Appalachia Christmas Holidays in Appalachia

A Pocket Knife Christmas Story

A Pocket Knife Christmas Story

I have an extra special guest post for you today.

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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.

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Wasn’t Jim’s guest post fitting for the knife giveaway? I hope you enjoyed his favorite Christmas story as much as I did.

Tipper

 

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36 Comments

  • Reply
    Stephen Suddarth
    December 11, 2018 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks muchly, Your story hits so close to home for me that its giving me goosebumps. The Case knife we found in Daddy’s pants pocket after he passed away is still with me and was as it turns out a rare collectible commemorative model, but will be passed down.

  • Reply
    Steve in Tn
    December 24, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Really enjoyed the repost. I also remember the role knives played in my upbringing. Men would sit and whittle in the shade for what seemed like hours. My first knife was a Barlow. I remember well when I got my first “stockman” like my dad and grandfather used. Brings back fond memories.

  • Reply
    Becky
    December 11, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Love this story Jim and Tipper!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    December 10, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I just wanted to thank all of you who commented on my guest blog about my father and pocket knives. Many of you had something especially kind to say about how memories will be sustaining in the first Christmas Don, Annette (our sister), and I will have without Daddy. You are right.
    Others offered poignant and powerful knife-related stories of your own. It’s little short of amazing how knives run as a bright thread through the fabric of mountain culture. Again thanks, and I’ll conclude with two thoughts—I wish each and every Blind Pig reader a merry Christmas, and I’m tickled to say that collectively those of you who commented have given me an idea for a newspaper piece in a couple of publications I write for on a regular basis. All of this was a Christmas gift to me, just as Dad turned disappointment into decades of delight in a fashion which offers a lesson for us all.
    Jim Casada
    http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    December 9, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Thanks for the story, Jim-I lost my dad this year, too. I have been dreading Christmas- he always made it one of abundance for us, in memory of his own hardscrabble childhood. I won’t miss the gifts, but the spirit they were given in has only been recently realized & that is painful. Your story has brought home to me that as long as we remember we keep them close. Merry Christmas.

  • Reply
    Mary Rutherford
    December 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    Lovely story Jim – what a wonderful way to memorialize your father. I have a special knife tucked away to give one of my former students. His grandfather was known for collecting and gifting knives. At his funeral his family provided knives for all present in his honor. The knife I received will be returned to his Grandson when he graduates from high school this spring. I hope it will bring him happy memories of his grandfather.

  • Reply
    RB
    December 8, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Beautiful story.
    God bless.
    RB
    <><

  • Reply
    John Stonecypher
    December 8, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    My Dad passed away in 1968 He made sure that I aways had a pocket knife.
    Dad had been dead for over a year. There was a man that knew Dad he asked who I was and I told him who I was then he asked me if I had a nickle. I gave him the nickle. He handed me a pocket knife and told me that Dad let him have it. IT WAS DAD’s 4 BLADE BOKER! I sure was glad to get it. I have it in a safe place now.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    Congratulations #37, Jon! That is a very fine knife, I got to hold it the last time I was in Brasstown. It’s got a real good feel to it.
    Tipper, this is the second time in a week that your post has brought tears to my eyes. That’s enough for a while, ok?
    Beautiful, touching story, Jim. You shared not just your story but your family, thank you.
    These are the experiences that form our character. They are not always easy but they always teach us who we are.

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    December 8, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Great story Jim/Tipper. And what an example. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Reply
    LINDA L. KERLIN
    December 8, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    I am writing this with tears in my eyes —what a wonderful story thanks so much JIm for sharing it and may your memories of a wonderful man -your dad stay with you forever and bring you peace this Christmas season without his physcial presence but his spirit shall remain with you always.

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    December 8, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Tipper: Enjoyed reading the story of the knife. I certainly remember carrying a knife as a youngster. I still have a knife in my pocket for any usage as needed.

  • Reply
    Rick Kratzke
    December 8, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Congratulations Jon, nice story Tipper

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    December 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Congratulations to Jon and thank you and Jim.. This is a very moving story..

  • Reply
    Tom
    December 8, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I agree with Ken, wow! what a touching story. My tears are still falling as I write this. Jim, so glad you had your father for 101 years. I lost my father 10 years ago and remember vividly that first Christmas without him. Like you, he left me with special treasures that I will always cherish. Thank you for sharing your very special story and for touching me in such a profound way with your words and memories. Jim, wishing you a very special Christmas season!

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    December 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Such a beautiful and touching story. So many of us in our elder years like myself can pull some perfect memories out of our pockets. Mine would probably be at this time of the year when my mom and dad, both brought up in an orphanage, sang Christmas Carols in German as they were taught as young children and into their teenage years. While my dad didn’t enter the military, he worked with a company who manufactured the large batteries for the ships used during that time. I can still picture them singing away.

  • Reply
    Ken
    December 8, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Tipper,
    About a year or so ago, you sent me an e-mail with a link to see
    Jim giving a speech at a college
    down in South Carolina. After the
    lady introduced him (she didn’t
    pronounce his last name correct
    either) it got quiet as a mouse
    for several minutes while he told
    the story of his Christmas Knife.
    I didn’t even know Jim back then,
    but found myself drying my eyes
    more than once. Thank you for
    this wonderful gift to us from
    Christmas in Appalachia…Ken

  • Reply
    Bob Humphreys
    December 8, 2011 at 11:23 am

    What an awesome story, I started a pocket knife collection years ago and now share it with my children and grandchildren, I would spread out the knives and ask them to choose the one the like.

