I have an extra special guest post for you today.
My Favorite Christmas Story written by Jim Casada Copyright 2011
The year was 1916, and Christmas was drawing near in the Smokies. Things were particularly bleak that December, with Europe at war, the United States being inexorably drawn towards that horrible conflict, and folks who lived high up on remote Juneywhank Branch (now in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park) were struggling just to get by. There a family of nine children and their parents eked out a hardscrabble living farming, cutting acid wood (mainly chestnut trees in the days before the blight killed this monarch of eastern forests), growing free-ranging hogs, and gathering chestnuts to sell in the fall. Their simple, struggling lifestyle defined poverty.
Almost totally self-sufficient, the family raised, grew, shot, or foraged for virtually everything they needed. They lived a “make do” existence where barter of surplus goods or labor loomed large. This meant there was precious little “cash money” for the few items which had to be bought. That situation, with the family having adequate food and shelter but barely enough cash for store-bought essentials such as shoes, salt, and a few other items which lay outside the trade-based economy, weighed heavy indeed on the parents of this brood as Christmas approached. The bittersweet story which unfolded almost a century ago, a saga of life as it once was in the Smokies, is my favorite holiday story.
Like his siblings, the oldest boy in the family had never received a store-bought Christmas present, although each of them did get a stocking each December 25. Those stockings would contain a single orange, a few pieces of hard candy, some nuts, an apple, and some small item of homemade clothing such as mittens or socks. Otherwise, presents were limited to hand-carved or lovingly crafted toys such as slingshots or popguns for the boys and rag or corn shuck dolls for the girls. On this particular Christmas though, the boy, far too young to have a full understanding of the family’s financial situation, was desperately hoping for something truly special—a pocket knife.
After all, other boys living in the area who were his schoolmates owned a knife, and he had often heard his father speak of a knife as being “the ultimate tool.” High country males of that era–boys and men–carried a pocket knife as a matter of habit. They kept the knives finely honed for uses varying from simple whittling to countless daily practical applications around the farm. The small boy sorely felt the deprivation of not having a knife, and even his father admitted he was old enough to own one. Indeed, several times during the summer and fall the lad had been permitted to use his father’s knife for short periods. That had led him to hope and dream that those cherished “knife in hand” moments were a sort of training period or trial run which would lead to him receiving the ultimate Christmas gift.
Accordingly, when Christmas morning arrived, the boy rushed to his stocking with a sense of anticipation unlike any he had ever known. Toward the bottom of the stocking there was a suggestive bulge which seemed to be just the right shape, and the excited lad eagerly dug through the fruits and nuts to reach it. Sure enough, it was a knife, but as he grasped the item he had so coveted tears streamed down his face and he rushed from the room. Disconsolate, the boy was crushed and forlorn as only a young lad facing the greatest disappointment of his life could be.
He had ample reason for dismay, for the “knife” was a piece of hard candy shaped and colored to look like the real thing. The simple realities of the matter were that his parents did not have the money, even though a fine pocket knife only cost a dollar in those days and they would dearly have loved to reward the boy with his chosen gift, to lavish on such a luxury. The father, a patient and soft-spoken man, valiantly tried to explain the situation to his oldest son, but the heartbroken little boy simply could not understand.
This traumatic moment left a lasting impact, and therein lies the point where bitterness changes to sweetness. The small boy, traumatized by the experience, never forgot this Christmas Day of abject dismay. Over the ensuing decades he rectified the matter in the finest, most fitting way he knew how. He made sure that one Christmas after another first his sons and later his grandsons received some type of knife. Their stockings might contain a quality two-blade folding knife or, as they grew a bit older, a fixed-blade sheath hunting knife. From the time each of his male offspring, and in turn their sons, was five or six years old, no matter what else they received at Christmas, there was always a knife in the Yuletide stocking. The man was determined that none of his male offspring would ever be without a knife or face the tragic moment which so tainted his memories of childhood. The giving of knives an annual ritual which endured for upwards of six decades, and at any time over the course of those years he was apt to ask one of his sons or grandsons: “Have you got a knife in your pocket?”
That saddened little boy whose memories harkened back to 1916 in such a powerful, poignant fashion was my father. This will be my first Christmas without him, as it will be for my brother, Don, also a frequent participant in this blog. He died this past January, having lived 101 years and having enjoyed a life full of meaning and substance. In the course of that long life he turned a moment of singularly painful adversity during childhood into countless bright moments for his male line with gifts which, for him (and for us), had a deep, abiding meaning.
Small wonder that I cherish pocket knives, own dozens of them, always carry one, and seldom touch a whetstone or whittle a piece of wood without reflecting on a day of all-consuming sadness which my father ultimately transformed into a lifetime of gladness. As soon as I finish writing this piece I will reach into my pocket, pull out and caress a pocket knife which once belonged to Dad, and realize as I do so that he gave me a treasure beyond measure—an enduring and endearing Christmas memory.
Wasn’t Jim’s guest post fitting for the knife giveaway? I hope you enjoyed his favorite Christmas story as much as I did.