I once had the foresight to ask my father to write down some of his memories. He was 47 when I was born, which left a sizable generation gap. And like most children, I was absorbed by the present and oblivious of the past. But what I would give now, to sit down and talk with him about his childhood, his growing up, his reflections about that world. “Tell me about your parents,” I would ask, (all my grandparents were dead before my 4th birthday) tell me about a regular day in the life of a small town Iowa farm family.”
Eventually I did have the sense, just a year or two before he died, to ask him “What was Christmas like when you were little? Tell me.” And so he did. He wrote it out for me. And now, it’s a gift every Christmas to imagine this and know it was my father’s world. I can hear his voice when I read it.
Memories of my childhood Christmas in Indianola, Iowa
by Erl E. Farley (Feb 12,1898 – April 5,1982)
“Christmas of Long Ago”, of course means those celebrated in that small country town of Indianola, Iowa.
Located in the mild temperate area of our country, it was usually weather-wise, one of variations from extreme cold with snow and ice to at times moderate temperatures high 30’s to mid 40’s. When it moderated of course we were sad because of the loss of cold and snow, which to us was always synonymous with the holiday. Warm days were not common as the chill of the north country began a little before Thanksgiving and lasted until February and March. One advantage of this was that because roads and sidewalks were not highly improved as of today, then sidewalks were of wood, roads good Iowa black dirt.
The roads then were snow covered and frozen which made transportation by buggy wagon or sleigh or farm bobsled easy, and fun, too. If the thaw was early or weather warm, the roads were strictly mud. In the worst places the vehicles and the horses seemed to sink into a quagmire and it was with great effort that they would get anywhere. As I said, this happened only rarely during the Christmas season and was a good thing because the town being the chief trading center and the schools and churches and college, the cultural center of the county; social interchanges and activity filled the town with shoppers and people buying supplies and gifts for Christmas.
The churches went to great lengths preparing Christmas programs and always put on a pageant, celebrating the story of the nativity. Cantatas relating to Christmas were preformed by choirs and coral groups from the public schools and the college.
This was climaxed by a big program in the church on Christmas Eve with the appearance of Santa Claus, always announced by the musical sound of sleigh bells and then in a few minutes (he) came out of the fireplace, which was in the chancel next to an tremendous Christmas tree; usually ten feet in height and gleaming with ornaments of all sizes in red, gold, green and mixtures of color. Also there were large strings of popcorn and cranberries, which were interwoven in the branches. There were not electrical strands of lights, but small snap candle-holders were placed on safe places over the entire tree. Then the bright silver Star of Bethlehem was placed on the top which shown in all it’s brilliance to all round about. The candle lighting was preformed and only for a few minutes, all the while guards stood with buckets of water or sand to douse or smother the flames should one of the candles flames hungrily try to lick a tender shoot of this pride of the pines. This seldom ever happened, but you had to be prepared to avert a tragedy.
Following this high moment of optical exhilaration, as said before, Santa with bells ringing appeared with his pack of presents and goodies. In his best Ho, Ho manner he with the aid of his helpers distributed the gifts of toys, fruit (apples and oranges) and sacks of candy. This consumed much of the evening and then he disappeared up the chimney momentarily after the sleigh bells ringing loudly at first but gradually dying out which meant he was on his way to finish the work before the dawn of Christmas Day.
The choir then arose and also the audience and lustily filled the church with the music of that Christmas hymn: “Joy to the World.” Then pastor pronounced the benediction and the happy people filed out going to their homes.
On reaching home the first chore was to shake down the fire in the stove, add more coal or wood, open the drafts and then in a few minutes this blackened and highly polished heater filled the room with a cozy warmth. When all were warm we in the space behind the stove changed our street clothes to night clothes. Then since we had no fireplace we hung our largest stocking to the back of a chair and went to bed in a bedroom with no heat. Soon, though, we were warm and comfy being covered with comforters and blankets. The desire to sleep late was dissipated by the thought of what Santa would bring and of course we were up early. Our parents had already arisen and the warm glow of the stove again filled the room. The stockings which had been limp, were now bulging and hung low with a large yellow orange emerging from the top. In the depths of the sock we found small toys, balls and tops, and a minimum of candy and nuts. The larger gifts were wrapped in colorful paper and laid on the floor or under the Christmas tree. These might be a pocket knife, a toy wagon of cast iron, dolls and doll clothes, a tiny wooden pastry set with a rolling pin, breadboard and bowl, a book and occasionally a pen and pencil box.
When the excitement of the surprises of gifts subsided we had breakfast of hot cereal – oats or corn meal, hot biscuits and preserves. In the afternoon we according to the weather, went sledding or ice skating. In the evening we sat down to a festive board. The menu usually was baked chicken, mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, homemade bread and butter and homemade jellies. The piece de resistance was either angel food cake or a hot mince pie. Having indulged ourselves not wisely, but too well, we retired again to the living room and in place near the friendly and warm stove munched on popcorn and homemade candies. All of this was like a sedative and early retirement was the order of the day. Happiness reigned and with a felling of fulfillment retired looking forward to a repetition of these festive events in the coming year.
Give yourself a gift this Christmas and ask the oldest person (or the most interesting person) in your family, or a neighbor or friend to share their memories with you. Then weave the web of stories for someone else. And pass it on.