- Established 1982 -

HOME: www.hiltonpond.org

16-21 December 2012

Installment #558---Visitor # Frontpage Hit Counter

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)


Join birders & citizen scientists for
Operation RubyThroat trips to observe and
band hummingbirds in western Costa Rica (Feb 2013), Nicaragua (Feb 2013) &
Belize (March 2013).

Openings remain for Costa Rica West 2013
Nicaragua 2013 trip is full
Just two slots left for Belize Week One 2013

We're now enrolling for Costa Rica East & Guatemala (both Nov 2013).

(Click on logo above for itineraries & trip details.)


The story below first appeared in The Herald (Rock Hill SC) on 21 December 1986 as part of our newspaper column called The Piedmont Naturalist. It and other essays were re-issued in a now out-of-print book by the same name. In light of recent heart-rending events like the school shooting in Connecticut . . . and because a 19-month-old granddaughter gives new perspective on the world around us . . . and because we just wanted to do something festive this holiday season, we decided to re-post our timeless tale of Christmas-sadness-turned-to-joy. Even if you've already seen it we hope you'll enjoy it once again--and maybe even download it to your iPad or Kindle for a Christmas reading to your own kids or grandchildren. Happy holidays to everyone, and on Earth peace and good will from all of us at Hilton Pond.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center


by Bill Hilton Jr.

Once upon a time on a Piedmont farm not far from here there lived a young boy whose interest in nearly everything could only be described as unusual.

Like most boys in the fourth grade, he delighted in football and baseball, but he also got great satisfaction from working math problems or remembering all 50 state capitals. He liked to study, knew a lot for his age, and did very well in school. His large size also made him good at sports, but he never took advantage of smaller schoolmates and gave everyone a chance to win.

His family's farm was out in the country far from any neighbors. The big boy had no one to play with after school except his baby brother, a bright and energetic little tot less than half his size. He loved the two-year-old without reservation, and they spent hours together playing games on the porch or running up and down the long dog-trot hall of the farmhouse. When the little brother got tired, the big boy would sit him down gently on a rug, select a book from his cherished collection, and read aloud about wonderful things that neither of them completely understood but that enthralled them nonetheless.

Sometimes, when baby brother was taking a nap, the big boy would go out for walks in the woods. He loved nature nearly as much as sports and academics, and he learned the names of trees and flowers that grew around his house. He liked to sit and watch birds as they flew overhead or chattered in the brush around a little pond, and he was so good at sitting quietly that sometimes small animals nearly ran into him as they scooted across the fields. All this brought the big boy much pleasure, and he could hardly wait until his little brother got old enough to accompany him on woodland jaunts.

Two days before Christmas the boys and their parents piled into their car to find this year's "perfect Christmas tree." The family, late getting the tree but intent on tradition, would settle only for a fir tree because firs just plain smell like Christmas. Eastern Red Cedars were nice, but the big boy could see them anytime in fields nearby, and pine trees were equally common in the Carolina Piedmont. The Christmas fir was always special for the big boy, partly because it smelled exotic and had to be shipped from far away, and partly because he remembered his late grandfather's pronouncement that firs were "the only real Christmas trees."

Two days before Christmas was NOT the right time to be buying a tree, and the selection was not very good. After stopping at umpteen tree lots and pinching needles and checking out prices, the family members finally convinced themselves they'd found a tree with perfect shape and just the right height to fit the spot between piano and bookcase in the living room. The dad helped the big boy load the fir into the car trunk--the two-year-old couldn't quite understand why they were wrestling with a tree--and everyone went for supper.

It was dark by the time they got home, so the big boy and the dad unloaded the fir onto the big front porch. They talked about how much fun it would be to decorate the tree on Christmas eve, especially since this would be the first year the baby would be able to help. The dad expressed some concern about finding the tree stand since he had put it in the shed where he stores tools that always take him hours to locate, but the big boy had anticipated the problem the previous week and secretly found the stand.

On Christmas eve day the bright young boy surprised his dad by producing that tree stand, and the two of them--under quizzical gazes from the little brother--cut off the tree's base. With considerable grunting and the usual frustrations that come with such jobs, they stabilized the fir in the stand, put water in the reservoir, and stood back to admire their work on the porch. Then the dad and the big boy moved boxes of lights and decorations from the shed and stacked them outside in the carport, making plans to bring everything inside to trim the tree that evening. With their preliminary work done, they called for the mom, and the family drove to town for an afternoon of last-chance Christmas shopping.

