The Christmas Ornaments

Mystery gift from afar

It was an unexpected arrival – and as I strolled back from the mailbox I was full of anticipation at the surprise package from my father. Small, the size of a box full of checks, what on earth could this possibly contain – and why? It was between holidays – right after Thanksgiving and enough “before Christmas” not to be a Christmas gift. I smiled with delight. Packages from home and my parents were always fun. And in this case, somewhat mysterious, given the timing.

In the house, I carefully cut through the layers of clear packing tape that encased the box. As I lifted the lid off, there was a note labelled in my father’s unmistakable handwriting: Care Package. Like any kid with a new toy, I laid the note aside (the adult kid did this very carefully) and then I just stared at the contents.

I took another look. Jumbled together in the bottom of the box were not quite a dozen crumpled red and silver foil balls, some with narrow wire sticking from them and others - with a stem? Wait now. Also in the bottom of the box were a couple of brown spiky balls with – yes - stems on them. And then I pulled the name from my memory – Sweetgum balls!! But what were these other objects?

A note!

Now I grabbed the note and began to read:

“Hi Alexis!

These are Depression Era Christmas Tree Decorations about which I learned in 2nd or 3rd grade.

Teach had us bring Sweet Gum Balls & foil from gum and Cigarette pkg Wrappers. Clever-What?  Thought you might like this line to history in Tenn Hill Craft. Love you – Daddy”



Two years before in 2000, I had called my father and asked him to meet me in East Tennessee in the fall. I wanted to get re-acquainted with his older brother Leonard and other family members and have Uncle Leonard and Daddy show me the places of their youth and our family. Daddy and my mother flew in and met me at the Nashville Airport and we drove over the Cumberland Plateau down into the Clinch River area where Daddy’s family has lived for over 200 years. Heady stuff for me. And my parents, who really could give a fig about genealogy per se, seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

We searched on foot for an “old Hacker cemetery” in an area that had been off limits since the WWII Manhattan Project, drove the Big Mountain Road to see where my grandfather’s leased coal mine was (and got very uneasy as we eased by a farm raising gaming cocks), met new and old cousins. We pushed Uncle Leonard with his walker up the backside of Dyllis Cemetery at sundown and crawled along a row of old family graves with a flashlight in the dark to verify grave placements. We drove the Sugar Grove Valley road out to where I thought my 3rd gggrandfather Joseph Hacker’s farm had been (I was right), found my Dad’s grandfather Mayton’s old driveway, and listened to Daddy, Leonard and cousin Gillis Morgan talk about “those days”. I also found out why their grandfather Joe H. Hacker was buried at Dyllis Cemetery after dying in Morgan County (the answer: Because he wanted to be buried near the others from his Civil War regiment) and why everyone carried guns in those days. We had a time to remember.

Leonard, Alexis and Alex Hacker

As I looked down at the box of “decorations”, I realized that my father may not have cared about genealogy like I do; but he recognized my desire to know where we came from and to hear the stories that influenced us. He had had a blast following up leads on our trip. Now he was giving me a gift of himself and of history, which was one of his interests, and I loved him for it.

A quick phone call yielded more information. My father had never had a Christmas tree before that year. But his teacher had brought one to class and showed them how to make a stand from two cross pieces of wood. My father, who learned early how to be ingenious, couldn’t interest anyone at home in a tree – so he went into the wood, cut one down, dragged it home and put it up himself – along with some of these homemade ornament.

The box of ornaments now is one of my most precious gifts. Every year when I start to hang the Sweetgum ornaments on the tree, I think of a gangly red-haired boy with a mile-wide smile in Depression East Tennessee, a boy who delighted in Christmas and passed that delight along to his family in future years. He made sure we had a tree and something under it – he made jams and jellies and special wooden gifts to give away to friends and family; created special decorations in his workshop; made sourdough bread and hard rolls, served up the best eggnog with a kick, and had the Christmas music playing in the background.

Merry Christmas!

In the spirit of that Depression Christmas past and my inimitable father, I wish you delight in the Christmas season and in your friends and family (whether blood or not). Blessings on you all and happy genealogy hunting.

- Alexis

Copyright 2020 Alexis Hacker Scholz


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