By Rita Thiel
Douglas fir trees for Christmas may be the norm elsewhere, but on Ocracoke where there are no fir trees, cedar tress have served the holiday for generations.
Scouring the soggy marshes, sandy paths and thorny thickets, Ocracoke youth began the Christmas season in the fall in hopes of finding the right island cedar for their Christmas tree.
When the time was at hand, with saws, hatchets and axes in tow, the cedars were cut (sometimes in the dead of night) and eagerly hauled home to be festooned with generations-old ornaments and glittering strips of real tin tinsel.
“Buying a Christmas tree was unheard of back in those days,” said Judy Gaskins Garrish, the First National Bank manager here, whose family’s Ocracoke roots run deep. “Everyone used a cedar tree they cut down.”
Island icon Chester Lynn, who owns Annabelle’s on Back Road, recalls venturing out under the cover of darkness to harvest a tree or two.
“We’d start lookin’ in mid-October to make sure we found the best one first,” he said, chuckling. “Sometimes it wasn’t exactly on public property.”
Decorating the cedars was a family affair, with cherished heirloom as well as newly acquired ornaments, paper chain-links made by children at school, and real candles, later replaced with the large bulb electric lights.
Garrish’s family still uses the wooden X-shaped tree stand (with no water reservoir) that her daddy made and used when she was a child.
“Shortly after Thanksgiving, we’d start decorating,” Garrish said.
Nowadays, fir trees can be purchased at the Variety Store, and they usually sell out.
Thanks to Lynn’s dedicated efforts, whose green thumb is well known on Ocracoke, the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum and the two island churches continue to be decked out in cedar finery.
Lynn started providing and decorating the cut cedars in both churches when he was still in school.
“They knew they could count on me to decorate the trees,” Lynn said.
One year, one of the church’s brightly lit trees had blinking lights, which he didn’t care for. So, he took matters into his own hands.
“I stopped the twinkles in the Assembly of God trees,” he said. “I don’t like blinking lights. I had to go through every single bulb to find the one that was the one making them blink.
“I found it. Next morning, the trees didn’t blink. I don’t know if they ever knew what happened to the lights.”
The first Ocracoke community tree was provided in 1962 by the Civic Club Executive Committee of Ocracoke. These days, the OPS, 49 Water Plant Road, sets up a fir tree in the front yard adorned with Lynn’s and others’ ornaments, bows and lights. This tree is lit during the Wassail Party held the first week of December.
Lynn also made it his duty to boat across the Ocracoke Inlet to Portsmouth Island each year (often in frigid weather) to hang handmade wreaths and swags of pine, cedar, yaupon and pyracantha dressed in red bows on every building regardless if there were visitors to see it or not.
At one time, Lynn began putting up a Christmas tree again each year in Portsmouth’s Methodist church, which hadn’t seen a tree in over 60 years.
Unfortunately, he ended this tradition several years ago, as it became increasingly difficult for him to make the excursion.
The outsides of Ocracoke homes also receive the holiday treatment with houses emblazoned with lights and fences hung with greenery and bows.
Trudy Austin’s family’s home on Lighthouse Road was known as “that house on the island that loved Christmas and Christmas lights.” It saw lines of cars and people ambling by to see what her late father Clyde had in store that year.
“My daddy loved Christmas and decorating with all the lights,” she said. “Our whole house would be outlined in lights, our yard, too.
“Back then, we had those big lights, not the tiny lights. He’d even have Bing Crosby Christmas music playing. To this day, I still continue decorating the house and yard like Daddy did.”
Church services are central to the island Christmas tradition with friends and families still gathering to join in fellowship, prayer and conversation.
The churches’ bolstering of the community is as important now as it was 75 years ago when the “Christmas bag” tradition was strong.
After the churches’ Christmas services, bags stuffed with oranges, apples, peanuts and hard candy were given to everyone who came.
Everyone looked forward to the Christmas bags, a tradition which carried on for the greater part of the 20th century up until recently, several islanders noted. The Methodist church continues to distribute their Christmas bags. The Assembly of God church hosts a fellowship meal for all to enjoy.
