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Christmas at the Southwick Studio

Mountain Laurel Wreath

A Sleigh ride in the snow with a girl and
A Christmas Evening at Woodward's Southwick Studio.

The essay to follow is based on life in Buckland, Massachusetts during a Christmas week in the 1940's.

On this particular day during Christmas week Uncle Rob had been out with Trigger, his beloved horse, in his Albany Cutter sleigh.

RSW in Sleigh with Thomas  Kempis
Robert Strong Woodward in sleigh. Photograph taken about 1924.
The horse here is not Trigger but the horse previous to Trigger, Thomas Kempis.

Door to barn grain room with Laurel Wreath.
Door to barn grain room with Mountain Laurel wreath.
This leather strap of bells was attached to Trigger's harness.
This leather strap of
bells was attached
to Trigger's harness.
I was working in the barn when he returned and helped him unhitch the horse and push the sleigh under cover. His wheelchair was handy and I pushed him up to the studio to warm-up beside the fireplace. It was then that I asked him if I could take Trigger for a sleigh ride myself. It was late afternoon and snowing lightly. He said, "by all means, go ahead." So I called a nearby friend and asked her if she would like to go for the ride. She immediately agreed. "Dress warmly," I advised.

Back to the barn I went and harnessed up Trigger to the sleigh. He seemed more than happy about this. (As related in another essay on this web site Trigger actually came to the Woodward barn with the name "Nigger." But even in those days this was not a politically proper name so we changed it to "Trigger." He never seemed to notice.) During the Christmas season Trigger always had a Christmas ornament of some sort, usually a small bunch of red-berried black alder or a small sprig of spruce or hemlock, attached to the right side of his halter or bridle. He would sport this like a young colt. Also, there would be a laurel wreath on the barn door to his grain room and another at the side of his sliding door to the barnyard.

This buffalo robe was used for warmth in the sleigh.
This buffalo robe was used for warmth in the sleigh.
I hooked him up to the sleigh along with the usual seasonal leather strap of bells to his harness. A buffalo robe to cover laps was tossed on the buggy seat, and off we went in a late afternoon light snow. Normally these bells hung on a hook near the studio fireplace or on the entrance door to the studio. During Christmas season they were kept in the barn.

This leather strap of bells was attached to Trigger's harness.
Winter cleats worn on the front hoofs
of Lady,  RSW's third horse
Town Farm In May - A Woodward painting
Town Farm In May - A Woodward painting
Trigger had cleats on his winter horseshoes so he was very reliable on snow and ice. I never remember him slipping. We jingled down Upper Street and turned the corner to go up Charlemont Road. In those days it was still called "Town Farm Road" because just up this hill had once been located the Buckland Town Farm where the old folks of Buckland were cared for during their latter years of life. It was no work at all for Trigger to pull the light sleigh up the first hill and past the stone cellar hole of the Old Town Farm.

Then we stopped to pick up my sleigh ride date, a beautiful young girl, anxious to take her very first sleigh ride. We were both dressed for the season: she with a Christmas pin on her coat and wearing red gloves and I sporting a red bow tie. Trigger was very surefooted on his hoofs and I was a confident driver. I had been well versed in "horsemanship" by both Uncle Rob and his primary personal attendant at that time, Fabian Stone. Up and down the mountainous road we went all the way to the Charlemont bridge across the Deerfield.

The Charlemont Covered Bridge
The old covered bridge in Charlemont, Massachusetts
The Charlemont Covered Bridge shown in RSW's painting Through Summer Hills
Through Summer Hills, a painting by Robert Strong Woodward
of the covered bridge in Charlemont
The old original covered bridge had been taken out by the Hurricane and Flood of '38, replaced by a sturdy but unattractive concrete and steel structure. So, I could only tell my date about the fascinating rhythm of a horse "clippity clopping" across the floor boards of the old covered bridge. (I remembered this from a previous horseback ride on Trigger when the old bridge still stood.) She really did seem interested. Anyway, here we stopped for a few minutes, and Trigger received the usual treat for his efforts: a carrot, a lump of sugar and a cigarette. (He loved to chew up cigarettes.) Then we headed for home.

Beginning to Snow showing Trigger in his blanket
In the Robert Strong Woodward painting Beginning
to Snow
, you can see Trigger wearing his blanket.
Trigger always went faster when headed toward home and he always knew immediately when that transition occurred. He had a horse GPS (in those days known as "horse sense") and a great sense of direction.

Halfway home I drove up to the porch of my date's house to let her out. Her father, who had probably been patiently waiting ever since she left, was looking out the window when we arrived. He came out briefly to advise her to come in out of the snow and cold as soon as possible.