  • Reply
    Ethel
    December 8, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Congratulations to Jon, and thanks to Jim for sharing such a beautiful and moving story!

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    December 8, 2011 at 11:15 am

    Thank you, Jim. It is amazing how occurrences in a child’s life influence him or her in later years. Now your Dad has left a priceless legacy to his sons, grandsons, probably nephews and who knows who else who needed a knife. I am sorry for your loss, but what wonderful memories he left for his family!

  • Reply
    Kimberly
    December 8, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I loved the story! It just goes to show that we should always try make something good come out of all of our disappointments.

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    December 8, 2011 at 9:42 am

    That is a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it and reminding us of what it means to carry forward in a positive way.

  • Reply
    Dale Anderson
    December 8, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Loved Jim’s story. I remember my first knife and am the proud owner of my Father’s and Grandfather’s knives.

  • Reply
    Old Lucky Knife
    December 8, 2011 at 9:28 am

    Thanks, Jim. And thank you Tipper for the knife. I never win anything, probably because I never enter. But when I saw it was a pocket knife, I figured what the heck, for that I will. It will be especially cherished. Jon

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    December 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

    What a wonderful story, it reminds me of when I was growing up. I came from a family of 3 girls, of my cousins there was only one boy. How we envied him his pocket knife and getting to go out with his dad on the river to help him. He was a commercial fisherman. We got to stay with my aunt and learn to hang fishing nets. No knife needed until we were done.

  • Reply
    Shirla
    December 8, 2011 at 9:18 am

    What a beautiful story! I hope the memories will help Jim to ease the pain of not having his dad this Christmas.
    Apparently women made many uses of a pocket knife in those days, too. I have my grandmother’s knife she kept in her pocket while sewing. Dad often told a story about him getting bitten by a snake when he was a boy and Grandma took out a knife, cut the area and sucked out the poison. I wonder if this is the knife that helped to save the life of one of the greatest men that ever lived.

  • Reply
    Bradley
    December 8, 2011 at 9:14 am

    What a great story. I enjoyed this one so much Tipper.

  • Reply
    Gary Greene
    December 8, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Great story I am reminded of Pocket knife song The Randall Knife by Guy Clark you can find it on you tube. I love it..

  • Reply
    grandpa ken
    December 8, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Tipper
    Who says that men don’t have tears? I have had knives all my life. I started out by finding my first one when I was 5 or 6 I hid it at first afraid it would be taken away because I was too little. They never did. I reacon it was ok.
    I think about simpler times when I read your site thanks Tipper.

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    December 8, 2011 at 8:59 am

    Tipper,
    and Jim…what a wonderful story…
    My Dad always carried a pocket knife and when if it went missing, to him it was like missing a part of his hand…
    Loved this story…
    Congratulations to Jon…for winning the knife..
    Thanks Tipper ….and Jim

  • Reply
    Smallgood
    December 8, 2011 at 8:57 am

    My grandfather is the only to have given me a knife. I’m quite sure he has given one to each of his grandchildren (girl and boy alike). I rarely use it (and certainly could never carry it to work), but I do cherish it as a symbol of reliance and creativity.

  • Reply
    Belva
    December 8, 2011 at 8:50 am

    What a great story. This reminds me of my Grandpa. He loved knives and used to whittle. If he was sitting still he had his knife out carving on a piece of wood of some kind. He was a skilled craftsman and made some beautiful pieces of furniture. He would whittle all kinds of little animals and toys for us kids. I still have a little monkey that he carved for me out of a peach seed. My dad inherited his love of knives. He had several of them. He always carried a yellow handled Case knife in his pocket that he kept razor sharp that he would use to do everything from skinning a squirrel or a deer to peeling an apple for us.

  • Reply
    Cee
    December 8, 2011 at 8:35 am

    My Dad passed away in 1978 but he would have turned 103 this year – very close in age to Jim’s Dad. He used to tell us kids about the Christmas he received a small red hatchet. That was the only gift he ever recieved as a child and you could tell it meant a great deal to him.

  • Reply
    Mama Crow
    December 8, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Having my own bittersweet story about a beloved pocket knife, Jim’s story brought tears to my eyes, and a lump in my throat that is still there as I write this. Thank you so much Jim for this loving story, and Tipper for using it as the closing for the knife giveaway. love and caws, Mama Crow.

  • Reply
    sandra
    December 8, 2011 at 8:30 am

    a beautiful story, and my heart hurts for the child in 1916 even just reading it. my dad was born in 1913 and died in 2006, he had a pocket knife in his pocket his whole life, and so did his brothers and my brother. it made it so easy to buy for gifts, because they never got enough pocket knives. daddy’s heart was broken when he lived the last 10 months of his life in the nursing home and he could not have a knife in his pocket.

  • Reply
    Eva M. Wike, Ph.D.
    December 8, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Beautiful story – which I can relate to as I and my five sisters and five brothers, had the ‘home made’ stockings containing the oranges, candy and an apples!
    Have a blessed Chritmas!
    Eva Nell

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