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It’s still Christmas

By Connie Denney

What better than memories of Old Christmas celebrations to inspire reconnection with a friend?  In this case the long-time, but not-often-seen friend is Linda Poland.  When we spoke recently, she remembered her pleasure at telling the story of the first Christmas tree in Appalachia when the Old Christmas program that started in Erwin went on the road, so to speak.

The late Rev. Tom Wade, a former pastor of Erwin Presbyterian Church had become interested in the Jan. 6 observance during his college days.  Over the years he assembled quite a lot of materials, including the story below, which he found in West Virginia.  He cited two sources of publication, “The West Virginia Hillbilly” (April 1984) and “The New West Virginia Review” (Dec. 1985, page 12), the former a newspaper and the latter a dictionary-like publication.  

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He led annual services several times in Erwin and later at Jonesborough Methodist, Linda’s home church and at the Presbyterian Church across Jonesborough’s Main Street.  He would explain that Old Christmas is part old-world tradition, part the result of resistance to change when the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the 1500s as a revision of the Julian calendar, as well as the 12th day of Christmas and Epiphany, celebrating the wise men’s finding the Christ child.  Music and storytelling were part of the program.

Enter Linda Poland!  “I loved how Tom Wade and his wife (Betsy) made it so special, bringing all the old-time gifts and hymns.”  

As for her personal experience with storytelling in general, she reaches way back to her granddaddy Jack, an engineer on a Mississippi dredge boat, for whose stories she would sit still.  She remembers her grandmother saying that was the only time she sat still!

Having been said to tell “whoopers” of her own as a child, Linda’s storytelling evolved and matured until in 1997 she was named Resident Storyteller of Jonesborough.  She was also among the seven who gathered to form the Jonesborough Storytelling Guild, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary.  She says it is known internationally as the only Guild in the country that shares a live public performance each week. “We mentor people who would like to bring their stories from the written page to an oral telling.  Many of our tellers make their living as professional storytellers,” she explains.  They travel throughout the United States and internationally, as Linda, herself, has.  Ireland and Israel are her favorites, among places she has told.

Here is “The Cross on the Tree: An Old Christmas Story” originally published in January of 2008. 

A quarter of a century or more before the American Revolution was begun, the first Christmas tree in what today is West Virginia was lighted.  It became the scene of unusual backwoods festivities.  Around it was held a celebration of a character previously unknown in any of the frontier sections of Virginia.

The tale of this Old Christmas tree, full of imports as it was in the early movement of civilization toward the west, is one of the most thrilling of all those which have come down from that heroic age.

It is well worth telling, even without the moral which might be drawn from it in any Christmas sermon, but which the hearer of this little tale will have to deduce for himself.

At the time this pioneer Christmas tree blazed forth in all its glory between the icy waters of Elk River and the snowclad forests on the mountain sides beyond, the whole of the present state of West Virginia was one vast wilderness, with only few and widely scattered families living within its present boundaries.

As a part of all the land to the west, as far as land might be found to exist, the present West Virginia was claimed by the British colony of Virginia.

Its western boundary was the Pacific Ocean although it was not known then how far away that boundary might be.  This was while Pittsburgh was still considered a Virginia settlement, long before the country of Kentucky had been organized as a subdivision of Virginia and while George Washington was merely a young surveyor, holding a major’s commission in the British Army.

From east of the Virginia mountains, leaving the life of luxury behind, the voluntarily engaging in the hardships and privations which marked the life of pioneers, came a young married couple by the name of Carpenter.  Wandering through the wilderness some time previous to 1750, they found a large and fairly comfortable space beneath an overhanging ledge of rock in which they took shelter from a storm.  It was dry and warm, they had no better place in view, and so they stayed and made their home beneath the projecting cliff, the open space extending a short distance back into the hillside.

This cave was close to the bank of Elk River near the mouth of Camp Run, in what today is Webster County, West Virginia.

It was this same Webster County whose people, about the time the Civil War broke out, considered that both the Confederate government of Virginia and the “Restored Government of Virginia” were to busily engaged in other matters to give either thought or care to what happened in their little mountain county.  They therefore boldly proclaimed their county “the free and independent state of Webster” and elected a full set of state officials, from governor down.

More than a century before this “statehood” was declared, when Virginia regarded it as mere “wild land,” of no more value than those sections where San Francisco, Denver and St. Louis have since grown up, the Carpenters settled in their Webster County cave.

