I am a self-proclaimed Christmas nut. I love it. I love the music, the lights, the wrapping all of it.
Why do I love Christmas? And what does this have to do with family history? Well, let's just say Christmas (more specifically Christmas trees) are in my blood. Follow me beyond the squiggly cloud for my answer.
This is one of the earliest pictures I have of the house that I would know as my Grammie and Papaw's house.
In the picture are my Papaw, his siblings and grandparents, William "Bang" Gasaway and Jane "Dodd" Huston Gasaway, Papaw was born in 1908, so I'd say this was probably 1915 or so. The house and the land had been in the Huston family since Jane's grandfather, John Huston settled there. He purchased a lot of land in parcels, including this piece for which I have this paperwork from the U.S. Government which Huston purchased in 1851.
The Hustons, were a pioneer family of Illinois (but I've not done the paperwork). John Huston arrived in Illinois in January of 1830 after leaving Ohio. The story goes that he built his log house on the spot where he camped one night. Son, James, according to the story, was born in that cabin six months later. (no mention is ever made of the mother in that story, but I know her to be Cary Birks). In Illinois they were horse traders and farmers. (I have seen letters at my parents' house that include recipes for horse liniment and discussions of horses purchased from my grandcestor that took ill after purchase).
I believe that Jane received some of the land originally owned by John Huston from her father, James (John's son), and then she passed some of it (including the house) onto her daughter, my great grandmother, Bessie Gasaway, and then when she died my grandfather and his siblings inherited it. The county's probate records are online at familysearch.org, but I've had a hard time finding the files of my grandcestors to clear up the way the land was passed along.
Eventually, my grandparents settled in the house. After my grandfather's retirement from farming the Christmas tree farm was started by my dad, mom, aunt and uncle as a way to keep him from going stir crazy and to provide a supplement to their social security. It ended up providing me with many happy hours talking and working with my grandparents. Here's the tree farm in about 1978 (judging by the size of the Blue Spruce trees in front, which my Papaw called his "little people"). I'm not sure why the chair is on the porch, it was not regularly there.
The work at a tree farm is year-round. In the spring seedlings were planted, in the summer (if it's dry) water would be brought up from the drainage ditch in a small tank and the seedlings were watered by hand (mostly by my grandfather with a coffee can he'd punctured holes in, so that they were watered gently, as the rain would--he was a great man who took great care in what he did). In the summer we'd have to sheer the trees (they look very sparse if they aren't cut every year). Starting in November we spent every weekend there getting ready for the big Thanksgiving-Xmas tree selling season (we were a u-cut farm). Oversized and ugly trees were brought up and stripped of their boughs for wreaths and grave blankets. Inside the house, Grammie knit Christmas stockings to order, mom made wreaths and my aunt made grave blankets. When we were selling trees someone took money, handed out saws and helped customers find their way into the stubby forest.
As a kid I mostly watched what was going on and spent my time playing on the floor at my grammie's feet, but as I got older I helped around the house and eventually worked at some of the jobs myself. Under my mother's instruction I learned to make a glorious wreath (if I have the proper equipment), elegant bows, and thanks to my dad can shear any evergreen under 6 feet tall, strip a tree of its boughs in no-time flat and cut down a tree without getting my knees dirty.
Down the road from the tree farm was the local cemetery of which my grandparents were the caretakers--one of the oddest jobs I had at the farm was taking the grave blankets to the cemetery with my grandparents each year. It was this job that provided me with some of the first lessons in my family history. My papaw would place the grave blankets and tell me about the people whose graves we were decorating. So many of my family were buried there, for several generations.
We spent Thanksgiving at the tree farm. We worked, getting ready to open the next day but always managed to have a break to eat the delicious Thanksgiving meal that my mother, who also taught school, would prepare at our house and transport the forty minute drive out to the farm. Christmas day was different, however. It marked the end of our year. Most years we went to my grandparents house for Christmas too. Eventually, though we started going to my Uncle and Aunt's house. We always ate like normal families and exchanged gifts, but after the meal, when dishes were cleared, dad, mom and my aunt and uncle would divide up the money from the year and give my grandparents their share. My grandparents always protested at the amount they received, and begged their children to keep the money. They worked very hard, but always wanted to sacrifice their own comfort for their kids'.
My Papaw always said to me, "When I die, I hope they sell this place. It's too hard on your folks." He got his wish. His last year at the tree farm was the 1991 season. I still remember sitting quietly with him on the couch at my Uncle's house that Christmas talking with him about his back pain and how he had put off going to the doctor until the busy season was over. He had suffered quietly with the pain of leukemia that last year, with which he was diagnosed shortly after the holidays. He passed away only a month later. My Grammie couldn't handle the big house all by herself, and so it was sold. It is still operated as a Christmas tree farm and a young family lives there, but how I'd love to have it back now. Mostly, because I regret that we let go of something that had been a home for so many of my ancestors and such a tangible link to them. But, I still have those Christmas tree memories.
So, I can't hear a Christmas song without thinking of my grandparents and all of the lovely memories I have with them, maybe that's why I start looking for the Christmas music station earlier than most, and don't mind the decorations that come earlier and earlier to the stores every year. I know that I've got more Christmas spirit than most of Santa's elves, here's a hunk of my family tree to prove it--a Buche de Noel.