Last fall, I was pruning the lilacs that grow on the east side of my barn. Since they are easily 15 feet tall, this is not a simple task, and it requires the use of a ladder. I was making good progress, taking away the old growth to let the new shoots come in more […]
By Edie Clark
Oct 17 2017
Last fall, I was pruning the lilacs that grow on the east side of my barn. Since they are easily 15 feet tall, this is not a simple task, and it requires the use of a ladder. I was making good progress, taking away the old growth to let the new shoots come in more strongly and snipping off the withered blossoms to encourage better flowers next spring. I worked on one section for as far as I could reach and then moved the ladder over. When I set the legs into the grass, burned down then by frost, I spotted something in the earth, something a bit shiny. It is not unusual to find pieces of old bottles and rusted pieces of farm equipment, even occasionally shards of pottery, in our grasses, in our fields, where our forerunners, in their innocence, disposed of their trash. But this was not the usual find. It was thin, delicate.
With one finger, I pushed aside the dried stems. It looked like a Christmas ornament, half buried in the ground. I carefully worked it free, assuming the underside would be broken. With gentle persuasion, the little ball came loose from the earth’s grip. To my surprise, it was whole. Not even a crack. I turned it in my hand. The green color had faded, leaving a mirrorlike finish on one side and clear glass on the other. Bits of grass and earth clung to the sides; it was like an egg just out of its nest.
I took it inside and held it to the light. Where had it come from? How long had it been under the earth beside the barn like that? How had it survived the storms and the cold, the heat, and the rains? Did my predecessors decorate this old hay barn at Christmastime? It seemed so unlikely. But then, so are most Christmas decorations here, where the midwinter is bleak. We are noted for keeping our holiday lights up longer than we need to. It isn’t unusual, in mid-July, to find a wreath or two, needles red-brown, as dry as tinder, still adorning the front door. I know of at least one family in town who continue to light their Christmas lights long after the day has passed, long after the cold is gone.
Why do we do it? Maybe we just like to keep feeling that warm, excited anticipation that Christmas brings us. Maybe we find it an effective way to fight off the darkness of winter. Maybe it’s an answer to the craving for color that sets in around January, when our world here is so black and white. Probably all of those things contribute, but I tend to think it’s a family thing. Those of us who live alone don’t usually go in for the decorations in the ways that families do. I pass a house, all lit up, and I think somehow that inside there lives a big family, an excitement building, tantalized by the strobes of the season.
I suppose it can’t be analyzed, only acknowledged. I put the ornament on my shelf, without even wiping off the flecks of earth. As the winter closed in, I kept my eye on that little ball. It seemed to have something to say. When Christmas came, I bought myself a string of lights and went out into the woods and cut a small fir tree. I brought it inside and dug out the box of ornaments my husband and I had collected. The last time they’d seen the light was the year before he died. Each one I unwrapped reminded me of another time, another place. After I’d hung them all, I put a wire loop inside the tiny gazing ball, its mysteries intact, stories untold, and hung it on the highest branch.
This classic essay was first published in the December 1997 issue of Yankee as one of Edie Clark’s “The Garden at Chesham Depot” columns.