It was then I did the unexpected. I gave her a kiss, right on the lips, saying that it was a "Christmas Kiss." She didn't seem to like this at all, wiping her mouth off with her flannel glove. But I did!! She quickly went inside and Trigger and I started home, again considerably faster than we came up this road on the beginning of our ride.

Triggers very own Shaker box
Trigger's very own Shaker box
For more on Shaker boxes click here.
Trigger looking out the door from his stall
Trigger looking out the door from his stall
We arrived in the Woodward yard at just about dusk. Trigger was un-harnessed and brushed down, getting all the snow off. Then his winter horse blanket was thrown over his back.

He was given his usual measure of a round two-quart Shaker box full of grain, and closed in his stall for the night. He always had running spring water in his stall and he took a long drink. I went up to the studio to tell RSW that we had returned safely. Walking up the already shovelled driveway toward the studio, I remember ...

Christmas week at the Southwick Studio
Simple, traditional, holiday elegance.

Christmas tree at Southwick Studio
Balsam Fir Christmas tree in the service yard of the Southwick Studio

Small bags of beef suet tied to Chistmas Tree for the birds.
Small bags of beef suet tied to Chistmas tree for the birds.
There was the usual outdoor 4-foot evergreen Christmas tree (usually a Balsam Fir) located at the corner of the driveway where it met the main service yard in front of the studio. This was simply decorated with the old-fashioned electrical Christmas bulbs, the kind where if one went out the whole string went out ... not the miniature lights used today. There were also a few bunches of suet tied on the branches for the birds to enjoy. After Christmas the lights were removed, but the suet remained and was replaced as needed until Spring.

Mountain Laurel roping around the studio ramp enclosure.
Mountain Laurel roping around studio ramp enclosure.
Laurel roping was always the theme of the occasion. Long strips were encircled up over and down the entrance to the studio ramp enclosure and the main studio door. A laurel wreath, with a simple red bow, hung on the front of each entrance. Usually a long section of roping was attached along the entire eves overhanging the winter ramp enclosure. A large laurel wreath hung to the left side of the garage opening. All wreaths had a plain red bow. There were never any fancy berries or cones or sparklings on the wreaths.

Southwick Studio Door with Wreath
The Southwick Studio main door
with Mountain Laurel wreath and roping
Under and through the roping and doors I went into the warm studio. I could smell the usual combination of smells: Cuban cigar smoke, fireplace smoke and Chinese incense. Uncle Rob, cigar in hand, was in his wheelchair dressed as always in a neat suit and tie. At this time of year his tie was usually red or green with a silk pocket hankie to match in his left front suit-coat pocket.

Yule log burning in the fireplace
Yule log burning in the large Southwick Studio fireplace
The fireplace was burning without its front screening. There was a large Yule log in place at the back of the andirons and shorter smaller logs burning in front of and up against the big log. A glowing coal bed was already beneath the wood, the fireplace having been burning actively all day long. It was the custom to begin the fire at the beginning of the week before Christmas, starting it with the charcoal remains of the Yule logs of years past, but always with some from the preceding year. I remember him saying that this was a custom in Old England and he thought it was even mentioned in one of Charles Dickens' stories.

Red berried Black Alder beneath studio 'Boston' clock.
Red berried Black Alder beneath studio 'Boston' clock.
Christmas decorations in Southwick Studio
Large laurel wreath hung in North window, holly sprigs on table, with
Northern Spy apples, candles and India dancing-girl's mirrored skirt tablecloth.
There were also additional Christmas decorations in the studio such as a couple of sprigs of red-berried Black Alder (also known as Winterberry) in the copper pitcher on the long cherry table below the studio clock.

A large Mountain Laurel wreath hung in the North window. A few sprigs of green and red holly were arranged in a vase on the little table, which was covered with an India dancing-girl's mirrored skirt. It was also a Woodward tradition to have a tin container of Northern Spy apples on the table near the holly. All of the old iron candlesticks held burning 10-inch long tapers.

If there were to be a studio supper in the studio during the Christmas season the dinner plates used were traditionally Majolica from the RSW collection in the studio.

Southwick Studio Fireplace
Southwick Studio fireplace
Charred remains previous year's yule logs.
Charred remains of previous year's Yule logs.
For many years during my days with Robert Strong Woodward the Yule log was the Christmas centerpiece of the studio. This was hauled in during the summer or late fall. It was a log about 30 inches long and at least 16-18 inches in diameter. It did not necessarily need to be well dried for easy burning. It served more as a backdrop for the smaller logs laid in front to burn up against it. As mentioned above, it was tradition, just as in the days of Old England, that the charcoal remnants of the Yule logs of the previous year be used to light up the current year's log to burn over the week or more of the Christmas season. I carried on this tradition for many years with my childen while they were growing up in the Woodward home and studio.
Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Uncle Rob asked if I had any further plans for the evening. I did not, and I well knew what he was suggesting. It was also a custom of this season to have at least two or three evenings with him before the fireplace. After stoking up the fire with a large heavy black three-clawed poker, his first question was "How did the sleigh ride go?" So, I related the details of the ride. He liked to know the detailed escapades of my youth. I always thought this was because he felt he had lost so much of this period of his own life due to a gunshot wound and paralysis.

