Sunday, December 18, 2016


Every year shortly before Christmas, usually a week or two, it became my sister, Mary’s, and my job to go with Pop into the pine forest to find our Christmas tree. My parents frowned on the idea of purchasing a Christmas tree and the artificial trees, like those aluminum trees with the spotlight that changed colors was considered outrageous and, well, blasphemous in Mom and Pop’s eyes.

Me With My Parents (actually I was about 17 in this picture. Mom made this "Beatle Outfit" for me)

Pop once said his family just cut pine branches, stuck them in a vase to serve as a tree. They put real candles on it and my grandfather McNeal stood guard with a bucket of water in case of fire. This scenario would not suffice for the discerning tastes of my sister and me. No sir, only a big, fluffy pine tree would do. And Pop knew how important Christmas was to Mom, and therefore, put forth every effort to unplug his inner Scrooge.

In our neck of the woods here in North Carolina, cedar trees are a whole lot more plentiful than other conifers and they smell heavenly with lacy looking branches, but they unfortunately droop under the weight of Christmas ornaments and lights. So, pine trees were the only trees that would work for us even though it was quite a hike to go find one. We had to traverse the hilly woods beyond the orchard, leap over the creek or wade through it, high-step it over a wide patch of blackberry briars, and then walk the old meadow filled with beggar lice seeds and cockleburs that stuck to our clothes. Just at the far edge of the meadow pine trees had just begun to populate the area and, from there, in the older part of the meadow is where the pine trees had taken off and flourished virtually undisturbed for years until the McNeals arrived.

Finally, we had reached the old pine forest and all we had to do then was choose “The One”—that perfect tree that had managed to grow symmetrical branches without any bare places and that wasn’t too short or too tall, but about 6-8 feet to fit perfectly in the living room. The tree had to be full and sturdy with a pine scent that whispered, “It’s Christmas.”

My Sister, Mary, Mom, and Me (far right)

In 1963 when I was fifteen, it was bitter cold that December, but the weather wasn’t about to keep us from making that journey into the deep woods. Christmas was just around the corner and we wanted that tree. I might mention that Pop loved these long walks. He was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania surrounded by mountains and spent most of his early life with no horse or car…just feet to get him where he wanted to go. He loved roaming through valley and dale on his nature hikes.  Mary and I, on the other hand, grew up in the city. This particular adventure into nature was close to our endurance limit, but we weren’t about to pass up a hike with Pop or a Christmas tree. No sir, we could endure. We were tough.

Or so we thought…

By the time we crossed the creek, Mary and I had red noses and our hands ached from the cold. In order to avoid being snagged by those blackberry briars, we had to step high with every step using the large muscles in our thighs to do it. It was easy at first, but the briar patch had grown stretching out much further than the previous year. By the time we made it to the other side of the meadow, my legs burned, my jeans were full of beggar lice and cockleburs and all I could think was that we had the same long trip all the way back home. Just call me a big woosie girl, but I was done. My sister didn’t look much better. Her hands had grown red, her eyes looked like they might roll back in her head any moment and the expression of determination and stubbornness told me she would get this done even if we had to bury her along the way.

Of course, Pop was marching right along in front of us leading the way into the pines. When he turned to see if we were keeping up, I saw the tired lines on his face, the slop of his shoulders, and the slowing pace of his gait. It took me by surprise to realize Pop was getting older and this long trek was taking a toll on him as well as Mary and me. Pop loved Mom and he would do anything to make her happy. Mom loved Christmas and this tree would make her happy. We weren’t giving up.

Now I’ll be the first one to admit, we might be going home with a tree even if we had to crawl through that miserable briar patch, but that didn’t mean we had to spend another hour searching for the Perfect Tree. So, when Pop pointed to the first tall tree he saw and said, “How about this one?” relief surged through me and, apparently Mary as well as we readily agreed. Pop chopped down that tree probably with the last ounce of strength he possessed and Mary and I dragged that tree back through the “Hell Hike” to the backyard.

I’d love to say that somehow Christmas magic just happened to make that tree the fully limbed, fluffy beauty we always wanted, but the light of day showed us very clearly, especially after we had rested and reignited our brain power, that our Christmas tree lacked luster. Mom never said a single critical word about that tree. She smiled and told us to bring it on in and get started decorating it. Thanks, Mom, for always being such a good sport.
Once we got it in the house, turned it several times to hide the bare spots as best we could, decorated it with our well used and loved Christmas ornaments and lights, we were satisfied.