“Sometimes that bag was the only thing a child got,” said Garrish. “It meant they got a Christmas. We used to look forward to getting our bag.”
The 1958 Christmas Eve service at the Methodist church held an extra special place in the hearts of Austin’s parents, Clyde and Virginia.
That night, a bad storm forced the north end ferry on which her father worked as a crewman to dock in Silver Lake. Clyde decided to attend the Methodist service.
Virginia gave the newcomer her Christmas bag, Trudy said, and that began a courtship.
“Daddy always said, ‘a storm blew us together,’” she said.
More storms have since followed at Christmas time. One in the 1980s brought a nor’easter with snow, causing the electricity to go out and the churches canceled services.
“We had Christmas Eve by candlelight that year,” Trudy said. “It is the only Christmas Eve service I’ve ever missed.”
One might think that seafood was on the menu for Ocracoke Christmas dinners, but that was everyday fare. So, families laid in turkeys and hams with all the trimmings.
Homemade stuffing, collards, cranberry sauce, creamed potatoes, sweet potatoes and rolls filled the tables for families and visiting neighbors to share.
Many families cooked for days beforehand, preparing the dozens of pies and cakes that would serve as gifts and treats as folks visited each other and caught up on news from relatives visiting for the holidays.
Simmering pots of citrus fruits and spices heralded in the holidays in Lynn’s house.
“Daddy would put on a pot of Russian tea,” he said. “I think it’s called spice tea now. You could smell the oranges, lemons and cinnamon all through the house.”
Corn pudding was a star on the Austin table.
“My mom was well known for her corn pudding,” Trudy said. “I’m going to do that this Christmas.”
Ocracoke postal clerk Melissa Garrish Sharber makes her mother’s yeast rolls.
“It’s a difficult thing to do sometimes,” she said. “The humidity here plays a big part in how much flour you use and if the yeast acts right.”
Other families’ specialties included pineapple cake, icebox pie, chocolate pie, sweet potato and pumpkin pies, and “real” mincemeat pies.
“Mother made mincemeat pies, putting real meat in them,” says islander Della Gaskill in her book, “A Blessed Life, Growing Up on Ocracoke Island, 2013. “All the food tasted so much better then than it does now. We didn’t have any of those things to eat only at Thanksgiving and Christmas and we were just fortunate to get it then.”
Most islanders received gifts they needed: socks, underwear, fishing gear and such.
“We didn’t have the money for to buy gifts,” Gaskill recalls in her book. “There was very little bit we got for Christmas. Maybe a doll and maybe some paper dolls and that was about it. We didn’t get much…we didn’t need it anyway.
“Children today has too much, too much money spent for toys and they just lay out in the yard and get all rusty and messed up and not fit to bring back in the house. But I lived in a better time. I seen the best of Ocracoke when I was growing up.”
In the early to mid-20th century, toys were ordered through various catalogs with delivery by way of the Aleta mail boat or a freight boat.
When family members worked off island shopping could be done in department stores.
Garrish still has a three-and-a-half-foot doll given to her by Santa and a bracelet given to her by an aunt.
“We took care of our toys and other gifts,” she said. “We got stuff we needed as a kid and you appreciated it. Nowadays, kids just rip open the paper and toss the toy aside, wanting to see what else they get. We didn’t throw it aside. We knew it was about the only time we got presents, not like today when kids get more and more all year long.”
Lynn remembers once receiving a ventriloquist dummy and a bicycle.
Trudy Austin still has the bouncy horse she received from Santa when she was four years old.
Virginia Austin’s Corn Pudding
1/2 C. sugar to taste
Dash of salt
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/2 pint (2 cans) creamed corn
1 1/2 C. milk (1 can)
2 1/2 tsp. melted butter
Combine first three ingredients. Beat in eggs. Fold in milk and corn. Mix well. Melt butter and pour into batter. Bake in 2-quart dish at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes until done. Let brown lightly.