The mom went to buy the dad one more tool, even though she knew it would just get lost in the shop for months at a time. The dad took the baby for a final try for photos on Santa's lap, but the tot would have nothing of this huge round man with a red suit and beard. "Maybe next year," thought the dad. The big boy, remembering his wild native friends at the farm, bought sunflower seeds and cracked corn and some little suet cakes.

As stores closed at dusk Christmas Eve, everyone met in the parking lot and took turns hiding their eyes as other family members tried to load shopping bags without revealing their contents. Then it was off for supper again, and as they drove out to their home in the country they joined in when Christmas carols played on the radio. Even the baby tried to sing along, and he did especially well on the "fa-la-la-la-la's."

As soon as they reached the farm something seemed terribly wrong. The gate was ajar and there were fresh tire tracks in the yard where someone had driven off the driveway up to the porch. The big boy and the dad jumped out of the car as soon as it stopped and returned to the mom with frightful news. Someone had stolen the Christmas tree AND all the decorations!

What a sinking feeling went through everyone's mind and heart! The tree was gone. The lights and ornaments they'd collected for years had disappeared. It was Christmas Eve. The stores were closed. The nearest fir trees grew a hundred miles from here. A pine or red cedar would not suffice. How would the baby learn Christmas traditions if he didn't help decorate a fir tree? Why had they been so dumb and left everything outside?

Then they did the only thing they could do. Everybody sat down on the porch for a while and cried, which made them feel some better but didn't solve the problem. So they cried a little bit more.

Finally, after sobbing had stopped, the family solemnly unloaded the car and took packages inside the house. The mom boiled cinnamon and orange peels and cranberries on the stove, and things at least started to smell like Christmas. It was getting late, so everybody helped tuck in the toddler, and when he was asleep the dad and the mom and the big boy all sneaked off to separate rooms to finish wrapping presents. This was therapeutic in itself, and pretty soon each of them was humming carols and regaining some Christmas Eve spirit.

On Christmas morning the big boy was up before dawn and, despite his precociousness, was acting just like the kid he was. He shook all the gifts and guessed at their contents and read the comic book sticking out of his stocking, but he couldn't wait forever. Finally, he sneaked into baby brother's room and swept him out of his crib and the two of them leaped onto mom and dad who were still asleep (but not for long!). After numerous Christmas cheers and hugs, the older folks finally got up and hurried everybody into the living room.

It wasn't quite the same, seeing those piles of colorful presents on the living room floor without a decorated tree, but it WAS Christmas and they did have gifts to open. They longed for a fir tree for lots of reasons, and its absence brought more than a little melancholy to the morning.

After the presents were all unwrapped, everyone gathered for breakfast in front of the big picture window in the kitchen. The mom warmed up some special chocolate coffee cake, adding one more aroma to remind them of Christmas. In the back of everyone's mind, though, the absence of a tree diminished the holiday glow.

The view from the kitchen window was dominated by a big red cedar, and while the family ate they began to look at the outdoor tree in a new way. This wild cedar, they noticed, had a perfect shape itself, and its evergreen foliage seemed even greener when compared to bare silhouettes of oaks and maples. On Christmas Eve the big boy had tied festive ribbons to seeds and suet as small gifts for his wild friends, and the little treats dangled from the cedar's limbs.

As the family sat in their warm, fragrant kitchen, they watched a red bird land on an upper branch of the cedar tree. They all thought it was a gorgeous creature, and its bright orange bill and black mask and deep red plumage contrasted brilliantly with the tree's natural greenery.

"Bird," said the baby, uttering one of his few distinguishable words.

"Cardinal," said the mom, confident in her ability to identify this feathered visitor.

"NORTHERN Cardinal," said the dad, gently correcting his wife with the name approved by professional ornithologists.

"No, no! Don't you see? It's our very own CHRISTMAS TREE!" cried the big boy, showing wisdom beyond his years. He, too, knew the bird was a cardinal, and a NORTHERN Cardinal at that; he had probably watched this very bird for hours in the woods. But it was he who first realized that just having his family together on this special day provided all the Christmas they could really want.

