2008-12-25 / Letters

How Christmas Has Changed!

To The Editor:

Now that Christmas is coming, I sit here in my recliner chair in my retirement home, thinking how different my children's, grandchildren's and great-grandchildren's Christmas is compared to my own early, happy Christmases years ago. I reflect back on what Christmas was like then. Christmas Eve was our big meal, roast duck and everything on the table was home-grown and home-canned. We got our gifts Christmas Eve, an orange and one popcorn ball and we looked forward to that treat. On Christmas Day everyone rested, and ate leftovers from the Christmas Eve meal. We all knew it was "Jesus' birthday." That was the reason for the season. We kids sang "Happy Birthday Jesus" throughout the day.

Mother baked cookies for the month before Christmas. During baking times, the children only got to eat the busted and burnt cookies. On Christmas, a large, several gallon tin lard can was brought out of the closet to be opened up. Throughout the day we were allowed to eat all the cookies we wanted. This was a treat we all looked forward to, but mother would not bake another cookie until these cookies were gone. This sometimes was not until February; they got dry. We had to dunk them into milk or the adults' coffee.

Christmas night was a night that we looked forward to; a church service was held in our Danish Lutheran Church in Western Iowa. We travelled in a wagon in which the wheels were removed and replaced with sleigh runners under the wagon bed. Kerosene lanterns were hung on each side of the wagon to light the way. My father would stop the team of horses on the road in front of the church. Eldest son would take one lantern and carry it ahead of the family so they could see the way to the church. All men would take their team of horses to the church barn, which was a long shed with horse stalls, and tie their team in a stall. They would cover them with a blanket and place hay in the manger to calm them down during the service. All lanterns were blown out before entering the church.

There was no electricity in the church back then, but lanterns hung from the ceilings. They had glass bowls to change the color of the kerosene, strips of red or green crepe paper were dropped in the bowl. We all thought the red and green bowls were beautiful. In our wagons we had straw on the bottom with a quilt laid over. When straw worked out, a bit always did get on our clothes. As the families entered the church and walked down the aisle, straw would sprinkle on the floor. The pastors would sweep straw out of the church the next morning.

Boys, 12 years and older, sat with men on the right side, women and small children sat on the left. A Christmas tree was always tied to the ceiling, because it was very tall and stood in a tub of water. Every family made decorations for the tree, including children, which everyone enjoyed immensely. We strung popcorn and small Red Hall apples on strings and they were wrapped around the tree. Candles were set in holders and were snapped onto the branches of the pine tree. One man was responsible to hold a long, thin pole with a lit candle on the end in which he lit all candles on the tree. Oh, how beautiful it was to see! My father always had three pails of water sitting around the tree, he held a long, thin pole with a towel wrapped around the end. When a candle started to tilt during the service, father would dip the end of the pole into the water, squeeze the towel slightly and lift up the pole to extingish that particular candle.

After the church service, the men would light up their lanterns to prepare to get horses hitched to their wagon sleighs. The small children would call out the names of family teams coming. We would try to be ready so we would not hold up the teams waiting. Lanterns were hung on each side of the wagons, a beautiful sight in the darkness of the night, you could see them shining. Teams reached a mile long on the road. One family would start singing a hymn and all others would join in - oh, it was beautiful!

We didn't run horses like you see on Christmas cards, we wanted the singing and Christmas to last. When we got home the eldest son would take the lantern to light the way to the house so we could follow. He then would light the lamps. My father would take the lantern to light the barn while he unharnessed the team of horses. He would remove the bridle to replace it with a halter. Carefully, he would wipe all the sweat off them with a towel, brush them thoroughly, and cover them with a blanket. If not he would return to the house to read until he was able to remove the blanket. I remember in the early 1920s, times got better, my brother got a mouth harp for Christmas and I got a rag doll made from my father's work sock, with a painted face on it. What a big treat! But through it all we knew it was Jesus' birthday. That was the whole reason for the season. Beulah Cole, age 91 Three Springs

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