December 2, 2022
Today I saw holly branches for sale at the local Whole Foods. Holly doesn’t grow in Colorado. Too much sun and alkaline soil have killed any number of holly plants that I tried to nurture here. I was tempted to buy a branch or two today, but I know that those forlorn branches in their buckets were probably picked weeks ago somewhere back East. Every time I’ve bought any, they promptly shed their shiny, spiky leaves all over the table as soon as I got them home. I really need some fresh branches, but that won’t be happening this year.
A few years ago my husband and I took an early December research trip to New Jersey. My husband’s family lived in South Jersey for over four hundred years; he’s the first of the family to move West. In New Jersey, hollies are common small trees or large shrubs. Everyone takes them for granted, but I love to see them in the winter with their shiny leaves and red berries. I desperately wanted a branch or two to take home for Christmas.
My husband and I spent a week visiting the New Jersey State Archives, the Gloucester County Historical Society Library and other museums and cemeteries. Everywhere we went the hollies were magnificent. On other trips before the holidays, we’d seen holly branches for sale at roadside stands throughout the area. This time we saw none.
By the last day I’d given up on the idea of bringing home holly. We planned to spend our last afternoon in New Jersey at the Gloucester County Historical Society Library. As we were talking to the librarian about my husband’s deep roots in the area, including his colonial Swedes and Finns, another patron joined us. He asked if we had ever visited a nearby log cabin built in the 1600s by a Finnish settler.
We didn’t even know the cabin existed. He offered to call the owner, who he assured us, would be delighted to give us a tour. He called, and we were off to visit what turned out to be the highlight of our trip. The ancient log cabin had its original corner fireplace as well as thick, log walls. The owner even had documentation from an archaeological study done on the cabin which verified its age.
While the builder was not one of my husband’s ancestors, he lived near my husband’s ancestors at the same time they were there. It gave us a glimpse into what life must have been like for his ancestors so long ago.
As we were getting ready to leave the cabin, the owner asked what else we were going to do in the area. We explained that it was the last afternoon of our trip, but that I hoped to visit a nearby greenhouse to see if they had some holly branches for sale. I wanted some fresh cut branches to take home for Christmas.
The owner of the cabin immediately grabbed some clippers and showed us to her backyard where a huge holly tree was covered with leaves and bright berries. She invited us to clip as much as we wanted; the tree would need to be pruned in the spring anyway.
It was getting dark, but we clipped away and stuffed the trunk of our rental car with holly. Back at the hotel, we realized we’d cut too many branches, but I couldn’t bear to throw any away. Howie begged a large plastic garbage bag from the front desk. We stuffed our suitcases with branches and had a large carry-on bag of holly too.
I wondered if TSA would object to our holly-stuffed luggage, but they didn’t. The holly survived the trip in great shape and was the star of that year’s Christmas decorations.
Today when I saw the holly at the store, I remembered that genealogy trip. Thanks to the pandemic, we haven’t been back to New Jersey since. Hopefully, one of these Decembers we’ll be back in South Jersey for some more research and some more holly. I can’t wait.