When winter came, they piled trees and brush against the opening to keep out the snow.  And in this cave at some time prior to 1750 a son was born to them.  They named his Solomon, but called him “Solly.”

When Solly’s grandson had grown to old age and W.E.R. Byrne, of Charleston, was a mere lad, the grandson told Mr. Byrne the story of the Christmas tree which “Solly” had when he was a little fellow.

Solomon Carpenter’s parents came of pious Virginia parents back in the early colony.  So when Solly got to be 5 or 6 years old and they had built a sort of shed in front of the cave to make a larger house, the mother called attention to the old Virginia custom of having Christmas trees.  She said she thought they should have one for Solly, to which the father promptly assented.

The woods were full of suitable trees but the house was not large enough to hold one.  So they selected a big and beautiful growing holly not far from the house, for their Christmas tree.  Almost 2 feet in diameter was its trunk – its tip twenty or more feet above the earth.  Its branches thick, its shape symmetrical, its glossy green leaves liberally interspersed with big red berries; it was an ideal tree.  And when the morning frost glistened upon it in the bright sunlight no tree in Christendom could have been lovelier.  The word was passed around and all the neighbors who lived within a score of miles were invited on Old Christmas, Jan. 6.  So it proved to be the first “community tree,” as well as the first Christmas tree in Appalachia.

To be a real Christmas tree it had to be lighted.  Ben Franklin had not then made his first experiment in drawing fire from the clouds.  Electricity, petroleum, gas, were all unknown.  But only a short distance from the tree lay a fallen pitch pine log, reeking with rosin.  This log was split in pieces, two of which were nailed together to make a cross some 10 feet tall.  More rosin missed with bear grease to make it stick was plastered over the entire cross and it was carried by the younger men to the top of the big holly tree and tied with thongs of deerskin to the trunk of the tree with the cross piece well above the top most branch.  

The family and helpers then enjoyed a Christmas feast of roast venison, wild turkey, bear steak, pheasant, and perhaps a little “mountain dew,” for it was considered a necessity in the lives of the pioneers.  Corn pone, baked on the open hearth, was also a part of the generous Christmas dinner.

Meanwhile a roving band of a score or more of hostile Indians, on a scouting or hunting expedition, spied the unpretentious home of Solly Carpenter’s parents and lurked in the forest not far distant, awaiting the nightfall, to make an attack upon it and enlarge their stock of human scalps.

Just before dark, one of the white men climbed to the top of the holly tree and set fire to the rosin-covered cross.  It leaped instantly into a huge blaze and the light from the burning cross on Solly Carpenter’s Christmas tree could be seen for miles around.

After a few moments the flames burned through the deerskin thongs which held the cross and, toppling upside down, it blazed its way over the wide-extending branches of the Christmas tree and down the hillside toward the little creek which separated the tree from the hidden ambush of the Indians.  They had learned a little of the Christian religion, of whose saving power the cross is looked on as a symbol.  And when they saw the blazing, burning, sparkling cross leap from the top of the Christmas tree and come rushing headlong down the hill toward the spot where they were preparing a foul and bloody massacre, they fled in terror and never stopped till they were many miles away.

Years afterward, when Solomon Carpenter had reached middle age and had a family of his own, he was hunting in the woods near the same old place where his boyhood home had been, when he found an Indian, badly wounded.  The Indian had killed a deer, but while carrying it away he had been attached by a panther which had broken some bones and torn his flesh badly before carrying the dead deer away.  Carpenter carried the Indian to his home and treated his wounds but blood poisoning set in and proved fatal.

Before he died, the Indian told Carpenter that he had planned the massacre of the Carpenter family.  He said they had been taught a little about the Christian religion and that when they saw its emblem, the cross, seething in flames, and blazing violently in apparent anger, leap from the tree top and rush headlong down the hillside toward the place where the Indians were only awaiting darkness before making their attack, they fled in confusion from the apparently super-natural attack of the fiery cross.

The Indian said that while the incident had occurred nearly 50 years before, he was the first of the band who had ever dared to return to the place.

And he had scarcely finished his tale when he expired.

And so it is that from the day of little Solly’s Christmas tree over 200 years ago, the Carpenters have never let the season pass without at least one Christmas tree in the family.