"Everyone was supposed to help their family, so gifts were usually handmade and took all year to prepare and write appropriate poems to go with them." -
A memory of Christmases in the early 1900's in rural Whitewater, Wisconsin.
By: Anne Auten
Recently, a friend posted that we had 7 weeks until Christmas. My first thought was wondering how this was possible, when in Georgia, we've still been enjoying 70 degree afternoons. My second thought was a horrifying realization. "Oh no! When does that damn elf show up and reek havoc on my bedtime rituals?"
When my daughter was small, some marketing genius made a fortune turning a creepy looking elf into a family tradition. I wanted no part of it, until the day that my sweet and precious little girl said, "Mama, why doesn't Santa send me an elf?" Drats, foiled again by Christmas marketeers! Pronto, the elf appeared, a little late, but much to the delight of my child.
Last year, I thought I might get some reprieve, as my little girl is now a teenager and professes not to believe in the Santa that I still insist is real. Alas, my mention of wouldn't it be great if the Elf-on-the-Shelf just got to sit on the shelf this year, was greeted with a resounding, drawn out, "Nooooooooo!" large puppy dog eyes, and a confession. "Mama? You know how I tell you that I don't really believe in Santa and all that Christmas magic stuff? Well, a little part of me really still wants to believe." So, I will embrace the elf, because I believe in Christmas Magic and in family holiday traditions. But most of all, I believe in the magic of the memories that transport us back in time to places so real and palpable that we can taste and smell, see, touch, and hear our thoughts, like my memory in the 1970's kitchen of my childhood home.
2016 will mark the 19th Christmas that I'll laugh and reminisce as I decorate the mantle with the Pringles can Nutcracker my son made in first grade. Every time I look at it, I see his sweet, snaggley-toothed smile, as he hands his gift to me and proudly declares that he made me a present. The can is empty inside except for a few shards of popcorn in the bottom. "Ronan?" I ask. "Was there something in here?" He replies, "Yes! My teacher made some popcorn candy, but I ate it!" HoHoHo! Merry Christmas!
Each year I continue to hang the ornaments the children made in school; treasured projects their teachers carefully planned. I wonder if they know the delight their efforts from years ago still bring? I will cry as I hang the hundreds of hand crocheted snowflakes that my mother made over the last 30 or so years of her life; every year a different design to be included for the lucky recipients of her lengthy and individually written Christmas cards, her own tradition. And, I will remember her stories as I unwrap our inherited family ornaments so carefully collected, one each year, by her father and preserved from her childhood.
I have always loved hearing stories of the memories of my parents and grandparents. My Grandmother was born in 1899, right at the turn of the century, and lived in rural Whitewater, Wisconsin. At the time of her birth, the telephone, phonograph, and light bulb were all less than 25 years old; airplanes, Model-Ts, and Penicillin did not yet exist. One year I received a gift from her: a book of handwritten recollections from her childhood. There is a beautiful inscription to me on the inside cover.
What a treasure to have today! I wonder if she glimpsed into my future and saw that I would read her stories to her great-grandchildren?
Every Christmas, I think that life has become too complicated, that we don't take time to appreciate the small things, and that we are driven needlessly to amass a fortune of gifts under a tree. Our families would certainly be better served by time spent together baking cookies, playing games, or whatever tradition your family participates in every year. I find that it's the memories of actions that follow us throughout our lifetime. If we are really lucky, we get to enjoy the memories of others, like the following story from my grandmother.
I shall never forget my childhood Christmases. My Grandma Smith had 3 sisters who took turns having Christmas. One lived in town and the other three lived on farms, all near Whitewater (Wisconsin). As long as we never stayed home for Christmas Day, we never had a Christmas Tree at home. But we always went to church Christmas Eve. They always had a tree and Santa Claus. There was a program put on mostly by the Sunday School children and each child got a gift of a cardboard box filled with candy- ribbon candy, red cherries on wires, all day suckers, chocolate mice, licorice, etc. Then we went home and hung up our stockings. A clothes line stretched the length of the living room and everyone hung up the largest stocking he had (both adults and children). We didn't receive an allowance ever or get paid for doing anything. Everyone was supposed to help their family, so gifts were usually handmade and took all year to prepare and write appropriate poems to go with them. Everyone had a hiding place to store things. It was strictly "honor system" and I don't believe anyone ever peeked.
Such fun Christmas morning! We dressed and ate breakfast and then gathered and took turns opening gifts and reading poems. Then, Daddy hitched the horses to the bob sleigh, which in summer was the hay rack, but had been put on runners for the snow. Clean straw in the bottom, a warm "soup stone" for everyone's feet, sleight bells and "away we went!"
With 4 married sisters, their children, grandchildren, etc., the crowd averaged 50 to 70 people. The hostess always had a Christmas tree and provided the meat (chicken, duck, ham, pork, etc). Every family always brought the same thing. My mother always took pork cakes- like fruitcakes only not as heavy with fruit. It had more cake batter. She poured boiling water over leaf lard, which melted it to make the shortening. I have no idea how many she made and took.
The first course was always oyster stew and was made in a wash boiler used only for the Christmas dinner and passed on to whomever was to have Christmas the next year. Children were always served first. Then Aunt Laura, one of Grandma's sisters, always made a "Jack Horner pie." She covered a large dish pan with paper, cut holes in center of the paper from which ribbons were pulled, one for each child and it was attached to a bag of candy. Then she gathered all the children around her, gave each a ribbon, and recited: "Little Jack Horner, sat in a corner" and when she said "And pulled out a plum," we all pulled out our bag of candy. That kept us busy while the adults ate!
There was always a family secretary who read the minutes of last years meeting. This informed everyone of all cousins news and kept a record of all births, deaths, marriages, etc. and kept everyone informed of family news. Thus I grew up knowing all my cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. Distant relative we saw at least once a year, and many of them much oftener. Everyone had to start home early to milk the cows, but it was a memorable and happy day!
What is it that makes a memory last a lifetime? Is it the joy that remembering it brings? My grandmother was somewhere in her mid-seventies when she wrote that recollection. Her memory was so vivid that I can see her opening her gifts and reading poems, and feel her excitement as she embodies the old song and rides "over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house". I can hear the sleigh bells and the laughter of the children as they pull out their bags of candy out of Jack Horner's pie. There is something magical and transportive about her story. Perhaps it's my longing for simpler times, my passion for family history, or my belief that, in the words of Dr. Seuss, "maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."
Whatever the reason, I love her story and her gift that keeps giving. My Christmas wish for all of us this year is that we can take time to savor the joys that December and Christmas bring. Whether it's baking cookies, playing games, sharing memories or creating new ones, I wish you all a very, Merry Christmas! ~