity finally arrived, via, the Tennessee Valley Authority. The house had one electric line and one light bulb suspended from the ceiling by an electric cord and kerosene lanterns were used to light up the rest of the house.
By today’s standards, some would say our family was poor – but we never recognized that class distinction. Everyone living in the valley had no more or no less that the other inhabitants. Growing up, I always had plenty to eat, 22 bullets to shoot and hunt with, several pairs of overalls to wear and at least one pair of boots to wear a year. Everything, with the exception of a few commodities purchased from WORDS STORE was grown and harvested on the farm.
Before school and after school as well as when I wasn’t in school, hard work and assigned chores were the standard practice of the day. Being the oldest child in our family, I had a never-ending supply of work requiring my daily attention. I never quite figure out why being the oldest meant you were assigned more work. I always figured being the oldest meant you could be assigned a managerial role and delegate chores to my siblings. However, I soon learned this philosophy wasn’t a viable thought process with my parents, nor my grandparents.
Horses and mules weren’t used for recreational or exhibition purposes, as they are today. Instead, my family, as well as other families in my community, used these noble animals principally for: Plowing, cultivating, and harvesting crops in the fields to provide food for the table, feed our livestock, and cash crops for transport, by train, to the farmers market in Birmingham, Alabama.
Often times, these animals were also used as our principle harvester transportation bringing trees out of the mountains for milling at the sawmill for lumber which was used for building purposes as well as providing firewood for the wood-burning heater and the cook stove. During this time period, tractors were non-existent. Also back then, fruits and vegetables were preserved by a canning process. Meats of all varieties were preserved using a smoke house, various drying technique, or stored in a lard barrel for preservation and consumption.
Each year, during the early part of December my family and community; as a whole, were catapulted into the Spirit of Christmas, which meant it was time to go up on Oak Mountain for the much awaited and anticipated Christmas tree cutting. My grandmother Jeanette, on my father’s side, was the matriarch of the designated Christmas tree selection and harvesting process.
My grandmother, born out of a Scottish father and mother, always seemed to have a spiritual connection with the tree she selected. We would move over the mountains for hours viewing what seemed an endless supply of trees – but after each evaluation she would either accept or decline the tree, saying: “Nope, not the right tree!”
Often times this matriarchal tree scrutiny and survey continued for hours and miles of hard walking but always under the watchful eye of my grandmother, until the moment of truth arrived when suddenly - she would stop by a tree, grab and shake it, mentally eye it up and down, walk around it several times and turn with a big smile on her face and declare, “Kids, this is our Christmas tree!”
With the selection process over, the tree was harvested by the oldest family members with an axe or crosscut saw, or both, and promptly loaded onto the sled and pulled home with each family member sharing their turn on the pull rope.
When we arrived at home there weren’t any pre-manufactured store bought ornaments to decorate our tree with but we did have an ample supply of hand-made decorations acquired over the years from various family members. Each family member possessed one special ornament with his or her name scribed on it which made for a fast scramble to the ornament box to be the first to put their ornament on the tree.
The remaining ornaments were made by us. Popcorn was popped, colored with food dye into various colors, strung on sewing thread and hung on the tree to form a sea of riveting colors. Mistletoe harvested from our trees adorned the top of each door frame. Everything kids could think of were eventually hung on our Christmas tree until the matriarch affixed the Star of David on top, signaling the decorating was over.
If I lean back in my desk chair and close my eyes, I can still smell the daily tantalizing aroma of my grandmother’s Christmas pies, cookies, fudge, and candy being baked in the oven. With the kitchen window open, we were able inhale that delectable aroma all over the yard.
The most valuable lessons I learned from my early childhood experiences and the “Spirit of Christmas” are – the family is the most valuable commodity we have, never forget your roots, always give something back, it’s better to give than to receive and it doesn’t matter how much or what you have, make the best of it because often times - more is not necessarily better.
Today some Christmas trees are artificial and come complete out of a box, including lights and decorations. Christmas tree decorations and ornaments are manufactured in foreign lands in various sizes, shapes and colors and are readily available for purchase at department stores.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year have been replaced by the politically correct euphemism and another politically correct euphemism has replaced “A Christmas Party” with
Horses and mules have been replaced by tractors as the principle cultivation tool in the farming community while the noble animals of yesterday have establishing themselves as the principle means of recreation for the equestrian community.
In fact, an entire equestrian industry has evolved around the noble horse as well as the businesses that have emerged to support them: tack shops, feed stores, judges, horse training facilities, horse breeding facilities, medical facilities and veterinarians, drug manufacturers, truck and horse trailer manufacturers, equestrian magazines, bit makers, saddle makers, etc., and include the nonprofit organizations that have evolved to support this industry.
In the equestrian industry today, we are very lucky to have nonprofit’s such as the American Quarter Horse Association, National Cutting Horse Association, National Reined Cow Horse Association and the National Reining Horse Association, as well as other breed specific horse organizations that provide us with a place to exhibit our stock (professional and non-pro alike), meet new folks in the spirit of competition and establish new friendships along the way.
These organizations are not always perfect but a lot of folks rely on these equestrian organizations, as well as the guys and gals that run them, as a source of revenue to provide sustenance for their families in the spirit of entrepreneurship. They not only provide a single source of revenue for some but a lot of enjoyment for families and individuals in the equestrian industry.
Therefore, in the Spirit of Christmas, I would like to personally thank you – one and all for your time spent in these wonderful organizations and the contributions made by each one of you to support the equine industry.
In my journey, I’ve never lost sight of the core principles I learned as a boy nor have I forgotten my roots or the “Spirit of Christmas!” In keeping with these core principles, it has been my policy throughout my professional career to always give something back to the community from my professions: free drug lectures to schools, free time spent as a mentor with under-privileged children and free riding lessons for the youth – no matter what their financial position, their gender, or race.
Over the years, my students have always generously paid me back by providing me with an exhilarating feeling from just watching their eyes light up when they finally execute a maneuver correctly or after completing their first show. When I see such happiness in a child’s eyes, it reminds me of days long ago on Oak Mountain harvesting that special Christmas tree on that cold winter day and that special lesson I learned during a time in my life long ago. “It truly is better to give than receive!”
Therefore, at this very special time of the year, our thoughts turn gratefully to those who have made our progress possible. It is with the “Spirit of Christmas,” my memories of OAK MOUNTAIN and personal gratitude that I wish each and everyone one of you, especially the avid readers of “WIND RIVER INDUSTRY NEWS,” as well as all those in the equine industry, a Merry Christmas and a most prosperous, safe, and Happy New Year!
“Until Next Time, Keep ‘Em Between The Bridle”