Rachel Bearden Rebeccarsquos sister with the tree

Rachel Bearden, Rebecca’s sister, with the tree.

A rancher's Christmas all our own

Time may have changed the look of Christmas for our family over the years, but it hasn’t changed the spirit. Sam still hangs in the living room. My sister and I still harvest a tree from the ranch. We still leave feed for the reindeer.

Christmas morning is magical regardless of where you wake up. But the Bearden family had its own brand of wonder when it came to the celebration of the birth of our Lord.

Weeks before the big day, a tree had to be secured from the ranch. Many eastern red cedars and loblolly pines were sacrificed for the benefit of our enjoyment. Daddy made multiple climbs to harvest what looked like “the one” only to have it land on the ground with lackluster nods from my sister and me. It had to be just the right shade of green, almost blue; and it had to be so full it would dominate the living room with its spiny needles and sticky sap, much to the chagrin of Mama.

With the tree and presents from immediate family in place, the next step was busy Christmas Eve preparations for all livestock. We were convinced that at midnight, the entire barn would go crazy with the sound of animals talking like people. The older we got, the more we learned to understand what they were saying without verbal communication. Two head shakes from a Brahma-crossed mama cow with her new calf was one too many, and you had better be climbing the fence before the end of the second one. Regardless of her attitude, she and her calf deserved clean bedding, fresh hay and ample water, especially on Christmas.

The livestock preparation included arrangements for Santa’s reindeer. Keenly aware of their exhausting journey around the world, we wanted to make sure they were well fed. We cheerfully rounded up all of the five-gallon buckets we could lay hands on the night before (many were in use for watering the occasional orphan calf or sick cow), filled them to the brim with corn or soy hull pellets, depending on the market that year, and placed them in the front yard near the rope swing under the blackjack oaks.

Though I wasn’t sure of the exact logistics (did the deer dine before or after their rooftop duty?), somehow the reindeer managed to eat most of the feed before making their way to the neighbor’s house. I recall that they were notoriously messy individuals, as evidenced by the feed scattered all over the front yard Christmas morning. They were excused though--they had to eat in haste. The raccoons were glad to help with cleanup.

More than once Santa was guilty of negligence in his present placement. One year he dropped two dolls in the front yard next to the reindeer feed. Silly old man. At least he knew better than to bring us a pony. We had plenty of those to ride and feed already.

Country ham, bacon, grits, biscuits, and pancakes

We also prepared tasty treats for Saint Nick. I never understood his propensity for fruit cake and hot tea, which happened to be Daddy’s treat of choice. I suppose Santa was sick of milk and cookies by the time he made it to our house. Interestingly, he was just as messy as the reindeer. Crumbs of fruitcake were always on the floor beneath Daddy’s chair at the dining room table Christmas morning.

We always awoke Christmas morning to the smell of country ham, bacon, grits, biscuits, and pancakes, thanks to Mama. We reserved a few pancakes with sorghum syrup to feed the horses. With upturned lips and sticky muzzles, they celebrated too.

When we were younger, my sister and I would rush the living room door in anticipation. Santa was always generous. What began as the latest Barbie with fashionable clothes turned into elaborate doll houses, bicycles and even a karaoke machine that we immediately blew out Christmas night with Reba McEntire songs.

The highlight one morning was a little black nose poking out from underneath a quilt placed cleverly on a cotton basket. That year we welcomed Coconut, a cocker spaniel mix puppy, to our home with a special morning of “inside dog” play time.

The excitement continued as we aged, each year becoming more tailored to our identity as a ranching family. Custom made boots, fancy hats from Texas and elaborate tack for our ponies, accompanied by photo collages of time spent working the ranch.

My all-time favorite gift to give was to Daddy. For years, a photo of his best friend and former roping horse, Sam, hung proudly in the living room. Time had faded the beloved scene of a young bay-colored quarter horse all tacked up and shining in the sunlit green pasture next to the house. I had the photo restored, and though the photo came out a little darker brown than Sam’s classic red bay color, Daddy was nonetheless grateful to have Sam back in his life.

Here’s to the Southeastern farmers celebrating Christmas with all of the love and wonder unique to your family this year.

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