We never had a Christmas tree in our house in the Wisconsin coulee. Indeed, my father never saw a Christmas tree in a family circle until I set up a tree for my own children. But, we celebrated Christmas in those days, always, and I cannot remember a time when we did not hang up our stockings for Santa Claus to fill.
We had no chimney in our home, but the stocking-hanging was a ceremony nevertheless. My parents, and especially my mother, entered into it with the best of humor. They always put up their own stockings or permitted us to do it for them. They always laughed when they found potatoes or ears of corn in them. I can see now that my mother’s laugh had a tear in it, for she loved pretty things and seldom got any during the years that we lived in the coulee.
When I was ten years old we moved to an Iowa prairie land, and there we prospered such that our stockings always held toys of some sort, and even my mother’s stocking occasionally sagged with a simple piece of jewelry or a new comb or brush. But the thought of a Christmas tree remained the luxury of a millionaire city dweller; indeed, it was not until my 15th year that our Sunday school rose to the extravagance of a Christmas tree.
The land about us was only partly cultivated, and our district school house, looking like a bare little box, was set bleakly on the prairie. The nearby Burr Oak school house was not only larger but stood beneath great oaks as well and possessed the charm of a forest background through which a stream run silently. It was our chief social center. There, a regular preacher held Divine Service with Sunday school as a sequence. And there it was that I saw my first Christmas tree.
I walked to see that tree across four miles of moonlit snow. Snow? No, it was a floor of diamonds, a magical world, so beautiful that my heart still aches with the wonder of it.
Our home was on the prairie west of Burr Oak grove, and it was too cold to take the horses out. So, my brother and I, in boots, visor caps and woolen mufflers, started out afoot. The snow was deep and we moved side by side in the grooves made by the sleighs, whose going had smoothed the way for us.
Our breath rose like smoke in the still air. It must have been ten below zero, but that did not trouble us, and at last we came in sight of the lights, in sound of the singing, the laughter, and the bells of the feast.
It was a poor little building, yet it seemed imposing to me as I crossed the threshold and faced the people who packed it to the door.
I was an irregular attendant at Sunday school and did not expect a present; therefore I stood against the wall and gazed open-eyed at the shiny pine tree where the pulpit had been.
I was made to feel more embarrassed by a boy who accused me of having forgotten to comb my hair. This was not true, but the cap I wore always matted my hair down. I don’t suppose my hair was artistically barbered, as that night Mother had used the shears, but there was no call for that youth to direct attention to my shagginess.
I don’t think that Christmas tree had many candles, and I don’t remember that it glittered with golden apples. But, it was loaded with presents, and girls were going here and there, in bright garments which made me forget about my own looks. I must have stood agape for two hours listening to the songs, noting every motion of Adoniram Burtch and Asa Walker as they prepared for the great event, the coming of Santa Claus.
A furious jingling of bells, a loud voice outside, the lifting of a window, the nearer clash of bells, and then dear old Santa appeared. He was clothed in a red robe, a belt of sleigh bells and a long white beard.
The children tittered with excitement, and the boys clapped their hands. Santa made a little speech about being in a hurry and asked for helpers to distribute the gifts. As my brother and I stood there watching everybody getting a gift, we felt aggrieved and rebellious.
But suddenly, in the midst of our gloom, my brother’s name was called, and a girl with a gentle smile handed him a bag of popcorn. My heart glowed with gratitude. Somebody had thought of us; and when she came to me, saying sweetly, “Here’s something for you,” I had no words with which to thank her.
After nearly 40 years, her smile, her outstretched hand, her sympathetic eyes are still vividly before me. She was sorry for the shock-headed boy who stood against the wall, and her pity made the little box of candy a casket of pearls. In fact that I swallowed the jewels on the road does not take from the reality of my adoration.
At last I had to take my final glimpse of that wondrous Christmas tree, and I well remember the walk home. My brother and I traveled in wordless companionship. The moon was sinking, and the snow crust gleamed with a million fiery lamps. Watchdogs barked from farm houses, and wolves answered from the ridges. Sleighs passed us with lovers sitting two and two and the sleigh bells made remote music of romance. As for us, our boots drummed like clods of wood upon the icy road as we continued homeward.
Our house was dark as we entered it, but how warm it seemed after the pitiless wind! We made straight for the cupboard for a mince pie, some doughnuts and tumblers of milk.
As I write this, there stands in my library a thick branched, beautifully tapering fir tree covered with gold and purple apples, together with ice points, green and red candles, wreaths of metallic frost and glittering angels swinging in ecstasy. But I doubt if my children will ever know the keen pleasure which came to me in those Christmas days when an orange was not a breakfast fruit, but a casket of incense and of spice, a message from the sun lands of the South.
