Christmas is a much bigger deal now than it was in my childhood. It has grown exponentially in celebration, ostentation and exploitation. My father’s family — a multitude of matriarch, siblings and offspring — gathered to feast and visit but did not exchange gifts. Mother’s family also feasted but had a strong gift-giving culture. So, I received a gift each Christmas, but was not encouraged to dive deeply into the Santa Claus story.
Streets were not festooned with colored lights, wreaths and stars. Only a few stores were decorated. Economic considerations played a part because prosperity wore a thin skin in the rural South. Some, but not all, homes had Christmas trees and perhaps other decorations. Mother had a collection of non-illuminated tree decorations that looked fine to my brother and me but electricity for lights did not come our way until my senior year in high school.
Except for children trying out their gifts, Christmas was essentially over on the day after unless a weekend followed. Oh, there might be a quail hunt or a dove shoot during the fading days of December, but grownups knew there was work to be done. Celebration quickly gave way to preparation.
The wood pile always demanded attention. With the worst of winter at hand, prudent people stocked it with lightered kindling and back logs for fireplaces. The wood burning cook stoves in kitchens worked best with properly-sized pieces of pine wood and only a fool let the stove wood run out. More-over, with the arrival of cold weather, “hog-killing” time was upon them, involving much hot water and therefore wood.
Farm families depended upon food that they grew and preserved themselves. The chief source of protein was the meat of their hogs, which they preserved by salting, curing and smoking. Much of the fat of the carcass was trimmed off and cooked to produce lard, their basic cooking oil. The rest of the fat and liquids were removed by the curing process. Cold weather was needed for a couple of days for each hog killing as this protein harvest made the rounds among families and neighbors who worked together at a labor-intensive job. The period of more or less dependable cold, late December and January, pressed these farm families to act quickly and decisively.
Farm wives/mothers always had their hands full with meeting the demands of family, house work, some field work, gardening, canning, preserving and more. When they found the opportunity, many engaged in quilting, an activity that was both creative and practical. Making the tops was solitary art and/or craft, turning scraps of cloth into the patterned counterpane that was the essence of her quilt. With cotton batting as a filler and a new bed sheet or length of muslin as underside backing, she was ready to call in friends and family to “put in a quilt.” Winter months with fewer demands from fields and gardens were good times for quilting.
The end of one crop year and its harvests hardly passed before another began. Tobacco beds had to be prepared and soon planted. These were seed beds, located in sheltered places in which tobacco plants were grown until time for transplanting into the field. They were established in moist, rich soil at a site deemed safest from severe freezes. It might be possible to use the same spot two or three years, but diseases would “get in the land” and force relocation. Cleaning up the old bed for reuse was hard work but not like the days’ long labor of “clearing new ground” for new beds.
Preparing the land for the next crop began in some situations immediately after harvest of the current one. If tobacco plants are left standing after harvest, they might host pests and soil diseases that cause problems the following year or longer. Cotton plants are hard and tough. They decay slowly. These things are no problem for rotary mowers attached to good tractors, but mule-drawn stalk cutters were much slower and less efficient.
A stalk cutter is a large wooden cylinder, about five feet long and three feet in diameter, as I remember. Made of tough oak, it was fitted with steel blades running its full length and three inches apart. A platform covered the top and a seat was secured to its center. Bags of sand loaded onto the platform improved the cutting effectiveness of the blades. It was a ponderous piece of equipment, requiring the pulling power of two sturdy mules. It was best to cut cotton stalks while they were still green. A January cutting meant they would not decay in time to avoid being plowing problems.
With plows, hoes and bare hands, farmers battled grass and weeds from planting to harvest, virtually all summer in the case of cotton. Some undesirable plants survived in out-of-the-way places and more sprang up after the plows and hoes were put away. That was not all bad since cows ate some of it when they were “turned in the field.”
That which remained after the first killing frost had to be removed before the land could be turned for the next crop. The tool for that was fire spread from clump to clump with a stiff-toothed garden rake and a favorable breeze.
After Christmas, it was back to work. The cycle of farm labor had breaks for rest and celebration, but it never ended.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.