"We didn't need to buy a Christmas tree this year!" explained the big boy. "We've got a decorated one right outside our window and we're sharing it with each other. Maybe we can't smell the fir tree and don't have lights or indoor tinsel, but this is just as good. Or better!"

And so, for the second time in as many days, they cried again--but this time it was for joy. They all sat there for most of the morning, transfixed by festive colors as Northern Cardinals and American Goldfinches and Blue Jays landed gently to feed in an old red cedar--the one Christmas tree the big boy and his family surely would remember more than any other.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

All end-of-year contributions are tax-deductible on your
2012 income tax form

See list of recent supporters below

The article above is reprinted and slightly revised from The Piedmont Naturalist--Vol. 1--1986 (Hilton Pond Press). It may not be reproduced in any print or electronic form without express written permission of the author; all rights reserved worldwide. Optimized for tablets such as iPad and Kindle, electronic downloads of the now out-of-print volume are available by clicking the links below. All sales go to support the work of Hilton Pond Center.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History

Please refer "This Week at Hilton Pond" to others by clicking on this button:

Follow us on Twitter:


Comments or questions about this week's installment? Send an E-mail to INFO. (Be sure to scroll down for a tally of birds banded/recaptured during the period, plus other nature notes.)

Click for York, South Carolina Forecast
Click on image at right for live Web cam of Hilton Pond,
plus daily weather summary

Transmission of weather data from Hilton Pond Center via WeatherSnoop for Mac.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since
February 2000, or use our on-line
Hilton Pond Search Engine:

For a free on-line subscription to "This Week at Hilton Pond," send us an
E-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the Subject line and configure your spam filter
to accept E-mails from hiltonpond.org.

Thanks to the following fine folks for recent gifts in support of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and/or Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. Your tax-deductible contributions allow us to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond" with students, teachers, and the general public. Please see Support or look below if you'd like to make an end-of-year tax-deductible gift of your own.

  • Jean Bohs--repeat supporter via PayPal

If you enjoy "This Week at Hilton Pond," please help support
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

(Just CLICK on a logo below or send a check if you like; see Support for address.)

Make credit card donations
on-line via
Network for Good:
Use your PayPal account
to make direct donations:
If you like shopping on-line please become a member of iGive, through which 950+ on-line stores from Amazon to Lands' End and even iTunes donate a percentage of your purchase price to support Hilton Pond Center. ..Every new member who registers with iGive and makes a purchase through them earns an ADDITIONAL $5 for the Center. You can even do Web searches through iGive and earn a penny per search--sometimes TWO--for the cause! Please enroll by going to the iGive Web site. It's a painless, important way for YOU to support our on-going work in conservation, education, and research. Add the iGive Toolbar to your browser and register Operation RubyThroat as your preferred charity to make it even easier to help Hilton Pond Center when you shop.

16-21 December 2012

House Finch--6
Purple Finch--1

* = New species for 2012

2 species
7 individuals

52 species

1,027 individuals
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species (31-yr avg = 67.3)
58,117 individuals
(31-yr avg = 1,875)

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
Eastern Tufted Titmouse (1)
08/16/09--4th year female

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Nature Blog Network

--Bird numbers continue to be low at Hilton Pond Center in 2012 as fall gives way to winter. The expected invasion of northern finches has not materialized thus far; in fact, we banded just our second Purple Finch of the season this week--although PUFI sometimes do not arrive en masse until after the first of the year.

--Although some folks were expecting the end of the world on 21 Dec, what actually occurred was the winter solstice--which arrived precisely at 6:12 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Predictably, days immediately started to get longer and the Earth kept turning on its axis--just what Mayan astronomers had been observing and predicting for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years.

--If you missed last week's photo essay it was about the many effects of our on-going drought. See Installment #557.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Oct 15 to Mar 15:
East of the Rockies please report your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter Hummingbirds

(immature male Rufous Hummingbird at right)

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)

Back to "This Week at Hilton Pond" Main

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

The Center's backyard Web cam at Weather Underground

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.

Video Game Rental
The link above is required by a Web site that provides us with a free page counter.
You are not obligated to click on the link.