True meaning of Lowcountry Christmas: Batteries not included

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 21, 2013 

Signs of Christmas decorate the Robertville Baptist Church in Jasper County.

  • Winter, in Beaufort

    By Edith Bannister Dowling (1915-2004)

    From her book, "One For Sorrow, Two For Joy"



    And now the flowers come out; not in the fall, but now,

    In this old season, when the new year blooms,

    And scents, and radiant hues, replace the dearth

    Of petal and perfume, here where the ground

    Lies parched in autumn, in winter lively-born.



    And now the sunny days keep on, nights cold, but now,

    Even in Advent-time, even in winter,

    Crisp shadows, pierced reflections, on the grass,

    And on the waters, round our island town

    Where man's heat, night, and God's, daytime, protect us.



    And now the memoried Christ with mercy comes again.

    The old year's shed, with all its hurts, and glories;

    The next one's virgin-promising. Trees shake

    Their blossoms, bulbs burst out their quiet praise,

    Birds chorus, up to the clouds, and suns, and heavens

    Beyond our visioning, within our dreams,

    Here in our little homesteads by the sea.

Christmas in the Lowcountry might not look like a Currier & Ives print, but no one ever wanted it to.

The gift of winter in the Lowcountry is more subtle than sleighs stuffed with cheerful people being pulled by horses a-jingling through marshmallowy snow.

"At home I have never seen snow at Christmastime," wrote Archibald Rutlege, a native of the Lowcountry village of McClellanville and our state's poet laureate from 1937 until his death in 1973.

"Instead, we have a green Christmas, made so by the pine, holly, myrtle, sweet bay, and smilax that over the top of many a tree weave emerald crowns. A plantation Christmas is one of wildwood fragrances as well as one of roaring, open fires and festive boards and ancient carols."

Rutledge wrote about the woods and rivers of his home at Hampton Plantation, which now belongs to each of us as a state park.

He writes of a Christmas not marked by church services, but by the popping of firecrackers, the yelping of deer dogs, and the quiet excitement of a hunt.

He remembers Christmas morning with birds and sunshine and scented sea winds.

"Christmas breakfast makes one think of a wedding breakfast," he wrote in a story called "Plantation Christmases." It was reprinted in 2010 by the University of South Carolina Press in the book, "Carolina Christmas: Archibald Rutledge's Enduring Holiday Stories," edited by Jim Casada.

"The table is gay with sprigs of holly, with graceful ropes of smilax. A huge bunch of mistletoe, large enough to warrant the most ardent kissings of whole communities, stands upright in the center of the table, its pale, cold berries agleam."

The charm of Christmas dinner is not as subtle.

"For dinner we have snowy pyramids of rice, browned sweet potatoes with sugar oozing out of the jackets, roasted rice-fed mallards, wild turkey, venison, tenderloin of pork fattened on live-oak acorns, pilau, and cardinal pudding," Rutledge writes. "Twilight falls as we come to the nuts and raisins. Then we form a great semicircle before the fire, and we rehunt the chase of that day and of many of long ago."

BRICK BAPTIST

From the letters and diary of Laura M. Towne, who left the comforts of Philadelphia for the woods of St. Helena Island in 1862 to teach formerly enslaved children, we get an outsider's appreciation of a Lowcountry Christmas.

She writes of a special service on Christmas Day 1862 at the Brick Baptist Church on St. Helena.

"The celebration went off grandly," she writes. "The church was beautiful. Lottie draped the pulpit in long moss and put a wreath of red holly and broad leaves along top, from which the moss fell like a fringe. The words, 'His People Are Free,' were put up opposite the pulpit.

"Festoons of green hung between the pillars, with a cluster of red berries and magnolia leaves looping each up. On the walls were circlets of green, each surrounding a little flag that Miss Ware sent us. It was beautiful."

The descriptions of a Lowcountry Christmas by Edith Inglesby are a gift in themselves. She was a librarian in Savannah, with a home in Bluffton where she and her sister, Charlotte, lived for many years. Edith wrote a charming book in 1968 called "A Corner of Carolina: The Four Seasons in Hilton Head Island, Beaufort and Bluffton."

She recalls leaving the city as a child to visit great-aunts and country cousins in the Lowcountry for Christmas.

"We sat quite still on Brownie and look about," she wrote of a ride through the woods near dusk with her sister on a marsh tacky horse. "We could see a line of live oaks, the Spanish moss that mantled their immense boughs fountained down in lacy spurts ... lavender against the slanting sun. Behind them dark pines lost themselves in the sky. Shadows pooled under the trees and everywhere was dusky blue except where broom grass made a splash of gold."

'LET US PRAY'

After presents were opened on Christmas morning, her mother would shush them and tell them to get dressed. A great-aunt would say it was time for church, adding, "Return, if briefly, to the faith of your fathers."

Even Edith's worldly little cousin Paul joined the procession to the Episcopal church.

"The church smelled gloriously of pine, holly and cedar and was bright with camellias and poinsettias," she writes. "We felt very pious and Christmassy and noticed that a strong aroma of shoe polish emanated from Paul. Then the choir came marching in with their red ruffs and white surplices and we joined in the hymn with vigor.

"Father Hubert, a young cleric whose first parish this was, began the service in a rather reedy voice. As he intoned, 'Let us pray,' we all dropped stiffly to our knees. All but Paul. He sat in the pew, bent forward in what Father called 'the Presbyterian crouch.' But not for long. Great-aunt Susan reached out a resolute arm and, raising him up by the collar, deposited him down on his startled knees."

At dusk, they would return to the heart of town for caroling around the crèche.

"When at last it was over, Cousin Archie helped the Great-aunts into his car, but the rest of us walked in the gentle pine-scented air. We had a sort of holy feeling and thought with swooning ecstasy of the fireworks and Roman candles yet to come."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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