An Excerpt from "The Christmas Plains”
[Editor’s Note: Aleteia is pleased to offer this selection from Joseph Bottum’s "The Christmas Plains," a dazzling, poetic, and insightful memoir of growing up and celebrating Christmas in South Dakota. In this excerpt, he describes an unforgettable Christmas experience from his young boyhood.]
Late afternoon on Christmas Eve, the year I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river. I can’t remember exactly what the hurry was, but he was a busy lawyer, and he needed some papers signed by a rancher who lived on the other side of the Missouri. So off we headed, west across the bridge from Pierre and north through the river hills.
If you’ve never seen that South Dakota country in winter, you have no idea how desolate land can be. I once asked my grandmother why her family had decided to stop their wagon trek in what became the prairie town where she was born. And she answered, in surprise I didn’t know, “Because that’s where the tree was.” The tree. The empty hills were frozen dry, as my father and I drove along, with sharp ice crystals blowing up from the knots of cold, gray grass.
Now, we were supposed to stay for only a minute or two, get a signature, and turn back for home. But you can’t pay a visit in South Dakota, especially at Christmastime, without facing food—endless besieging armies of it, and usually the worst of American holiday cuisine: Jell-O molds with carrot shavings, chocolate-packet pies, neon-pink hams pricked to death with cloves and drowned in honey. If you’ve never seen one of those prairie tables, you have no idea how desolate food can be.
From the moment she spotted us turning off the highway, Mrs. Harmon must have been piling her table with hospitality. I remember eating cinnamon buns crusted with sugar while Mr. Harmon and his two tall sons told us about the coyote tracks they’d found that morning. It was the cold that made the coyotes risk it, scenting the trash cans, probably, and the livestock had been skittish all day. But then Mrs. Harmon began to shout, “Jim, Jim, the horses are out.” And in a tangle of arms and jackets, we poured out to herd back the frightened animals.
By the time we were done, however, four expensive quarter-horses were loose on the prairie. Cursing, Mr. Harmon climbed into his pickup and headed north along the highway, while my father drove off to the south. Mrs. Harmon took it more calmly. She went inside to telephone the neighbors, and the boys began to saddle three horses to ride out and look.
You have to understand the significance of that third horse, for it marks the difference between town and country—even a small town surrounded by country, like Pierre. The Harmons simply assumed an eleven-year-old boy was old enough to help, while my mother would have pitched a fit at the idea of my riding out on the prairie, a few hours from sundown, in the middle of winter.
In fact, there was little chance of getting lost. I knew, more or less, how to ride, and the highway was in sight much of time. Still, as the land grew colder and darker, the excitement faded, leaving only brittle determination, a boy’s will not to be the first to turn back.
I can’t have ridden far through the Christmas hills—maybe three or four miles—when I came over a rise and spotted one of the horses, skittering in front of a worn farmhouse. Standing in the yard was a woman, a rope in one hand and her other hand held up empty toward the horse. She was hatless and tiny, hardly bigger than I was, with a man’s heavy riding coat hanging down below her knees, the sleeves turned back to show the faded lining, and she seemed very old to me. Yellow light streamed out on the cold ground from the one lit window of the house.