Christmas memories are mixtures of carolers, colorfully wrapped presents, frantic shoppers on their missions, sparkling silver tinsel hanging single file on the arms of Christmas trees, and the aroma of freshly baked pumpkin pies. Contrasting with the more typical seasonal events is my family’s annual trek into the Pine Barrens in Southern New Jersey. We loved this natural habitat for its abundant woodland creatures and lush vegetation. Travel with me back in time. It’s the 1950s. Prepare for quiet charm. Let the hush of the woods seep into your senses.
Shhhhh. We’re about to begin . . .
We are squeezed into the cab of our dad’s smelly old pickup truck. It reeks of diesel fuel, but we don’t mind on this special, starlit night. It is Christmas Eve. Earlier that day, family and friends dropped by. Glasses were raised. Toasts were offered and family stories were retold. But that’s all over. Now it’s just my brothers, sister, my dad and me on our mission to the woods. Our tired bodies, heavily laden from eating rich foods and handfuls of Christmas cookies, would normally welcome sleep at this late hour. But when Dad gave us the cue, we rebounded into action. Grabbing coats, hats and mittens, we raced to be first to the truck. At stake was the prime window seat. After much jockeying for position, the loser was left to sit on laps, suffering the indignity of being jostled and bounced around. That was usually, my little brother.
On our way, we pass houses outlined with blinking lights and windows lighted with electric candles. Driving through the center of town we gaze at red and green lights strung across our two intersections. (Small town) We pass the church spotlighting a full size nativity scene complete with statues of shepherds and cattle bending low to honor the newborn baby Jesus. Then we pass the acres of resting farms and finally approach the pine barrens. Darkened woods line both sides of the road. The only light is from a slivery moon, that follows us onward, spilling its beams.
We feel the heave of the down shift and the truck slows down to a crawl. Dad carefully steers us onto a darkened dirt road. This road is hidden to most travelers but known to us. My siblings and I think of it as our secret place. We enter a hushed world; quiet and reverent. All bickering, bouncing and pushing stop. A few hundred yards in, the road tapers and curves into many twists and turns. Rigid claw-like branches from shadowed trees reach out from the darkness; their sharp edges scrape glass and metal as we pass by. Are they trying to block us from entering or are they pointing the way? Finally, we come to a narrowing where our headlights reveal a small clearing where the road ends. This is our destination.
It’s dark but we are not afraid. We know this place. Quietly, we climb out of the truck. Dad keeps the truck lights beaming so we can find our way. Soon the lights will serve another purpose. We whisper our way to find our familiar tree stumps. They seem smaller than last year. And there we stay. We sit very still. No words are spoken. We wait for the magic. We are not disappointed.
First a soft sound and then movement. Attracted to the light beams from the truck, the deer emerge silently and cautiously. First one, then others. Three. . .. four . . . five. . .. How many more are still hidden in dark? They stand still, majestic, like nature’s royalty. Their large almond shaped eyes study us. I wonder what assessments were being made upon our intrusion into their world. Held in their gaze, we dare not move. We sit like statues, taking in only shallow breaths of air. We know our place and we knew how fleeting our time with them would be. We hold on to this sacred moment.
A silent alert. Then twitch of a tall attentive ear sends a shiver to the rest of the herd. Heads turn. Almost at once they disappear behind the silhouetted trees and into the night. Even with the dismissal, we remain in our places, holding on to the magic. Eventually, dad beckons us back to reality. Once in the truck, our little brother breaks the silence with a long, exaggerated, ten-second plea, “Daddy, Daddy, can we keep one?” “Pleeeeeze?”
During the ride home, the conversation centers on how to catch deer, the kind of enclosure needed to keep them, who would be the caretaker and ultimately who would own them.
Owned deer. The thought was disturbing to me then and as it is now. Our house was on an acre of land, so we had a lot of space to build a pen and care for the deer. Yet, even then, at that young age, I something was very wrong with that.
It has been decades since my last visit with our Christmas Eve deer. My hustle-bustle Christmases have blurred into each other, but the treks into the forest on a that special night are very clear in my mind. It all returns: the smell of the pines, our quiet vigil, the honored moments spent with our majestic hosts, and the lessons learned. There is no magic in ownership. That which we let go freely has a way of returning.
The Christmas Eve Deer taught me that.