Historically speaking: Remembering those Christmas breaks
By Lily Kongslien
After the excitement and anticipation of the annual school Christmas program at our rural school, the air became filled with the preparations for the Christmas holiday in our home. Some library books and a few assignments were brought home to complete sometime during the two-week vacation. The assignments were usually forgotten until the day before returning to school in January, but the books were thoroughly red the first few nights into vacation.
Mail-order catalogs had already been studied, and an order was sent in time to be received several days before Christmas. Each of us could pick out one gift for ourselves (cost up to, but not exceeding, $10). In early years we thought of toys-for me perhaps a new dolly and for my brother perhaps the then-coveted Krazy Kar. But in later years, books became our idea of perfect gifts.
On our first day of vacation, we gathered ground pine and cedar boughs to make wreaths and strings of greens for decorating inside and out. Then we secretly worked on homemade gifts for each member of the family; these were sometimes started early in the fall, depending on the materials needed. They were hidden when finished and sly hints give. A trip to town to buy last minute holiday treats and a few gifts for friends and neighbors was looked forward to, and we tried to pick a time when roads were cleared of snow so we’d have no car problems or “stuck-in-the-snowdrift” difficulties. Several kinds of hard candy was bought, plus candy canes, licorice and anise candy. Oranges were a special treat enjoyed only at Christmas time.
Candy-making could be done early; favorites made each Christmas were chocolate fudge and butterscotch candy. These were boxed and also packed away for our own enjoyment. The shelling of hazelnuts, gathered in the fall, was necessary for the baking of many kinds of cookies, and also for making the fudge just dee-licious! Fruit cakes and gingerbread cut-outs for decorating the tree were made early and packed away for use closer to Christmas day.
Mother spent much time at her treadle Singer sewing machine – making new outfits for my dolly and a new green velvet jumper for me. She also made gifts for her friends: a tulip pillow cover, table scarf and real birch bark canoes made into beautiful pincushions. What excitement at our house as these creations were being made for loved ones. Our Dad was very adept with wood and made game boards for us, plus toys and wooden puzzles. One Christmas when my book collection had grown considerably, he made me a wooden bookcase, which I still have today.
Christmas cards were sent only to far distant relatives and friends, each containing a sprig of cedar or ground pine. We received a few cards, which were tied to our tree for all to enjoy. During the vacation we made daily treks to the rural mailbox, and how excited we were when there were some Christmas greetings and perhaps a precious letter from our Grandma and Grandpa in Denmark. When school commenced again, this special trip would not be necessary, as we picked up the mail on our way home from school.
Our Christmas tree had a special place in the corner of the parlor, and during Christmas vacation the parlor was heated each day and evening by our big reliable wood burning heater. We all spent a lot of time admiring the tree and the brightly-wrapped gifts; we had some homemade decorations and also some very elaborate ornaments. Also hung on the tree were the gingerbread cookies, candy cherries and strawberries (these decorations were eaten during the holidays!).
On Christmas Eve, with usually a fresh layer of new snow covering everything outside, we could not get into town (15 miles) to church , so we would read the Christmas story from Luke, ply Christmas hymns and carols on the wind-up phonograph…and then open presents. The covering would be removed from my dolly on the couch, and I was transfixed by her new clothes. She looked so pretty!
Our homemade gifts for each other were opened and “thanks” expressed, as we realized all the hours we spent making the gifts for each other and the time and love put into the gifts received. Our family felt so close – it was a wonderful feeling. Other gifts were opened, and then off to bed we went. Tomorrow we would have time to play some of the games we received: dominoes, Chinese checkers, and a game I received called Hicketty-Picketty (little wooden chicken eggs were to be filled into nests).
Vacation, especially after Christmas, seemed to last forever, and we wished it would, since we had so much to do… sliding , skiing, making forts and especially the fun of having enough daylight hours to play outside. Making igloos was special fun. And there were always plenty of drifts of snow. We used an old hand saw and cut chunks of hard-packed snow, piled them up “just-so” and ended up with a real snow house.
Finally, the new year arrived and it was time to get at the homework that was brought home and placed on the shelf (it seemed like months ago). We would have lots to write about on the essay that I knew our teacher would assign, “What I Did During My Christmas Vacation.” It was fun to relive it all over again as I do this assignment!
It was great to be a kid back then, and there are wonderful warm memories to help bring back the blessed Christmas time with our loved ones. How times have changed, but not the joys and blessings of Christmas.