One local tree that is synonymous with the Christmas season in the Mississippi hills is the red cedar. The hills and hollows of Itawamba County have an abundance of this old and sacred tree and those trees have served a very useful purpose for generations. Chests, fence posts, chifforobes, and porch flooring are just a few of red cedar’s local historic uses. And there are old family cemeteries all over the countryside of Itawamba where cedar trees mark the graves of pioneers and most every old cemetery has at least one or two of those giant ancient cedars.
Old local folklore insists it is bad luck to cut down a cedar tree. Perhaps this is due to the fact that so many old cedars mark the graves of loved ones. The value of the red cedar has also been written about as early as colonial days. The first explorers of this country spoke enthusiastically of our red cedar as one of the finest woods of the New World, praising its quality and durability.
I remember one use of the cedar when, as a child, my mom would ask me to go out to the woods and break her off a piece of cedar for her ironing. She would make several passes over the fresh cedar with her iron while ironing clothes, giving the iron a super slippery surface that would make the iron just glide with ease over the clothes.
Growing up during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the cedar was the only fresh tree locally available for use as a Christmas tree. It was not until later, during the decade of the 1960’s, that harvested spruce and Scotch pine trees from far off places were sold locally by stores.
The annual trek into the frosty cold December woods with my dad to find that one special Christmas tree for our house was definitely a childhood adventure. The tree had to be a very young tree, and one that was straight and symmetrical. Some of the best Christmas trees were found in the southwestern portion of the county in the limey rich soil of that prairie region. My uncle had a cotton farm there, and it was on his family farm where our annual family Christmas trees were harvested. Once the fresh tree was hauled from the woods, brought into the house and placed in its stand, the rich aromatic scent of the fresh cedar would permeate through the house. It was definitely the smell of Christmas.
Today I still use a few fresh cedar boughs in my home during the holidays. The rich aromatic scent of fresh red cedar mixed with the citrus smell of oranges and tangerines is simply the scent of Christmas straight from my rural childhood days in the hills of Itawamba County, Mississippi.
The Setting Sun Illuminates Red Cedar Bough and Old Books on a Frosty December Day: Photograph by Bob Franks