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Sunday Journal: A sacred plant, a new start

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 2, 2001

Sunday JournalWhen I asked my father if he wanted to shoot down some mistletoe on Christmas Eve, he seemed confused. "Really, Dad," I stammered over the phone, "it grows in live oak and pecan trees." Slowly he came to love the idea. My parents live in suburban Connecticut. It never occurred to them that mistletoe actually grows somewhere, much less that you could gather it yourself.

A rift in the family had created problems over how and where to celebrate Christmas. My brothers and sister wanted distance from my parents' crumbling marriage. My wife and I lived in Georgia, and we could escape most family traumas. But these holidays were different. The folks were coming. With the wounds of my father's infidelity still fresh, the hunt for mistletoe would provide a much-needed distraction.

My New Age friends offered instructions on how to harvest this sacred shrub. Druids worked during a full moon. They gathered it in bunches with a golden scythe and a white sheet under the oldest tree in their borough, never letting the leaves touch the ground for fear the mistletoe would lose its potency. The ritual restored relationships, my friends insisted, and brought us closer to nature. My dad and I had our own ideas: blasting through the woods with a thirty-ought-six. That should bring us together.

On Christmas Eve, my parents and I went to see Theresa, whose husband, Steve, owns a small arsenal. Theresa is a witch -- not a hat-and-broom witch, but a pagan who worships nature in ways that are quite common these days. She also was recovering from some family traumas of her own. This holiday was the first in more than a decade with her two daughters and grandchildren. We could heal our collective dysfunctions together. Searching for mistletoe, her bunch piled into a minivan while my family followed in the Volvo with Connecticut plates. We drove to Quitman, a tiny south Georgia town with enough pecan groves to make us all latter-day Druids.

The trek out there was tense. That morning we had gone to Unitarian services, and the speaker dwelled upon the origins of tree worship without mentioning Christ in the manger. We ate lunch at a Chinese buffet. Not very traditional. The conversation in our ride to Quitman felt forced, as we passed through the scrubby pine plantations. A cold wind whistled through the car windows; a dry heat blasted from the front. By the time we reached Brooks County, everyone needed fresh air.

Steve took out his shotgun, his earphones and a box of shells. He cocked the double-barreled rifle and aimed just above a bush near the top of a pecan tree, hoping to cut the stem. The woods nearby shook, then silence. He fired again and missed again. My father went next and blasted straight through his target. It rained branches and berries and leathery leaves, and we picked through the pile at our feet. "Peter, that was a good shot," my mother said with a kiss. Pretty weird. They could try to work out their relationship, but I felt distrustful and puzzled.

Each of us took our turn with the rifle while Theresa's son-in-law caught the falling mistletoe under the tree, gathering the untainted branches in his hat without ever letting them touch the ground.

We said our goodbyes, our merry Christmases, and Theresa's family disappeared into her daughter's minivan. Our witch was still talking when she stepped inside, a sprig of pure mistletoe poking from her jacket pocket.

That evening, my small family settled into a quiet holiday together. I hung the day's prize under the arch between our living and dining rooms. The house smelled woodsy, like evergreen and fresh smoke. My wife kissed me under our sprig of magic while my father mixed cocktails in the kitchen. We did our best to celebrate Christmas Eve. I cued up a record of big band holiday classics, plugged in the tree lights and laid out our traditional spread of herring, fancy crackers, Gouda and shrimp cocktail.

Somehow Mom persuaded me to Lindy. She called out the steps while Glenn Miller rolled through Jingle Bells and the shadows of the tree lights flickered off the ceiling. I struggled with the dance, however, and the music could not crowd out the unasked questions about our family. Why were my parents still together? Why should the kids have to pretend? Where was my dad with the drinks?

Christmas in the past had been a boisterous affair: lots of presents, dinner with a crown rack of lamb and table settings that went back three generations. This holiday felt forced, and I had to face the cracks in my parents' marriage alone. Our family needed new traditions, new rituals for healing besides the stockings, shrimp cocktail and scotch on the rocks. Mom and Dad came to Georgia because they had nowhere else to go. I sought ways to celebrate the season with them whether they stayed together or not. We sat down by the Christmas tree and tried to have a conversation. It was a quiet night.

Mistletoe hung from the archway above us.

- Thomas Hallock teaches writing at the University of Tampa.

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