There is no other time of year that is quite like Christmas. The family gathers from across the country to sit around the farm table, the stockings are hung with care, and children’s hearts are filled with the wonder of the season. Saint Nicholas is coming, and soon there will be cookies, hot cider, and roast turkey to share. The old board games are brought out of the closet, and everyone laughs over differences in opinion on the rules governing card games that are dusted off for the gathering. There’s firewood to split, winding trails to snowshoe, hills to sled, and fresh balsam wreaths to make—let alone the harvesting of the Christmas tree.
I can remember one Christmas, which was heavily snowed, trudging along the edge of the field, where our house now stands, in search of the perfect little Charlie Brown Christmas tree (it was our family’s principle to take a tree that was too crowded so its cousins could grow healthy and strong). The snow was so deep—and I was so small—that it seemed we would hardly make it back to the farmhouse at all, wading bravely with the little handsaw gripped in my purple mitten. It had grown quite dark, but Grandpa pointed up to the sky in the East.
“Look,” he urged. “What is that?” There was a large, round glow just coming over the barren tree limbs across the creek.
“Is it a house light or a town?” Kara and I ventured. It glowed something like the barnyard light, only much bigger and brighter.
“No, it’s the moon,” Grandpa corrected. And sure enough, as we brought the snow-encrusted pine tree home, the full moon rose up into the sky to light our way—sharing a bit of Christmas magic by casting every snowdrift into mounds of crystalline shimmers. A Great Horned owl hooted some distance off, reminding us that nature was not completely asleep.
For me, Christmas memories are always wrapped up within the green and red package of the homestead and much of that revolves around the large, fieldstone fireplace. In the early days, before my grandparents bought the farm from the original homesteaders, the only heat source came from a set of wood stoves that connected to a central, brick chimney that poked its snout out through the middle of the roof. The largest stove had sat between the living room and dining room, and grates in the ceiling let a little heat up to the bedrooms on the floor above. By the time the farm was sold, the wood stoves had been replaced by an oil-burning furnace.
But Mom remembers as a young girl wanting to have a fireplace. She even gave Grandpa one of those popcorn popping pans with a long handle that is held over an open fire as a Christmas gift. As the popcorn kernels heat up, you shake the contraption to keep them stirred and evenly heated until they stop popping and there is hot, yummy puff with a little smoky smell as an extra perk. Surely, this would drop a hint!
And perhaps it did because soon construction was underway to build a fieldstone chimney on the south face of the living room. Whole, heavy, authentic local stone (most of it likely hauled from the fields) were collected by two area Norwegian bachelors who had a special corner on the area market for fieldstone fireplaces. And, after a few initial mishaps and a good bit of grunting, the farmhouse was transformed by the sound of the crackle and hiss of an open fire, with a ledge to sit upon in front and rock shelves for mantle space.
This is where my sister and I perched cradling mugs of frothy hot chocolate after a day of sledding or dangled our hand-knit stockings in hopes of an overnight gift visit. We knew there would be oranges, puzzles to share with family, Grandma’s Dickens village to set up on the porch amidst carefully wrapped gifts, and lots of old family stories and remembrances.
Beside the fieldstone hearthside was an excellent place to set up card tables for a rousing game of Sorry!, Backgammon, Clue, or Pictionary. But it was equally a peaceful place to snuggle up with one of the dogs and read a book or watch the snow drift lazily from the sky outside. After three days of toasty fires, the stones above the hearth grew warm to the touch and resonated their own comforting, radiant heat. The fireplace might dwarf the room but it certainly didn’t dwarf the layers of memories that were made by its side.
Our strongest memories come from smells, and Christmas is full of memorable fragrances, in part because it is equally full of good food! It has been our family’s tradition to explore a different ethnic theme for Christmas Eve. One time we had Mexican fare with corn husk-wrapped tamales, another featured a Mediterranean theme with lasagna Napoletana, and this year we plan for a Swedish twist with meatballs and Yulekaka. In the mornings, there were farm-fresh eggs, Danish cringle sent by those who could not make it to the farm for the holiday, and succulent citrus. The spicy tang of mulled cider, the heady richness of dipping chocolate, or the sharp invitation of almond extract are somehow inseparable with Christmastime on our farm. Take some time this week to remember fond Christmas’s past or build new memories with loved ones over a bowl of cookie dough or your own over-the-fire popcorn popper.
As this year comes to a close, we think on its many gifts amidst the trials and learning points. One of the best gifts of all is to give of one’s time to family, to friends, and to community—building fond memories by the hearthside. Wishing for you and yours a blessed Christmas, with hopes for a healthy and satisfying New Year. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com