I started writing and publishing the Carding Chronicles three years ago this month. That’s a lot of stories, and I think it’s about time I collected them in one place so that more readers can enjoy them.
That’s coming up in 2018 as well as the next Carding novel, Lights in Water, Dancing, and a volume on the myriad ways to get your book published called What Would William Shakespeare Do? (I lecture on this subject, by the way.)
Sorry, I digress. Back to the Chronicles.
This is the first Chronicle I ever wrote, and from what I can tell from readers, it’s something of a favorite so I like to share it every December.
So let’s take a trip up Belmont Hill to visit the Tennyson family.
And the best of the New Year to all of you.
As the glower of November settles into the sustained chill of December, the good folks of Carding, Vermont begin to think seriously about the coming holidays. One of the first signs of Christmas-to-come is the appearance of a particularly thick and creamy brand of eggnog on the shelves of Cooper’s General Store. Andy Cooper, the seventh Cooper to own and run the rambling everything-you-need emporium, always gives Benson’s Special Nogg pride of place in the first cooler you see when you walk in the front door, just to the left of Carding’s Creamy Ale.
Word spreads through town when the Benson’s shows up so you’ve got to be quick to get your share of the seasonal treat.
One of the other signs of the approaching holidays are the trays of Carding Crunch Cookies that Diana Bennett makes over at the Crow Town Bakery. The pungent scents of ginger and cinnamon leak right out the bakery’s windows and doors, causing passersby to drop whatever they’re doing to buy a dozen while there are still some left.
But perhaps the most anticipated holiday signal in the whole town is the appearance of a small sign at the end of the dirt road that goes up to the old Tennyson farm. The sign was once white with a green triangle in the center to represent a Christmas tree. But over the century since that sign was first painted, the white has faded to the gray of a winter sky, and all that’s left of the tree symbol is a faint shadow.
No matter. Generations of Carding-ites, who start watching for the sign on Thanksgiving, know exactly what it means—the Tennyson farm is open for the cutting of Yuletide trees.
Lee Tennyson, the seventh Tennyson to own the farm, will be the first to disclaim any credit for this special plantation of spruce and balsam firs. If asked, he’d be glad to tell you how they were planted by the first Tennysons to live on Belmont Hill. His name was Alfred and his enchanting wife’s name was Elayna.
If you talk to the old timers in Carding, they’ll tell you lots of stories about Fred Tennyson. He wasn’t native-born, first of all. He came from New York City but he left a good job there to come live in the Green Mountains. You’ll hear how he was the only person in Carding to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the the 1932 election, and how right he was to fight to get electricity in Carding in 1943.
Fred Tennyson didn’t marry a local girl, though there were plenty who would have been happy to have him. No, as soon as Fred finished building the small cabin that eventually grew into the Tennysons’ large farmhouse, he sent a letter to a faraway country to ask for a certain young lady’s hand in marriage. Her name was Elayna, and she accepted Fred’s proposal without hesitation. No one in Carding ever learned much about her past but Fred always said that when Elayna left her homeland, people wept.
As a general rule, people like to live our lives among people they know. So it’s no surprise that the folks in Carding were prepared to keep Elayna Tennyson at a distance for four or five years while they got to know her. But somehow—and no one was quite sure how—Elayna blossomed easily among them, just as if she’d always been there.
A number of Carding-ites accounted for this by remarking on the pleasant aroma that wafted through the air whenever Elayna was around. The scent was like fresh-baked cookies, one part ginger, two parts cinnamon with butter in the background. But when asked, no one could ever recall seeing her bake.
Another contingent, mostly children and those enjoying the peak of gray-haired longevity, treasured the way Elayna touched them. Some described her caress as soft as the brush of a snowflake on a cheek while others said it felt like the first warm sun on a cloudless March day. But when asked, they could not recall ever being embraced by Mrs. Tennyson.
Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that the green hills of Vermont were once treeless, stripped bare by decades of logging. But that’s the way they were when Fred asked Elayna to marry him. The brown hills made him feel sad, and he promised his wife-to-be that he would replant them with maples, oaks, beech, and “some spruce and pine so the little ones of Carding can have Christmas trees once again.”
The treeless plight of Vermont’s hills touched Elayna’s heart so she arranged for a special wedding gift for Fred—a dozen magnificent balsam firs from her faraway land.
It took the newlywed Tennysons a while to choose just the right spot for their Christmas tree farm. But they finally picked a southwest-facing slope that was protected from the worst of the winter winds yet was open to the light of the summer sun.
One of Elayna’s special balsams was much larger than the others, and it became the center of their tree farm. After they planted the first, Fred collected spruce seedlings from local hollows and copses to fill in the spaces among them, and the tree farm flourished.
And so did the Tennyson family. Elayna gave birth to a girl named Arabella just before they celebrated their second Christmas as man and wife. Little Arabella soon had three brothers—Alfred junior, Cedric, and Wesley—and then she had a little sister named Rose.
