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By Becky Wuergler
Christmas in the country in the early 1950’s was a Currier and Ives moment. I remember it well.
It was a time of family and friends, and less about gifts. We always had gifts under the tree, but Christmas was so much more than that.
We celebrated Christmas for about two weeks. By the time we visited all the aunts and uncles, grandparents and good friends for a “groaning board” dinner or supper, Christmas started a week early and ended after the New Year.
There was excitement, much different from today. For one thing, toys were not displayed in the stores year round. I remember how exciting it was to see the toys arrive at Western Auto and Johnson’s Department Store. It meant that Santa was surely coming soon. And I think these toys arrived around Thanksgiving. Certainly not earlier.
And we could visit Santa at the Department Store basement. He had a big chair in the toy section. Oh, I know it wasn’t the real Santa, but he was a good helper. He surely looked real.
And the Christmas music, why sometime about a week or two before Christmas, WBLT radio station would play Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Then we were sure Christmas had arrived.
WBLT radio would read our letters to Santa on the air. It was so exciting to sit around the radio in the late afternoon or early evening and listen to those letters, waiting for ours to be read. This was a service WBLT performed to help Santa with the mail. Santa obviously listened to WBLT and made notes.
At school, we would make decorations or cards. We would learn Christmas songs. And yes, many of them were Carols. Often we would have a small tree in our room hung with our hand made decorations. And we would practice for the big school Christmas play that we would perform on the beautiful stage at Liberty Academy. I’ll always remember those beautiful dark blue velvet drapes trimmed in gold fringe. The big boy would vie for the honor of working the ropes that opened and closed those massive drapes.
I remember one year we performed Amahl and the Night Visitor. No, we didn’t perform opera. And I really don’t remember much about the story except it was strange to me. I was accustomed to plays that featured the nativity. But still, this was a school play and it was about the kings coming with gifts to the Christ child. And no one boycotted it, and no one protested.
At home, about two weeks before Christmas, my father, sister, and I would go into the fields or woods and choose the perfect cedar tree. We would bring it home and decorate. Daddy would make sure the lights worked. And for some reason these old strings of lights lasted for years. I can’t get a string to make it through a season any more.
The best part of the decorating, except for the tinsel garlands, were the icicles. They were such fun to drape (carefully and not thrown on), and the tree looked so pretty when it was covered in these icicles.
Mother was always terrified of fire, so we couldn’t burn the lights for long periods to time. The bulbs did get hot. At some point, my parents purchased “reflectors.” These were aluminum saucer like items that were placed between the bulb and socket. It served two purposes. It reflected the colored light and made it even more beautiful, and it also kept the hot bulb away from the cedar branches.
Christmas was also the time for making fruit cakes. Now before you groan, my mother made good fruit cakes. Hers were so good, she would make six or seven every year for family members who didn’t want do the cooking themselves. She would earn a few extra dollars for my dad‘s Christmas gift with her cakes.
She had a huge mixing bowl that would hold batter for about three cakes. And the candied fruit was such fun to mix in. I remember cutting the dates with the kitchen scissors. They made a sticky mess. My favorite fruit was the candied cherries. And we always saved some of both the red and green ones, as well as pecan halves, to decorate the tops.
Mother cooked these in spring bottom pans, and I remember the pans rested in pans of water. The cakes were steamed while they cooked. And they were moist. When cooled, she would slice apples and put them on the cakes, wrap the cakes in clean white linen cloths, and store them on the back porch. We could cut the one she made for us on Christmas Eve, not before.
Another tradition was cooking the country ham. My father raised the pork and cured the hams. And they were so good. He would cut one from the hanging rafters in the smoke house and bring it in to soak for about three days in the big washtub. Then, about a week before Christmas, mother would simmer it in a huge pot all day. When it was done, she would score the fat (for decoration) and brown the top in the oven. Gosh it smelled heavenly.
This was another food item that we couldn’t cut until Christmas Eve.
We always left Santa a country ham sandwich and a slice of fruit cake. And he always cleaned his plate.
Those were happy days. It was a time of joy and expectation. I miss it. It would be the best Christmas gift ever if I could capture it again.
I wish you all the most blessed Christmas. And may Santa be good to you.