(This story ws written by Harland Garland and appeared in the Press during the 40’s)
Christmas Customs & Folklore
ALMS GIVING A CHRISTMAS CHARITY
Giving alms at Christmas originated in the belief that the Christ came sometimes to the door disguised as a beggar during the holiday season, and it was feared that he might be turned away unrecognized. There is an old legend that tells of the Christ child going from door to door on Christmas Eve in search of those who were kind, and deserving. His test was to plead for aid and often he was turned away from the door. This story led to alms giving on Christmas Eve and it was rare that a beggar was refused.
Legend has it that when Christ was born and Satan died, the bells in the churches were rung. At exactly midnight the tolling changed to a joyful peal, announcing the birth of the Christ child.
In the dark chambers high above the turmoil and strife of human life, dwelt the Apostles of Peach, whose salutations were never as welcome as at the time of the great winter feast of Christmas, so William Auld tells in his traditions.
ENGLISH PLUM PUDDING
In the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, the prayer for the last Sunday before Advent began with the words “Stir Up.” The people of Peterborough took this to be a reminder that they should start their plum pudding at that time and everybody in the family took a hand in the stirring until it was ready on Christmas.
This indispensable old-time English Christmas dish was furmenty, or frumenty, which according to old-time recipes was wheat boiled until the grains burst, then strained and boiled again with broth or milk, then with yolks of eggs. Frumenty was the forerunner to plum pudding.
CHERRY TREE CAROL
The old Cherry Tree Carol, or the legend upon which it is based, is undoubtedly the reason for the custom of placing a branch of cherry tree in water to bud for Christmas time.
According to this legend, Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem passed a tree loaded with cherries. Mary was hungry for some of the fruit and asked Joseph to pluck some cherries for her. The tree graciously bowed down so that Mary could pick the fruit herself. It has been customary among the Czechs and Slovaks to take the branch of a cherry tree and place it in water in the late fall so that the buds reach the blossoming stage at Christmas time.
The belief was current that if the sprig blossomed by Christmas Eve, the girl who tended it would marry during the New Year.
UKRAINIANS HOLD TO MANY OLD CUSTOMS
Ukrainian churches, both Greek Orthodox and Uniate, cling to the ancient Julian calendar, so their Christmas Day comes 12 days later than ours, or on January 6. Christmas Eve is celebrated with much traditional ceremony and festivity.
The Hold Supper or Swiata Wecer is very elaborate, consisting of 12 courses, in memory of the 12 Apostles, Fish; baked, broiled and jellied, takes the place of meat. Borsch, or beet soup, is generally served and stuffed cabbage, filled with millet or rice. Vareniki, something like Italian ravioli, also is a usual course. Dessert consists of special pudding called kutya, made of wheat, poppy seeds and honey.
During the Christmas Eve supper, some member of every Ukrainian family throws a handful of kutya or pudding at the ceiling. If it sticks, the coming year will be a prosperous and happy one. After supper, a plate of braided bread called kolach is left on the table between two lighted candles. Legend says that the spirit of the family’s dead will return at midnight to eat this bread. The Ukrainian Christmas festival lasts three days. In the villages, singers known as Kolyadniky go from house to house singing Kolyadky folksongs relating to the birth of Christ and the events of his life. They usually carry a manger with them, and in some cases they perform miracle plays. They are rewarded by gifts of food or money.
CHRISTMAS VISIT TO THE SEVEN FOUNTAINS
In 1540 when a plague was raging in Switzerland, 12 pious men of Rheinfelden formed a brotherhood to pray for St. Sebastian’s aid, and to nurse the sick and bury the dead. Pestilence in medieval times was ascribed to evil spirits in water, so the Brotherhood of Sebastian visited each of the town’s seven fountains, praying and singing hymns at each stop. They continued this custom, but only on Christmas Eve. For this ritual the 12 Brothers were dressed in black, with black silk top hats. At every fountain they gathered around the lantern-bearer and sang a medieval song. The march began at the Froschweide fountain, where the plague is supposed to have started three centuries before. When they had passed the seventh, they entered the church for midnight Mass, and ceremoniously placed their lantern on the altar of St. Sebastian.
QUAINT SWISS CUSTOM OF MEETING LOVER
Forecasting is ritualized in Switzerland. Grandma goes to the cellar, selects the most perfect onion, halves it, and peels 12 layers, one for each month. The next day these layers will show what the weather will be during the coming year.
The daughter of the house goes about town at midnight, to drink from nine different fountains. Then she goes to church. She expects to meet her unknown lover on the church steps.
Near Bethlehem did shepherds keep,
Their flocks of lambs and feeding sheep;
To whom God’s angels did appear,
Which put the shepherds in great fear.
“Prepare and go,” the angels said,
“To Bethlehem, be not afraid;
For there you’ll find this happy morn,
A princely babe, sweet Jesus is born.”
WHAT TO GIVE?
To your enemy, forgiveness,
To an opponent, tolerance,
To a friend, your heart,
To a customer, service,
To all men, charity,
To every child, a good example,
To yourself, respect.
-- Oren Arnold
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