One of the advantages of being over sixty is the fact that your mundane childhood becomes an interesting part of the family story from a prehistoric age called "The Good Old Days." Almost anything you tell your children about your distant past seems to them (and sometimes to you as well) a golden legend. I find I have to restrain myself from expounding on the poverty of my childhood -- how I had to walk five miles barefoot through the drifting snow to school, then deliver my newspapers in the bleary winter twilight before I could come home to a supper of dry bread and gruel. "Back in my day" stories always have to be taken with a grain of salt (or nutmeg at Christmas time) even when they are told as honestly as this one about Christmas in the 1940's on the vast prairies of North Dakota. Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus in those days.
The harbinger of the nearing Christmas season was the arrival of the two toy catalogs from Montgomery Wards and Sears. These were huge, colorful books in those days with hundreds of pages designed to excite sheer avarice, which we avidly poured over until each page was almost memorized. By Christmas Eve, these catalogs were practically worn to tatters from eager perusal by starry-eyed children. Our fondest dream was to get something from every page, and we marked selections of favorite things and looked at them for hours, which was almost as good as actually getting them all. Our first choices were always the ones with castles or fire stations or dude ranches with hundreds of pieces spread out over the page in a panorama of endless possibilities. Mom always nixed these wild ideas, saying there were too many pieces, and she would end up having to pick them up all over the house. We never did get these monster sets, but it was fun to imagine how we would play with them -- riding knights up and over a drawbridge, racing fire engines with hooks and ladders, or staging W.W. II with hundreds toy soldiers marching over a hill made by a blanket thrown over cardboard boxes. My brother Duane got around the problem in later years by buying a model kit of an aircraft carrier with dozens of tiny planes on the deck that Mom had to dust and rearrange until he went off to college. We always knew when she had been in to clean our room when the airplanes were scattered all over the carrier and dresser as though a bomb had hit, and in a way I guess it had.
The next sign of Christmas was dad's setting up of the Christmas tree. I don't imagine it was set up earlier than a week before because mom wouldn't have wanted needles shedding all over her rug any longer than necessary. The tree was purchased from one of the many lots all over town and trimmed to fit into the wobbly stand. It was dad's job to put on the lights, which were rather large according to today's standards, and the children put on the glass balls and other ornaments, ending with a ton on tinsel, which we were instructed not to throw but hang nicely. There was always a star on top with one light bulb showing through the middle. The best ornament to hang was a fragile glass Santa Claus, so it was always a contest to see who would find it first in the box of carefully wrapped-in-tissue ornaments. It was a great victory to hang this Santa (to the chagrin of the brothers who didn't find it first) and my mother still has this ornament, ear-marked by my brother Tim I think as part of his inheritance.
We also had a small red wreath with a red bulb that was hung in a front window. This was a ubiquitous Christmas decoration of the 1940's, and I remember seeing it on many houses next to the stickers of stars on the front doors of people who had boys in the service during the war.
All Christmas trees were real in those days, and even after artificial trees came in later years, my mother always insisted on having a real tree. Our church had two gigantic trees decorated on either side of the altar, upon which it appeared as though no one had recklessly thrown any tinsel at all. The pine smell was real -- not from a spray dispenser. In later years, "flocked" Christmas trees with all red or all blue lights became very popular, but my mother would never have one of them shedding on her rug. Grandma O. did get one though, and we children thought it was the height of fashion and elegance.
Christmas officially began on Christmas Eve in the church. For me, in those bygone days, this was St. Paul's Lutheran in Minot, a small, white clapboard structure down by Grandma Adams' house. This was the Sunday School Program and our dreaded "pieces" we had to memorize and say in front of everyone -- the story in Luke with each kid taking a few lines one after another. We had to speak into a huge microphone, which was a scary and heart-pounding event for me. The good thing about the whole experience was that after the ordeal was over, you got your "Christmas sack," which was a small, brown paper bag full of peanuts and hard candy with an apple and an orange on top. It was a big deal for us because it was our first Christmas present, and you had all of that candy to eat without your parents telling you when you could have another. There is some relationship in my memory between saying a piece and eating a piece of candy -- probably a subtle psychological ploy by our elders, but I doubt they thought of it that way.
In later years, we had much more elaborate Christmas programs at the new and improved St. Paul's church on the south side of town. I especially remember one year when I got to run the lights for a splendid play. I took it to be a post of great honor and responsibility. It was held in the upstairs of the church -- a marked departure for the Sunday School kids, who normally were consigned to the basement. The costumes that year were spectacular, and I remember smelling real incense for the first time (very foreign to us Lutherans) when the three kings came up the aisle. The ushers were very put-out that a mere stripling was allowed to turn on and off the lights at the big board, so I felt very grown-up at my post. It was better than getting a Christmas sack.
After the church thing was over, we went to visit Grandpa and Grandma O., my mother's parents, and we opened presents after a big supper that seemed endless since we were anticipating the gifts. Who needs food when there are presents waiting to be opened anyway? Mom's family always had a bigger tree than ours with more lights and tons of packages that grandma had bought and wrapped before Thanksgiving since she didn't like to wait until the last minute and have to fight the frantic shopping crowds.
