Taking to the Woods: A Holiday Tradition

Posted: November 19, 2014

In the next month or so, many families will come together; it is a tradition. As your family gathers, let the winter woods pull you outside; they are amazing and magical places that many folks do not know that well.

Unfortunately, too many folks heed the lyrics from the popular song, “Let it snow” -- The weather outside is frightful, the fire is so delightful… and, from my perspective, they stay indoors during the best season of the year. Winter woods are delightful and add another dimension on how to enjoy those sylvan places you love in other seasons.

Research on private forest landowners conducted at Penn State finds that about 8 out of 10 of the state’s holders of woodlands hope to pass it on to one or more of their children; yet, only about 4 of 10 have discussed the land with their heirs and about 1 in 4 actually manage to pass their land on to their heirs. Maybe one of the reasons this happens is that they don’t find time to talk about the future of the land? A winter sojourn might provide the perfect opportunity to engage your family or heirs in an outdoor activity that is fun, relaxing, and can provide an entry for talking about the future of the land you love.

In the next month or so, many families will come together; it is a tradition. Now, this begs the question, what is your family’s holiday tradition? A meal and football on television? Watching the Thanksgiving parade in New York, again, on television? Or, a meal followed by the adults talking while the kids play electronic games? Let the winter woods pull you outside; they are amazing and magical places that many folks do not know that well.

Sure, it can be cold and the wind may blow. It might snow, and you all experience the quiet of gently falling snow, or the sting of driven flakes. It might be cold, blustery, and rainy; a day when ice forms tiny beads on twigs and shines tree trunks, decorating the landscape in a special way. Don’t let the weather stop you. The combination of weather and family can bring real enjoyment to you and others as you experience it together building memories.

My father had two simple rules related to the weather. If you get cold, you will get warm. If you get wet, you will get dry. On winter walks a highlight was the fire dad always built. He was a master at this. He would gather the fine sticks, maybe some yellow birch bark, pull out his wooden matches and nurse the flame. Wood was gathered and laid on the fire so the sticks would burn in half and the ends were fed toward the center. A teepee was too much work to build; you had to break all that wood. Once the fire was going you mounted the search for the “just right” toasting stick (we always brought sandwiches, not hot dogs), which had to be long enough to stay out of the smoke and would support the open sandwich. You exposed the meat to the forming coals by removing a slice of bread, putting it on top of the other slice, and methodically rotating the layers until it was all warm, toasty, and well smoked. There were many memories formed, stories told, and time together enjoyed. Those times still bring smiles.

If you have kids along, they will enjoy the fire and smoke. Make sure you have those sandwiches, snacks, a thermos of hot chocolate, and even more special treats promised for later. Bring along an extra pair of gloves, sweater, and muffler. Before and after you stop, keep folks moving to stay warm. Make it fun. Look for things you do not see in other seasons -- the squirrel and mouse tracks loping across the snow, bird nests previously hidden by leaves, or, in the nearby stream, watch air bubbles move lava-like under the ice. The sounds of winter are special, too. You might learn to appreciate the moan of the wind and rattling twigs in the canopy or hearing trees crack and creak as they shiver in the wind, enjoy stillness in piney woods or the jays’ call or the raucous sounds of crows. Smells, sights, and sounds can create memories that are quite strong -- the tinge of smoke, the sparkle of ice, and the sounds of winter may well help start an annual tradition that ties you and your family to the land and each other in different ways.

Your winter walk need not be long. It might be best if it is short and enjoyable. Hope that it creates memories and becomes part of your traditions. It is about building a relationship to the land and each other. The more a person experiences a place, builds a relationship with, and creates memories that extend into the past and tie to the future, the more likely they are to want to protect it. Take time to talk, recall what you did and, importantly, suggest you do it again next year.

If you would like to learn more about how you might start a new family tradition that might help you create a conversation about your woodlands and how you value it, please visit our website. There you will find resources about starting a conversation about your land, where to find help on estate planning, and other information that you might share with your family or others. Talking about the future of the land is difficult, but if you love it, you should create a plan that will help future generations experience your ties to it.

The Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship Program provides publications on a variety of topics related to woodland management. For a list of free publications, call 800 235 9473 (toll free), send an email to, or write to Forest Stewardship Program, Natural Resources Extension, The Pennsylvania State University, 416 Forest Resources Building, University Park, PA 16802. The Pennsylvania DCNR Bureau of Forestry and USDA Forest Service, in Partnership with Penn State’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management, sponsor the Forest Stewardship Program in Pennsylvania.

Contact Information

James Finley, Ph.D.
  • Professor Emeritus of Forest Resources
Phone: 814-863-0402