My Sister and Me (with my new guitar) and The Tragic Tree

Even though it was the worst tree we ever had, that Christmas it actually snowed just like in the movies except it melted the very next day. It was also a great Christmas for me. Mom and Pop gave me the guitar I had always wanted. Until then I had played an old cast-off guitar that would not stay tuned. I actually cried when I opened it. Pop took a picture of me doing my ugly cry thing as I opened it, but I am not about to post that mess. But I don’t have any problem posting a picture on my sister and me sitting in a chair in front of the worst Christmas tree and the best Christmas ever. 

The Whole Family With The Worst Tree

In the spirit of the season I am giving away a digital copy (Kindle) of my recent release, HOME FOR THE HEART from the Wilding series, to someone who comments.

HOME FOR THE HEART (Western Romance with a touch of Lakota Mysticism)
Love doesn’t come easy…for some, it may never come at all.
Lucille Thoroughgood is a social worker for orphan children. She is known to the town’s folk as dependable, logical, determined, and…well…stubborn. But Lucille has a secret affection for the determined bachelor, Hank Wilding.
Hank Wilding loved hard and lost. He has sworn to never marry. After Lucille makes a bargain with him, he agrees to allow troubled and physically challenged children from the orphanage to ride his horses as equine therapy. One of the orphans is a half Lakota boy, Chayton, who reminds Hank of his own father’s painful childhood. 
But a Lakota prophesy holds a shadow over the rejected, embittered teenager, threatens the happiness of the inhabitants of Hazard, Wyoming, and may end in tragedy for Lucy.

Excerpt: (the bargain)
In the quiet of the barn filled with the smell of fresh hay, horse manure, and leather tack, Hank sensed rather than heard someone enter the building. Ah, the smell of sunshine and roses. Must be Lucille Thoroughgood. Without turning to look at her, he set the pitchfork against the wall of Lonesome’s stall. “What do you want, Lucy?” he grumbled as a greeting.
“Mr. Wilding, I have something I’d like to propose to you.” Her voice sounded tense. When he turned to face her, he saw those blue eyes dart away from his to peer at the straw on the floor. She promptly straightened her spine and must have forced herself to look him straight in the eye. Her starched manner made him want to mess with her.
“A proposal?” He moved closer to her…maybe too close. He felt something shift in his chest like a warning bell. “Well now, I haven’t ever had a lady propose to me before.” He joked, badly, just to get her goat. Generally, women were not to be trusted. He’d learned that lesson the hard way. But Lucy was his old friend since grade school. Even though she must have been born straight-laced and proper, she spoke her truth, plain and simple. Beneath that barbed wire exterior beat a heart of gold. 
Lucy propped her fists on her hips and he thought she looked like a charming sugar bowl all ruffed up in her pink flowered dress and her sweet, straw hat that sat askew on her gleaming brown hair. She knitted those brows together and narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m not proposing marriage to you, Mr. Wilding. I’m proposing a business deal…sort of.”
Excerpt:  (the Lakota Prophesy)
Kyle brought the truck to a stop as close to the front door as the driveway allowed, but before Lucy could open the door, Kyle clasped her arm. She turned to face him and noticed a faraway look in his dark eyes. “What is it, Kyle? Is something wrong?”
His face took on a grim expression when he spoke. “All I know is something dark is coming. Be careful, Lucy.”
Something in her chest clutched. Kyle had a special gift and his words were not to be ignored. “Is something bad going to happen?”
“I’m afraid so. I wish I knew what it was, but I don’t. I only know it’s evil.”
“You’re scaring me, Kyle.”
“I don’t mean to. Hank and I will keep an eye out. Tell your dad what I said.”
Excerpt: (the prophecy comes to pass)
Love Me Tender played on the radio and reminded Hank of Lucy dancing with him to the song. The light, fragrance of roses filled his senses. Lucy’s perfume.
Reality settled back into Hank’s consciousness as they entered the emergency room.
Buy Links:
Amazon:  Kindle     Paperback
Available on Kindle Unlimited

I wish for all of you a happy, safe, and memorable holiday season. 

Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. Of course, I loved this story. As I was scrolling through my downloads on my Kindle, I ran across it. Guess I can read it again.
    I'm so glad you're somewhat back among the living and over the worst of your medical ordeal. It's just not the same without you near, somewhere.
    Here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas--beautiful tree or not--we can still celebrated Christmas.