Then continued the evening of reading. This always began with several Robert Frost poems, most of them read more then once ... some quite a few times, with RSW reading first, then my repeating it right over again. Even today, I tear up remembering these nights. My favorite Frost poem was "Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening."

Some of the books we would read at Christmas
Some of the books we would read at Christmas
One Christmas season we read the entire Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, a chapter a night. Other seasons we read only excerpts from it. And there were many other readings before the Yule log fire. He liked excerpts, which he had previously earmarked for the occasion, from H. L. Mencken ("Treatise on the Gods" and "Christmas Story"), Flora White ("Poems by Flora White" and "Blood Roots"), Reinhold Niebuhr ("The Nature and Destiny of Man"), and Walt Whitman ("Leaves of Grass"). There were many others, but today I cannot remember the titles.

He was better at interpreting what many of the readings meant than any English teacher I had ever had either in high school or college.

Bartenders Guide
Bartender's Guide
Then followed, after a couple of hours or more, another seasonal tradition: "the holiday drink," a Hot Rum Toddy. We always kept a copy of The Bartender's Guide in the studio, on the shelf just to the left of the fireplace. By sheer accident, I presume, it happened to be right next to a copy of the Holy Bible. We sometimes joked about this.

Two mugs of hot rum toddy with cinnamon sticks on top of studio fireplace.
Two Hot Rum Toddy mugs with cinnamon sticks.
During those days I perfected my abilities to make a Manhattan, a Martini, a Shirley Temple, a Daiquiri, a Mint Julep (available summers only with fresh mint from the kitchen door herb garden) and a number of others. I was frequently called upon to perform bartender duties for guests of RSW who were visiting the studio to look at his most recently made oil paintings. Other times when they were seated before the North window watching me (in my starched white shirt) put up in the corner of the studio, one framed painting after another, they would simply sip on a cordial such as Kahlua, Mint Cordial or Triple sec. RSW kept an enticing selection available in the back studio room where he cleaned his brushes and frequently got a drink of the fresh running spring water in the green lead-lined tank.
Hot Rum Toddy
Warm the Hot Rum Toddy mug on the fireplace shelf.
Fill with 3 oz. of hot water (boiled over fireplace coals).
Add one sugar cube. Dissolve.
Add 2 1/2 oz Imported Bacardi Rum.
Stir using a cinnamon stick.
Add 1/2 slice of fresh lemon.
Remove cinnamon stick.
Grate small amount of nutmeg into mug.
Insert a hot poker from fireplace coals into the
         mug to make it fizz and do final heating.
Add back the stick of cinnamon and stir with it several times. Leave stick in place.

And I also knew how to make a Hot Rum Toddy, our traditional holiday drink. The recipe is to the right:

Boston Clock
Old Boston clock in the Southwick Studio.
Fireplace with screen installed
Fireplace with screen installed
During "toddy time" plans were made for another Christmas season tradition: an entire evening of music. RSW was a serious lover of classical music, listening to it daily on radio and record player. This was also during the years that I was expecting to become a professional musician. RSW was able to identify almost any classical musical piece after listening for only a few minutes. I was seldom able to do this. It eventually led to my realization that I did not have the innate ability to accomplish my ambitions in the competitive musical field. Anyway, plans were made for the morrow evening to bring out 78 RPM records of Brahms' 4th Symphony, Beethoven's Piano Concerto #5, perhaps a little Bach and by all means the Wieiawski String Quartet. All of Uncle Rob's favorites would be played the following evening.

After finishing the toddies another memorable evening ended. The fireplace was banked to die down slowly during the night. The big screen was fastened into place to prevent any sparks from escaping. The studio clock over the long cherry table struck eleven times.
Candle Snuffer
Candle Snuffer.

All the taper candles were snuffed out and finally the studio lights turned off.

We left the studio. Doors were never locked in those days.

I pushed him up the ramps into the house and left him at his bathroom door.

Footstone used to warm bed
Footstone used to warm foot of bed
I started walking for home. It was still snowing lightly but it was getting colder - down Upper Street, down Cross Street then up Lower Street to my home. All were in bed in our cold house. I crawled into bed with my brother Josh. Fortunately, my dear mother had added a bagged warm soapstone footstone low in between the sheets to soften the shock of the cold bed. Off to sleep. Another very memorable and pleasant day of my youth had ended.

As Maurice Chevalier would sing it: "Oh Yes, I remember it well."
(Click to listen.)

Christmas, 2012