Ozark Christmas Memories

north, snow covered the lawns and cornfields to the point of boredom, but were a rarity greeted with mild awe in the Ozarks.
In the northern cities, people drove to Christmas tree lots full of Scotch pine, Douglas firs, and blue spruce trees to get their symbol of the holidays and toted it home strapped to the top of their cars or hanging out of car trunks. In the country, folks went into the woods with an ax and a saw and hauled their trees home with a tractor, a pickup, or a horse.
The week before Christmas week in 1957, I was painfully aware that we did not have a Christmas tree in the old farmhouse in Montier where my brother and I lived with our grandparents. I raised the issue with my grandmother, and she matter-of-factly told me to go get one. I got permission from Billy Barnes, the old hermit who lived across the gravel road from us, and traipsed to the woods behind his shack to harvest a Christmas tree. 
Armed with my trusty hatchet, I was on a righteous quest, but evergreen species were scarce among the brush and blackjack oaks. Certainly, no Scotch pines or anything that looked like the 8-footers in the tree lots in the North were growing there. After searching a considerable time, I spied a 4-foot cedar, which by today’s reckoning, would be best described as a scrawny, Charlie Brown Christmas tree. But it was green, so I dragged it back to the house.
Although pleased that I wasn’t returning empty handed, I had a gnawing feeling that somehow the tree didn’t measure up to proper Christmas tree standards. I asked Grandma if a cedar tree was okay instead of a pine, and the blessed woman assured me that it qualified. We sat it on a side table in the living room and made plans to decorate it. 
We retrieved a box of decorations and sorted through the contents that included sundried ornaments and a strand of blue electric bulbs. We strung popcorn for garland. Grandma preferred a Christmas tree with only blue lights; however, these were the sequentially-wired, old-fashioned type—when one went out, they all went out. After the tree was trimmed, we spent a good bit of time sleuthing out bad bulbs when the lights went out.
Writing the previous paragraphs, I wondered what, if any, Christmas trees our neighbors had. I contacted Montier schoolmate, Sharon (Welsh) Sanders, whose parents owned the Montier Grocery, a crossroads country store that was the social focal point of the community. Sharon said, “I think most everyone had a tree. Everyone cut a cedar tree. Dad usually went to Jim Shepherd’s farm and got one.”
Jim’s son, actor Robert Shepherd (Bob), had been on my mind because two days before I had watched him in a new television movie, Christmas at The Greenbrier. Readers may recall I featured the former Birch Tree and Liberty teacher in an article, “Montier’s Favorite Movie Star” in 2020, which mentioned some of his acting credits, including the movie, Lincoln, and the prolific Hearing Assist “I Love You Dad” TV commercial. And later that year, in “Montier’s Favorite Actor Returns,” I profiled the movie Past Shadows that he co-produced and starred in, which played two weekends in West Plains.
By the way, I enjoyed Christmas at The Greenbrier. The production was well-cast (not a bad performance in the lot) and well-edited. Playing the father of lead actress, Alicia Leigh Willis (known for roles in General Hospital and Another World), Bob gets my vote for best actor in a supporting role—I even forgot I was watching my friend on the screen. 
When I contacted Bob about Christmas seasons and trees at Montier, he replied, “In my younger years, we had a cedar tree at home, and I think most families did. I believe we had them at the school and church as well. We had a Christmas program every year at school. There were poems, we called recitations, and different classes would sing Christmas songs like ‘Up on the Housetop’.”
The Montier School had a large central area divided into two classrooms by heavy wooden folding doors. For the Christmas party, the folding doors were slid open, and parents and neighbors filled the school for the entertainment.
I don’t remember what my recitation was that year, but I was envious of the one about a boy who got scratchy underwear for a Christmas present that my classmate Larry Stover got to read. His performance got a lot more laughs than mine.
Weeks before Christmas, Mrs. Margaret Shockley, who taught grades 1 through 4, asked her students to bring cloth feed sacks (not burlap) from home, which would be converted into presents for their parents. She helped the students pin oak leaves on the sacks in random configurations, and then filled a handheld, pump-action insect sprayer with red fountain pen ink and sprayed them. When the leaves were removed, a leaf-patterned dishcloth remained. I still find her creativity remarkable, in finding a way to fashion affordable gifts. In the Ozarks back then, leaves and feed sacks were abundant, but extra money was not. 
The Church of God of Prophesy in Montier celebrated the season with festivities, too. Bob Shepherd says, “At church, everyone got a small paper bag with candy and usually an orange.” Additionally, the church often presented a one or two-act Christmas play. 
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bob had roles in those productions. He says, “Sharon Welsh was one of my first leading ladies in a play about one of the wisemen and his wife, directed by my mom.” Sharon recalled, “Yes, Bob and I were always in the Christmas programs at church. Our moms made sure of that.” Then, she added, “I sure miss those days at the old store.” So do I, Sharon.
I hope this installment of “The Way We Were” stirs fond memories of Christmas past, and that this Holiday Season brings joy and happiness for you. I want to thank Sharon Welsh Sanders and Bob Shepherd for refreshing my recollection and confirming, after all these years, that in the Ozarks, a cedar tree makes a perfectly fine Christmas tree.
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