Santa didn't get around to our house until later that night, but I got some good things on Christmas Eve, enough to keep up my interest in the flurry of tearing paper. After these relatively minor events, we all went home and right to bed so Santa could come. We put out the mandatory cookies and milk for the old guy and went right to sleep because we were tired out from all the evening's activities.
On Christmas morning, my three brothers and I dashed downstairs to see what Santa had brought and were never disappointed at the glorious haul. One year, a young uncle had gotten a 4-10 shotgun on Christmas Eve, and I thought he was the luckiest kid in the world. I didn't expect to see anything as good as that, so when lo and behold, I unwrapped a Daisy Red Rider b-b gun, just like Ralphie in The Christmas Story, my Christmas cup was full to overflowing. My mother told me to be careful and not shoot my eye out, and I was the happiest kid in the world.
One year I got a Lionel electric train -- a real highlight that had to serve my brothers over the years as well because we never got another one. Dad had it set up ready to run under the tree when we got up on Christmas morning. He had fastened the tracks into a large oval and had made a grain elevator with a platform you could raise and lower on a string and a station house with a hinged door. Dad was very handy with tools and made many gifts for his boys over the years, including bookcases, desks and chairs, and many toy boxes. I know my parents had to save up to be able to afford Christmas presents, so many of these gifts were a matter of economy for them. We did not realize at the time that these homemade things would be the ones we would most remember.
After all our presents were unwrapped, we had to pick up the mountains of torn and rumpled paper and string and go to church again - - first lining up by age in our "good clothes" for Dad's obligatory Christmas picture. This diversion was especially rankling to us boys since we had just gotten a treasure trove of new toys to play with, but after all this WAS Jesus birthday, so off we went to Sunday School and another long service, with our presents but a shining memory of better things to come later in the day.
All the kids in Sunday School talked excitedly about what Santa had brought until the teacher had to lay down the law about any more chatter about presents, and we heard the Christmas Story one more time, then sang carols en masse, which were very spirited indeed since we all knew the real meaning of Christmas by this time.
Then, instead of going home and being let loose among our presents at last, we had to go over to my Grandma Adams' house for Christmas dinner. Actually, this was an event we looked forward to because it was an adventure of a different kind, and we did have another week or so to play with our new toys before we had to go back to school.
There were many great things about going to Grandma Adams' place. She lived in a little house, you could almost call a cottage, on the other side of the tracks. It lay in a woods by a bend in the river in kind of a miniature neighborhood of winding streets, ethnic shops, and steepled churches. Adams' Christmas was steeped in an old-fashioned flavor full of tastes and sights I recall with a special fondness. Into this tiny house packed all of our family members, aunts and uncles and cousins until it seemed as though the walls would burst with conversation and good-will. Every chair was filled with adults, while we children roamed about the mysterious little rooms (and even down into the dark, earthen basement until we were told to come up again). Here there was a wooden bowl full of every kind of exotic nuts and a nutcracker with picks to entertain us until the turkey was served. Just before the feast, it was a tradition to have a toast with a dark red Mogen David wine, and even the children were allowed to participate, which was a BIG DEAL for the abstemious Adams family. Mom always fretted, "Don't give them too much!" as she nervously eyed the pouring of the crystal glasses.
The Christmas dinner was mouth-watering-magnificent, containing a spread of vegetables from the root cellar and home-canned pickles and fruits along with the turkey. There was an extraordinary homemade stuffing, and real mashed potatoes drowned in creamery butter. Dessert was always homemade apple pie, the apples from her tree in the backyard. Somehow the entire family squeezed chairs around a huge table in the tiny dining room because it was absolutely necessary for everyone to sit at the same table, including the children.
After the Christmas feast came the presents from uncles and aunts, then the children were sent outside to run around in the snow (with stern warnings to stay off the ice on the river). The adults sat around in the living room and talked about who was sick and who had died and other boring things, while we ran around and threw snow at each other and screamed like banshees until we had to come in and warm up, fingers and toes numb, faces red and glowing with the cold. We stayed there until dark, then drove home over the bridge to those presents we left on Christmas morning, waiting for us in the living room like a promise of joy to be consummated in the days to come.
I grew up in an old-fashioned, extended family situation with both grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living close by in the same neighborhood. Everyone went to the same church; most of the men worked on the railroad together. At the time, I took it for granted that all families lived in such a close arrangement, and I suppose most of them did in those days. We did not realize that this experience was something already fading in America even as we lived it. I look back with fondness on those days, and we try to recreate our own close family ties as much as possible every Christmas.
Those days of yore were fundamental to the way I see the world today, grounding me in what can only be described as simple virtues. Those experiences taught me family values, helping to see that what is elemental is really the best. Life in a close-knit clan is something that many families in rural Minnesota still experience today, yet the encroachments of time and ease of travel has divided many families over the years. Living in an absolute, concentrated nest of family is different from a getting together once or twice a year. The memories of these Christmases together remain as the best gifts I ever received. Of this I have not the slightest doubt.David Adams
from the Hillman Family
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