My grandmother died a couple months ago, just short of her 97th birthday, as a result of a fall, or she’d still be going strong. I thought I’d share a few memories that she shared with me; people nearly a century old have seen so many changes that their stories can be a living glimpse into the past.
We began talking about the fire season, though this year we did not get whacked. Last year was terrible, and she mentioned having to turn on the lights at noon when the Valencia fires were burning at their worst. The western sky was entirely red, and the east black. It reminded her of the cyclone when she was small, this would be around 1920 (she doesn’t remember what year) but it ripped through Red Wing, Minnesota, and environs. It left their farmhouse and outhouse, but wiped out their grainery and machine shed.
From there she went to Halloween. In those days there were no costumes, and she said people were far too poor for trick or treat—no one would ever ask a neighbor for anything. Some families would put water in a bucket and let the kids bob for apples. Rich families in town would make caramel apples, but no one in Nana’s family ever got any. They did, however, sometimes make fudge.
They still had fun, however. They went out after dark and ran around, watching the lanterns swinging. And the boys would inevitably tip the outhouse over behind the schoolhouse. She said they did it every year, but doesn’t remember if they ever got caught. The girls wouldn’t do anything like that.
From there to Christmas: getting up early, and instead of the wagon (this was the twenties, but no one had a motor car) their uncle would get out a sleigh if there was any snow. Bricks would be put in the oven, and straw all over the benches and the floor. Then the wrapped bricks, and then horsehide blankets with flannel sewed on the underside, and above all the air of expectation, though that had little to do with presents because they didn’t get anything but the same each year: a paper basket with some string candy in it, made by her aunt, an apple, and if lucky an orange.
The sleigh ride was magnificent, the four sisters squished in a shivering row, staring ahead at their uncle’s neck in his flap-eared cap, the bobbing head of the horse, seeing their breath, as the world blued around them: they had to get to church early for the “Eulenton” (ljus tjänsten?) is what Nana called it. In Swedish it meant “Light service” because Christmas officially started with dawn.
When the sleigh arrived, the girls got out and hung on the rope to ring the bell, swinging as it lifted them up. Then they had to go in and pump the organ, which was pretty tedious. Their mother was organist, and that meant pumping through the English and then the Swedish services. But at home again they could decorate the house with strung popcorn and also cranberries, though that made an awful mess. But you could eat the decorations after dinner, or the next day.
The fun, she said, was anticipation, and doing something a little different than every day. And big feasts were always welcome, with lots of company, jokes and laughter. Before he died when she was young, her dad was especially good at storytelling, and home theatre—making up silly plays to put on out on the grass behind the farm house, or in the parlor.
In the family photos there is a fuzzy gray polaroid of him laughing and clowning, with some great-great aunts (young then) posing in their homemade fashion hats. He made it all the way through World War I, only to die in the flu epidemic, leaving my great-grandmother and the girls scrabbling when the Depression hit. But that’s another story.
What holiday traditions do your older relatives remember? (They don’t have to be Christmas)