Friday, December 30, 2005

Once Upon a Christmas

written by: Bertha Smith Whitson Barrett (written Xmas 1989)

This will be the best Christmas we have ever had. It has to be because it always is. I heard my mother say so every year. It was she who protested that she didn't want a present; she just wanted us all to be together and to love one another. It was she who feared, that seasonal frenzy would overshadow eternal truths. She was afraid that we might get so caught up in the excitement of giving and getting that we would ignore "the true meaning of Christmas," which was that it was the birthday of Jesus, the Savior of the world.

Getting ready for Christmas was the most exciting time of the year in those rural times. As Warren County, Iowa, was tilted ever so gradually farther and farther away from the sun, the days shortened and our pace on the farm quickened; we had less time to do everything. First light for milking came later each morning, so in winter we had to milk by light of the kerosene lantern both in morning and again in the crisp, fast-falling dusk of the afternoon. There was no farmyard dawdling in December; the temperature dropped quickly. Stove wood was carried in a near run from the woodlot to the big box beside the kitchen stove. The handful of daylight we bad was packed; feeding chickens and hogs, gathering eggs, carrying water to the hogs and chickens, turning on the windmill to fill the cattle water tank, in cold weather, breaking the ice on the tank several times a day or thawing ice in the animal water pans with hot water. Mama along with the other ladies of the community crammed into their schedules the added excitement of cooking and baking: and preparing season delicacies. They obviously enjoyed it and their attitude increased the peaking anticipation in us children.

The fruitcake was made first, and the women always liked to have that one, with its richness of nuts and citron, pineapple, cherries and raisons, out of the way before Thanksgiving so that it would season. It was kept in a tightly lidded can, and twice a week most women doused the fruitcake with wine. Mama being a teetotaler used some
fruit juice, orange maybe. Our neighbor, Mrs. Spear, a tee-totaling Presbyterian used Blackberry wine that she made herself; because my mother explained when I asked that most people did not consider pouring a little wine over fruitcake a sin as drinking liquor would be. How could anything be a sin which tasted so good? By Christmas day the cake weighed considerably more than when it came from the oven. Mrs. Spear could slice the cake so thin that the light glowed through the cherries, pineapple and citron as beautifully as through medieval stained glass.

There were other cakes at Christmas time. I remember spice cake, sour cream cake, and sunshine cake. Cake was baked in what was called a moderate oven. The thermometer on the wood burning stove was inaccurate, so Mama slipped broom straw in and out of the cake batter to tell when the cake was done. Woe-betide anyone who ran through the kitchen with jarring tread and raised the threat of making the cake fall.
We, also, had Christmas cookies which were sugar cookies cut in the shape of stars of Christmas trees and frosted with red or green frosting.

Just as important as the cooking, was the Christmas tree. Though wreaths were fashioned and hung on doors and a small creche’ was set on top of the piano, the tree

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was the focus of decoration. We needed a lot of help with it, but Mary Alice and I were made to feel that it was ours, from getting it, to decorating it. We always wanted to put
it up early; Mama tried to delay us as nearly as possible until a week before Christmas. "It'll dry out and needles will be all over the parlor. It might even catch fire."

When she could withstand our pleas no longer, we went and got the tree. Papa would tie the horses in a cedar grove and lift us out of the wagon one at a time, and we would struggle through briars, and winter brown weeds in selection of our tree. It had to be just right. Papa had the final decision, but he was a master arbitrator and first listened indulgently to all opinions. The parlor had a twelve foot ceiling and the tree had to be tall and yet bushy and well shaped. When the practiced eye of my father finally found the one that would do for that year. We were ordered to stand back while he took the axe to it. Then he shouldered it and we trailed him back to the wagon. The trip home was wonderful. We sat among the bouncing branches of the tree like so many bundled-up birds, and the wagon rode smoother, the excitement of procuring the tree intensified by the fragrance of the boughs.

There is nothing that can so suddenly darken a room and fill it with enchantment as putting a thickly branched cedar in the corner. The room, even with its familiar furniture, and the same pictures on the wall was transformed into a grotto of incredible mystery. There was seldom any project to match the way we dressed and adorned the
tree. We hung it with strings of popcorn and cranberries. We looped garlands of multicolored paper chains around it. We attached to its branches nuts covered with tin foil that we bad carefully peeled; from the paper in Mr. Dye's Sir Walter Raleigh Tobacco tins. Mr. Dye was a neighbor with two girls so few years older than I, who saved foil all year to decorate their tree and sometimes gave us the surplus in exchange for walnuts which grew in our yard.

Then Mama brought down the box of ornaments. There were glittering spun-glass balls, some of them with hand-blown indented sunsets or delicate spines. They were red and green and gold and blue and silver and they were handed down from distant days. To us, they were jewels no matter that the color was scaling off or that there was a hole in the back of more than one. With reverence we unrolled them from their tissue paper, itself a little yellowed with age. Despite the care with which we handled them and bung them on the tree, their number thinned each year. A jostling elbow or an inadvertent brush against a suspending twig could send one of those gorgeous balls to crash upon the floor in shimmering fragments, a thousand tiny mirrors of our dismay.

