Ghosts of Christmas and holiday hunts past

Dec. 24

It is Christmas Eve morning, a Monday, and it’s raining.

Yesterday was a lovely Lord’s Day and I had planned a hike high into the Sanctuary area of my woods with a heavy bucket of corn to broadcast about, which I had swept up from where it had spilled along the road, weighty because along with the grain had come much dirt, leaf litter and gravel. But by the time we had finished my Sunday duties and some final pre-holiday grocery shopping, the afternoon was getting on and my hill-climbing ambition had flagged. No matter, I had thought, tomorrow will be fine.

I had intended to kick about in a few rough places this morning to look for rabbits. But the rain has squelched that ambition. Instead, I have taken only a walk around the farm’s lower level to see if squirrels have found the walnuts I distributed late on Saturday, and while I was wandering, ghosts of past holiday season hunts accompanied me.

Poor singer Karen Carpenter sang complainingly about how rainy days and Mondays got her down. I’ve always liked Mondays and more so now that I no longer have to get out early and begin a new work week. As for rainy days, how I feel about them depends on the context. When they break a drought during the gardening season, I love them. One recent spring gobbler season, I tagged both my birds on rainy Mondays. But as for this particular Monday, Christmas Eve, which is my favorite day of the year, were Carpenter alive I would tell her: “Right on, girl!”

Snow has an iconic link with Christmas celebration wherever in the Western Hemisphere it is a climatic possibility—regardless that in the region where the reason for Christmas originated, snow is an anomaly. Scenes of homes, villages, and churches in holiday décor always appear with pristine snow cover and more than a few secular Christmas songs mention snow. But the truth is, here in the Upper South, Bing Crosby’s dream of a white Christmas is an elusive one indeed.

As I write, blizzards are sweeping across the Midwest to give some folks that traditional white Christmas while ironically stranding in air terminals many of those trying to get home for the holiday or forcing others to endure dangerous and frightening drives on slick roadways. The appeal of a white Christmas lingers from an age when the world was smaller and families less scattered. When folks remained close to home, it wasn’t much of a hassle to hitch up the horses and sled or buggy the short distance to Grandma’s, but nowadays such classic Christmases mean inconvenience and worry.

Because I am a hunter, it takes a good productive holiday hunt to put the merry in my Christmas and the happy in my New Year and I haven’t had such a yuletide hunt in the last 10 years. The cause of this is scarcity of rabbits and upland game birds, but weather is an important factor in the quality of hunting this time of year.

Some folks might feel that I have my Christmas spirit placed awry, but such large emotional investment in the holiday period (Dec. 24-Jan. 1) hunt likely is a holdover from the days when my life revolved around school and the nice holiday break. After leaving school behind as both student and teacher, I still had extra days off for these holidays, thus I felt a pressure to make the best of opportunity.

Now mundane societal duties rarely infringe on my higher and nobler off-the-pavement doings, so the holidays are much the same as any other days, but it’s hard to let go of mind-sets that have developed over decades, thus this long string without a good holiday hunt has soured my outlook again. So here on another Christmas Eve I am strolling about expecting to find nothing other than bittersweet recollections of holidays past when things were better.

Long ago when there was enough upland game to motivate me to spend these special days afield, I never dreamed of a freshly white Christmas. A happening winter snowstorm wasn’t a good time to be out unless it had brought an invasion of waterfowl with it, which wasn’t a consistent circumstance. There were rare happy exceptions, such as New Year’s Eve of 1970, when snow fell so fast it immediately covered my tracks as I hiked from Springdale to Crooked Creek and shot a brace of mallards with my new Remington 1100—two out of hundreds of fowl that had arrived overnight with the storm front.

The season of 1993 was another in which a white Christmas and a fresh winter storm cut favorably for me. Quail were already on the decline, but I had taken a few by time the snows began just before the holiday period. By Christmas, it was so cold that the creek had frozen solid from the beginning of the river pool at Vaughn’s Crossing all the way to the river. Duck numbers were really down that year and the season was short; it began the 26th and ended in mid-January, but just before Christmas a small clutch of mallards began hanging out in a stretch of open riffle in the upper creek.

A word about Dec. 26 is in order. It is the “Feast of Stephen” of the “Good King Wenceslas” carol. The Irish call it St. Stephen’s Day and in the British Commonwealth nations it is Boxing Day, a bank holiday on which there is a tradition of giving gift boxes to household servants and tradesmen. It’s a back-to-work day for most here in the U.S., and retailers expect to see a drove of gift exchanges and returns.

I have a history of good hunts on the 26th, so sunrise found me waiting at that open water as snow descended around me like a moving fog. My wait wasn’t long; a pair of birds dropped in out of the gravy and two shots left one floating in easy casting distance of the rod and reel outfit I had along for such purpose and the other next to the far bank, so I had to hike to the mouth of Owl Hollow to cross over and fetch it.

Despite the short season, I had one of my best in ‘93-’94 because the snows and cold kept the boat hunters frozen out of the creek and though I didn’t see many ducks, conditions forced the few that came here to use the places I could reach. I bagged 20 ducks and eight geese. I got the geese in Wilson’s Bottoms where they came to stand on 27 inches of hard snow to feed on un-picked corn.

I’ve had other good Dec. 26 hunts. I can recall blooding two new shotguns—Christmas gifts put in my hands on Christmas Eve—on that day, but I’ve never gotten the first kill with a new gun on Christmas Day, though I’ve enjoyed some successful hunts for rabbit, quail and grouse on the Day itself.

In 1988 I sacked five quail and a rabbit that morning of the 26th with my 20 bore and then took the new Remington 11-87 to Wilson’s Bottoms that afternoon and felled a black duck over a pond. Setter Patches found it dead in an alder swamp connected to the pond. I switched to an IC tube and hit the weed fields with Patches, stepped into a huge bevy of bobs and nailed one of the two honest quail triples of my shooting career. In ’94 it was a new Ruger 12 gauge that got its wings on bobwhites and its grouse wings the day after.

My preferred Christmas weather for upland hunting is seasonable, dry and fair—nothing like this Christmas Eve. I really dislike balmy Christmases and rain is the ultimate downer. My sporadically kept diary reflects that for the period of Dec. 24, 1991 through Jan. 2, I took 23 quail, five rabbits, and eight ducks during a fine spell of holiday weather.

We do things for pleasure and satisfaction, for the delight of the instant, but hunting, more than most activities, creates enduring recollections—the irony of which is that as we revel in our good instances, we realize that there will be future moments when they will return as troubling ghosts to remind us of times when we and the world were better.

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