A Glimpse into History: holiday time on a Minnesota farm

by Sherwood Smith

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)

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A Glimpse into History: holiday time on a Minnesota farm — 21 Comments

  1. Do you know about the Welsh plygain service (http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/277/), which starts before sun-up on Christmas morning?

    “For the stranger, attending a plygain service is an unusual experience. For almost two hours, the service is completely in the hands of the carol singers. No programme has been prepared beforehand and no-one acts as announcer, but, each in turn, the carol parties walk forward quietly and leisurely forward to sing. On average there will be eight to fourteen parties present and one is likely to hear between twenty and thirty Christmas carols during the service – all in Welsh and all different, since it is a point of honour not to offer a carol already heard…”

    (This is not my tradition, but I was listening to a recording this morning. It still goes on, and it’s lovely almost beyond measure.)

  2. My grandmother will always remember the Christmas during the Great Depression–she was born in 1932–when her father, who was a finish carpenter, got orange crates for free from his pal the grocer in town and made them doll furniture out of the orange crates. Grandma had one sister just older and one sister just younger, and this was just before the family lost the farm. They were #s 10, 11, and 12 out of 13 kids, but the orange crate doll furniture was for Aunt Donna and Grandma and Aunt Doris, not a hand-me-down from any of their older sisters, so especially in the middle of hard times it was special. They also got an orange in their stocking no matter what.

  3. We didn’t have any. I think my parents wanted to forget the grim poverty of their childhoods, but I love hearing about others’!

  4. I love the details of this–things I’d never know to ask, like about the blanket being made of horsehide but lined with flannel, or the bucket for bobbing for apples.

    Sad to say, I can’t recall my parents or my grandmother talking about holiday traditions–about the only thing I remember is my mother saying they always had an orange in the toe of their stocking.

    From my own memory, something I always associated with Christmas in my childhood was my mother taking out a book of the Christmas story that was illustrated with prints from either the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery, I’m not sure which. They were actually glued into the book. I loved looking at that.

  5. A newer tradition started a generation later in my family. In 1947 my mother, her 2 sisters, and brother each had a boy born into the family. Since Aunt Roberta had hers in January, and the other followed in March, June and October, she found a knitted Christmas stocking pattern and made one for each boy.

    Siblings followed and each got a stocking from Aunt Berta. (the 3 oldest cousins didn’t get theirs until much, much later). Eventually each of the cousins married, the spouse had to have a stocking, and the next generation of children. I’m not sure when my mother took over the chore, probably when my sister got married in 1963. Then my sister took over when I got married int 1971. I took on the job when my son married in 1995.

    I made the last one two years ago when my cousin Carol had her first grandchild. My arthritic hands won’t handle the tiny needles, and multiple cards of 4 colors of yarn) anymore. When I sent that stocking off I sent a copy of the pattern (I still have the original but it is tattered and fragile) hoping that her d-i-ls will take up knitting and continue the tradition.

    As children my brother and I were allowed to get up early, grab our filled stockings (with the precious out of season orange) and take them back to bed to entertain us until parents got up at a more civilized hour.

  6. On my father’s side of the family they would go to Midnight Mass, come home, open the presents — and get to sleep in on Christmas proper.

  7. A lot of the same holiday traditions my greats and grands and ‘rents grew up with were also the ones I grew up with, particularly the school Christmas program and the Church Christmas program. Preparing for, rehearsing for these dominated our lives from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

    The school program included recitations, solo and choral singing, comic skits and one short play and a longer one.

    The church program included so many things, but all the texts were sacred texts from the King James versions of the Nativity in the first four books of the New Testament. Christmas Carols and hymns, of course. We as protestants didn’t en-act the Nativity scene itself, but the Catholics and the Episcopals (and there was only one congregation in our community) did — we Lutheran kids were so envious.

    But in our school program we were able to do all this and everybody at some point was an angel, with wings and crown made from sparkly, tinsely stuff and white robes — all provided by our mothers, of course. And there was a nativity tableu to close with. The school made sure that the Virgin was played by a Catholic, in order that no majority Lutherans of whatever brand would be horrified to have their daughter playing that central figure of the Catholic faith! Nor was there a material representation of Baby Jesus, just a light in the manger.

    All of this made this season one of true magic. I loved those weeks of Advent and Christmas so much!

    Love, C.

  8. Most of us were Lutheran Church Missouri Synod — no dancing, no playing cards, etc.

    My family,like most members of the that form, did not observe those strictures. How in the world were people to endure the winters without cards? Or square dancing?

    However, inside the church itself, these were observed, unlike the rest of of the forms. Shoot, the Catholics even played bingo and gambled in their church basements!

    Another odd thing about our church at that time — NO spirituals or gospels as music. That was too — well, black. I.e. it had rhythm and you would move!

    Love, C.

  9. I grew up Lutheran, too, but in Germany and we had a nativity play in church (I was an innkeeper the one time I took part) and nobody had a problem with the Virgin Mary, since she actually is a part of the nativity story. Our Lutherans don’t have a problem with singing, dancing and card playing either. In fact, the very idea is preposterous. But then I know that American Lutherans don’t necessarily equal German Lutherans.