The foil icicles were last to go on. There was a flat cardboard box of them plucked from previous Christmas trees, but they were twisted and crumpled, their use requiring patience and care. Except in the very leanest years, mother always bought two new packs folded straight regimented rows. They were a delight to distribute, but we had to
use the old ones first, to honor the gospel "Waste not, want not.” Mama and Mary Alice draped the icicles one by one in rank and row on each individual limb. I was impatient and believed in tossing a hank of them toward the top of the tree and letting them fall in haphazard glitter where they might. I was usually excused from icicle duty.

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We had no electric lights until l936 when the R.E.A., the Rural Electrification Authority, strung a line to our farm. After that along with all the other marvelous electric marvels and conveniences, we had electric lights of red, blue, green, and yellow for the tree. We tried to keep extra bulbs on hand because they were in series which meant that when one bulb burned out, all the bulbs were dark. They seemed to burn out frequently and it was something of a problem to find which was the offending bulb or bulbs. But the time I am talking about 1930 to 1935, in the daytime, light through the windows reflected the balls and tinsel with the chilling wink of winter. One of our neighbors had a fireplace and the fire sheen brought their tree to life as the kaleidoscope of color danced through and over the somber mystery of the cedar tree. But we made do with a kerosene lamp, which did well because the colors were richer because they were muted, and the mystery of Christmas filled our hearts as dressed in our footed pajamas with flaps in the seats, we gather under the tree to sing Christmas carols before we went off to bed each evening. My mother could carry a tune, but she always said that she was the least musical in a musical family. My father liked to hear others sing, but thought ten generations of Quakers on his father's side having not sung that they had lost the ability. We started out with "Joy to the World", my mother's favorite, continued with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", my father would call for "We Three Kings," Mary Alice liked, "Little Town of Bethlehem", ending with my favorite, "Silent Night".

Then there was the shopping for gifts. This activity came under the supervision of one person - Mama. She was the one who took us Christmas shopping. Some time in the month before Christmas, we bundled up with quilts to wrap around our legs, and got in our Pontiac and went to town in Indianola. We knew for whom we were going to buy and how much we could afford to spend, but had not the faintest idea what we were going to purchase. Each of us clutched what money we had earned and our Christmas lists. The choices one had for a quarter in those days were unbelievable. Scarves for Grandpa and Mr. Spear were available for $ .25; so were boxes of four linen handkerchiefs embroidered in Switzerland with little knotted up rosebuds for Grandma and Aunt Alice, and Aunt Vida. For Aunt Sue I usually made something home made. I remember the first embroidery I did was a dresser scarf for Aunt Sue. One year it was a wooden box with a designed burned on it which was an art project in school. Another art project was a colored picture of a parrot padded and mounted on black satin for a wall hanging.

The gifts we purchased for mother had to be acquired on a skulking foray with frequent over-the-shoulder watchfulness, for she was constantly present. She refused to give any hint of preference this consequently made her the recipient of gaudy scarves, cheap perfume, or plastic trinkets. She frequently reminded us in our shopping that it is the thought that counts, but I cringe when I remember some of my gifts to her. We pooled our resources to buy a gift for Papa and spent more on his gift than on anyone else's. With excitement we selected an expensive tie or even, when we had more

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money, a pair of soft leather gloves lined with rabbit fur that cost $3.50. Christmas Eve we hung our stockings on a shelf as we had no fireplace mantle. Christmas morning
did not begin at daybreak but at least two hours before. It began with the thump and patter of the newly wakened feet of children across the bare wood floors of a 100 years-old farmhouse. At first Mary Alice and I talked in whispers. "Did" he come?” "I think
I heard him but I went back to sleep.” Finally Papa would. light a lamp and, following close behind Mama, Mary Alice and I filed down to the parlor and ran to our individual stockings, the transformation of which was a delight. The limp brown stockings of the evening before were now magically stretched and stuffed to their limit, witness to the largess of Santa. The contents of the stockings were traditional. There was an apple and an orange. There were hard candies and an assortment of nuts, and small toys and trinkets. I always hoped for a necklace because I had always broken my oId one and although we had restrung the beads it was no longer desirable in my eyes. Beside the stockings lay the individual gifts from Santa for each child. The dress or jacket, were exclaimed for but it was the luxury item that produced true joy. I sometimes received a book. Once a sled. We had to eat breakfast before we could play with our new treasures. 364 days a year we had bacon, eggs, and oatmeal for breakfast. On
Christmas we had waffles and syrup. Yum! Yum!'

Often we were invited to the Spears for Christmas Dinner or they to our place. They were an old couple who had not children or grandchildren and their nieces and nephews lived a long ways away. They were like grandparents to us, because our grandparents on my mother side, were dead and our father’s parents lived a long ways away. Before
Dinner they opened our presents to them and we opened our presents from them.

Christmas dinner was a feast usually a roast turkey at our house or goose at Spear's, fattened all fall for the Big Day. There was always dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and gravy, several vegetables, hot rolls with assortment of jellies, relishes and pickles from the cellar. For dessert, a choice of mince meat! pie, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and fruit cake.

After Dinner, neighbor children appeared with new sleds or skates that we tried out on the snowy hill or the frozen pond. We always hoped for snow at Christmas, but if there was no snow or ice, we l played hide and seek among the farm buildings, Run sheep run, or “Andy over” the shed with a new ball. Our hands were usually too stiff with cold to play soft ball, our favorite at other seasons of the year.

Bedtime came early with everyone exhausted by the early rising and vigorous play of the day, and so Christmas was over for another year, but it had been the best Christmas ever.

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