The Tennyson children shared their mother’s luminous qualities, and that’s probably why people believed they were conceived in the moonlight under that great balsam fir. Of course, no one but Fred and Elayna could have testified to the truth about that story. But generations of Carding women who were wooed by Tennyson men told stories about walking in the woods with them at night.
The family began selling Christmas trees the year Arabella turned twelve. Fred made the white sign with the green triangle that year, and nailed it to a post stuck in the ground where the cart track up to the farm met Belmont Hill Road.
Only a handful of families made the trek that year but the welcome they received was memorable. The Tennyson children guided everyone right up to the back door of the farmhouse where they were met by Fred and Elayna. Fred was dressed in a dark green jacket while Elayna wore a patchwork apron with deep blue pockets on its front. Fred carried an axe to do any cutting while Elayna directed the selection of “the right tree for the right family.”
She was quite particular about this, asking the Carding families about their lives, their dreams, their hopes and travails before picking out a tree. Some folks may have thought all that chat was unnecessary but the people who walked in the woods with Elayna didn’t seem to mind at all.
As they walked with her, Elayna told tales about the trees. It seemed she knew the life story of each spruce and fir intimately.
“Look at those three here,” she’d say when the walkers reached the top of the hill. “They were planted on the same day but look how the one in the middle is smaller than the others. That’s because its top broke off in an ice storm. But see how the one on the left and the one on the right have moved together to protect it? That’s how life should be, don’t you think, us protecting one another from storms.”
Then later on, when the walkers reached a clearing near the big balsam fir, Elayna would execute a little dance step in her heavy winter boots, and laugh in her soft, sparkly way. “Happy Christmas,” she’d say. “Happy Christmas to all.”
And everyone who heard her could smell the tang of spruce and hear the whisper of the balsam firs. Then suddenly, they’d be right back in the barnyard where Fred would help them load their special trees into their wagons, Elayna would give them tin cups full of hot cider, and the Tennyson children passed out the first Carding Crunch Cookies.
“Just bring back the trees when Christmas is over,” Fred said as they drove away. “You can leave them right at the end of the drive. I pile them up for windbreaks around Elayna’s flower gardens.”
And that’s how the Carding Christmas ritual began. Year after year, families in the village waited for the Tennyson Tree Farm sign to appear, and then they’d trek up Belmont Hill, turn right on the old cart road, and then follow Fred with his axe and Elayna with her stories until they found the perfect tree.
Remarkably, everyone’s selected evergreen always fit perfectly in the spot chosen for it.
Remarkably, every Tennyson tree filled its home with the tang of spruce and the whisper of balsam fir, especially on Christmas morning.
And remarkably, on the day after Christmas, all the trees were left in a pile at the end of the cart track that led up to the Tennyson farm.
What stayed behind in the homes and mills and farms of Carding were the stories that Elayna always told about the evergreens. All Carding’s children learned the tale about their family’s particular tree like the one about the spruce with bent branches and a strong heart or about the wispy fir that held a family’s-worth of ornaments with magnificent pride or the pine that whispered words of comfort to people facing grief.
The people of Carding grew so accustomed to visiting the Tennyson tree farm every year with Fred in his green jacket and Elayna in her patchwork apron that it came as a great shock when they learned that she had died.
“She just hung that apron of hers, the one with the blue pockets, on its peg in the kitchen,” Fred said, “and took to her bed. She was gone by morning. She just said it was time.”
The Tennysons chose to bury Elayna in a special place just down slope from the spot where people left their trees after Christmas. You could see all of the Corvus Valley from there—the glittering ribbon of river, the shimmer of Half Moon Lake, smoke rising from Carding’s chimneys in winter, and the sparkle of snow-covered Mount Merino in the far distance.
It was a simple ceremony. The whole town was there. At the end, Arabella and her brother Cedric planted a balsam fir to watch over their mother.
As people turned to go, they told one another that Christmas would never be the same because the Tennysons wouldn’t sell trees now that Elayna was gone.
But they were wrong. On the morning of the winter solstice, Cedric hung out the white sign with the green triangle. The news spread through the village faster than a roll of thunder, and soon a line of cars were turning right up the snowy track to the farm.
Arabella and her sister Rose greeted everyone wearing patchwork aprons of their own making with two bright yellow pockets on the front because that was their favorite color. Father Fred waved from his kitchen window where he was keeping warm by the wood stove while his three sons Al, Cedric and Wesley stood at the ready to help folks cut and load their chosen Yuletide evergreens.
This went on year after year with Carding family elders passing on their Christmas tree stories to their family youngsters. But somehow, in all that time, no one’s noticed that they always find their special tree in the same place they did the year before. And somehow, they never notice that the one they pick has the same broken branches or misshapen trunk as the year before.
What they do remember are the stories they heard as children, and walking up the hill among the trees in the dark. And then, after they gather their special yuletide greenery, they wander to the center of the wood to stand by the great balsam fir that Elayna Tennyson brought to Carding so long ago. Then a little breeze comes up then. Snowflakes drift past their cheeks, and they hear a soft, sparkly voice whisper: “Happy Christmas. Happy Christmas to all.”