    The Christmas plays we performed at school were mostly secular. I remember starring in a play called “Do you know what giving means?”, playing a girl called Christa who had a very long and likely very preachy monologue. My Mom remembers that she and her sister played “Schneeflöckchen, Weißröckchen” on the recorder in school, dressed up as snowflakes. There is a surviving photo of that performance and they looked very cute.

    As a child, I learned a holiday poem by heart and recited it under the Christmas tree before I was allowed to open my presents. The Christmas poem recital was very common and apparently came from my mother’s family, because she did it as well, sometimes sharing the lines with her sister and little cousin. We used to sing carols as well, until one Christmas when my grandmother, my parents and I all looked at each other and said, “Why are we doing this? None of us can sing.” So we stopped singing, though I still read out the nativity story from the Bible, a Bible that must be more than fifty years old by now and is full of old bookmarks, newspaper clippings and little cards with religious verses that my grandmother was given by her church friends, when she was in hospital dying of breastcancer before I was born.

    We never had the traditional goose for Christmas and I couldn’t eat goose for Christmas either, because I grew up next to an elderly couple who raised geese. Any time you’d go to visit the neighbours in November and December, the women would be plucking dead geese, while the man was sticking still living geese headfirst into a funnel-like implement. When he pulled them out again, they didn’t have heads anymore. I’ve never been able to look at roast geese for Christmas without seeing that scene in front of my mind’s eye.

    Instead, we have herring salad made according to a recipe passed down from my other grandmother, though it probably goes back further than that. There’s more than a dozen ingredients, some of which such as raspberry juice are difficult to get these days. The recipe was for big families, so my Mom halved the amounts given and we still eat the salad every evening from Christmas eve to New Year.

  10. Thanks, Cora! (Not all American Lutherans have these issues with cards or dancing. Like anywhere else, there are regional variations. I suspect we hear more about the outliers.)

  11. There was another custom that the greats and the grands had, on the maternal side, and my mother had it too, but it never caught on with us, and it was’t part of the paternal side — who were a brand of Lutheranism that did not forbid dancing or card playing: the eating of herring and lutefisk! You could not get any of us to eat that stuff!

    Oyster stew on New Year’s Eve, though, we liked that.

    Me, however, as an adult, my New Year’s Eve dish is pesole!
    Making the plans for this year’s already.

    Love, C.

    Love, C.

  12. Hanukkah usually has no specific traditions, as everybody would do the same thing – light the candles, sing Ma’oz Tzur (the original version of Rock of Ages), make latkes and doughnuts, and play spin the dreidel.
    However, in our family we had a few customs we keep to. Everybody would light their own Menorah. It was done according to age, and moved around for every night, so everybody would get a chance to light the candles first. After the children and mother had lit, we would gather around the father’s Menorah, which was the largest and used oil and wicks. He would light, and only then would we sing Ma’oz Tzur. The last verse would be repeated in the two different versions – the first the one speaking about God bringing vengeance and destroying our enemies, and the second speaking of all the world repenting and being at peace. Afterwards, we would sing Hanukkah songs and eat Hanukkah food. At least on one night of Hanukkah, all the extended family would gather at the house of one of them, and everybody would light candles and then sing and eat together.
    Of course, there were the present traditions. We try to keep to a present every night. Sometimes it might be a communal present for all the kids – a game they could all play, or something. I was intrigued by the mention of Christmas oranges, and their rarity – their season in Israel is the winter, and the best and most succulent oranges are often found around Hanukkah, so that we have an ‘unofficial’ tradition of having oranges for dessert on Hanukkah.
    Lastly, we would often speak of spiritual matters after lighting the candles. Every year, we would discuss the origin of Hanukkah, and my father still mentions what his father taught him, based on the Talmud: That Hanukkah was the first holiday ever celebrated, first founded as a Festival of Light by Adam when after being exiled from Eden, he feared the world would be covered in darkness for his sin. When the Winter Solstice came, and he saw the days lengthening once more, he made Hanukkah into a festival of light and thanksgiving for deliverance. Thousands of years later, he [my father, and his father, and so on] would say, miracles came about once more for our forefathers, and will continue to do so for us, as long as we kept the light burning.

  13. No Christmas stories from either of my parents or my husband’s parents. But among my mother-in-law’s things I discovered copies of a letter written by a relative who was fighting in France during World War I. He talks about going to midnight Mass and about the Christmas dinner which the Red Cross provided. He carefully wrote out the entire menu including the candy and cigarettes they were given at the end.

    When we were growing up our Christmas celebrations were pretty standard: Mass on Christmas morning, opening Christmas presents, and eating tamales for dinner. Yum! Nothing says Christmas like freshly made tamales. (I’m getting together with my mom and sisters to make a batch this Friday.)

    –C.B.

  14. C.B.: That sounds like a delicious Christmas dinner–I would totally go for that, if I knew how to make them from scratch.

    The letter is neat–my grandmother had exactly one artifact from her father, a postcard he’d written from France during WW I. But it just conveyed a greeting to my great-grandmother and the girls. It was very precious to her, however.