    1. Celia, how sweet of you to say. It's good to ne missed. It was getting a little lonesome over here, so I'm very happy you came. Thank you for being so kind and positive. You lift others up...especially me.

  2. Sarah,

    I enjoyed reading your story so much. I trudging through the snow and briars right along with you. We have beggar lice out here, and I've had to throw away countless pairs of socks because the little "beggars" were so embedded it was useless to try to pick them out.

    When I was little, we had real Christmas trees purchased from a lot in town. We never cut our own. When my mom discovered artificial trees, that's what we had from then on.

    (I already have your story on my Kindle.) ;-)

    Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to you. *hugs*

    1. Kaye, I know what you mean about those beggar lice. Lordy! For years and years even after I married I had a real tree chopped from the forest. It was kinda handy that my husband's family lived on a farm. We used cedar sometimes...smelled great. But, eventually I fell into the convenience hole and used an artificial tree. Mine is only 2 foot high now, but it has these tiny bubble lights that I love on it.
      Thank you so much for buying Home For The Heart. I really appreciate that. And thank you for coming by and commenting. You are very kind to do so. Thank you, Kaye.

  3. I miss those trips through the woods trying to find the "perfect" tree. Ours was always a cedar, and our arms and faces would get itchy from being scratched by the short needles as my sister and I would find the best spot for each cherished ornament. And you're right - the ornaments did weigh down the branches. But with the addition of our homemade paper chains and popcorn strings we loaded the poor tree down... LOL Thank you for bringing back these wonderful memories with your post.

  4. Rebecca, thank you so much for coming by. You're a southern gal so I know you get the treasure of having a cedar tree for a Christmas tree. What a wonderful fragrance. In my later years, my husband and I used to go to his family's farm and cut a cedar tree for our Christmas tree. I learned to put the ornaments and lights back a little deeper in the tree to keep those limbs from drooping.
    All these wonderful memories are what helps me get through some tough times. I have such gratitude to my family and friends for helping me collect these most treasured memories that continue to live in my heart.
    I hope you are feeling good and have a love-filled Christmas, Rebecca. I wish all good things to your corner of Mother Earth.

  5. Sarah, that's a wonderful story. What nice memories you must have. Our family members are allergic to conifers and we have to have an artificial tree. I must say that our tree, when decorated, looks real. Thanks for sharing your memory. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    1. Caroline, thank you so much for dropping by. It's such a shame that your family has so many who are allergic to evergreens. Still, it's what the family does together that makes memories something to treasure. You could have a cardboard tree or one painted on the wall, but you would still have those wonderful memories.
      I wish you the best Christmas ever!

  6. Sarah, WOW! did you ever take me back through all the many years of getting our Christmas trees. They were always special to me. It wasn't such a chore as you had as we have tree farms around so it's a matter of walking through nice paths to spot your tree and chop it down and haul it to your truck or car. I love real trees, the bigger the better even if furniture had to be re-rearranged--the tree won out. This year we've gone little as hubby recupping from ft. surgery and I'm hobbling with torn meniscus soon to be fixed--only othoscopic this time around so it will be a breeze compared to when I had a new ACL inserted. But by golly I have a tree and actually it's very cute and smells wonderful. Thanks for a terrific post. And I'm putting Home for the Heart on my Kindle. I thought I'd read all your books, but I'm not remembering this one, so if I've read I'm sure to devour it again. Wishing you a very happy holiday season and much joy and love. By the way what the heck are begger lice? You're talking to an northern gal here. I'll look that one up.

    1. We had beggar lice even when we lived in PA. It's the obnoxious sticky seeds of a weeds that grabs hold of clothes and fur so it can proliferate all over the place.
      I just had my second total knee replacement surgery so I know how difficult it can be to mobilize again. I hope you and your hubby take the time to heal--no tree chopping this year.
      It means so much to me that you made the effort to come and visit me and leave a comment. Thank you for that. I hope you have a delightful and happy Christmas.

  7. I'll be announcing the winner of HOME FOR THE HEART book tomorrow.

  8. Bev, I hope you haven't downloaded Home For The Heart yet, because I would like to gift you with a Kindle copy of it. I have never done this before, but I think I will need you to contact me at starcriter at yahoo dot com with your email address and Kindle address.


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