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Ye olde Christmas of yore

Ellen Campbell
Central City, Neb.

The other day that old Christmas song, “Up on the Housetop” was running through my mind. We sang it every year in our country school Christmas program when I was a kid, and I puzzled about the line, “Up on the housetop reindeer paws.” I was smart enough to know reindeer had hooves, not paws, but decided the song writer needed something to rhyme with “Claus.” We had learned the song by rote and when, around age 8, I finally read the lines, I saw that the word was “pause.” That mystery was solved.

What I noticed this time was how different the children’s gifts were from those of today. Little Nell was apparently thrilled with her dolly that laughed and cried, one that opened and shut her eyes. Little girls still like dolls, even though sexy Barbies and dolls that do everything but cook dinner for you are the norm now.

But look what little Will got. He had to be satisfied with “a hammer and lots of tacks, also a ball and a whip that cracks.” What boy nowadays would want those? Perhaps the whip, if he’s into sadistic video games, and maybe he could use a new soccer ball.

Our times are certainly reflected in our songs. I do love those old Christmas songs, both the Santa Claus ones and the beloved carols about the birth of Jesus. Back in the olden days we could sing religious songs in public schools, and always did. Though we attended Sunday School regularly and knew the real meaning of Christmas, we were never able to participate in the church program because it was held on Christmas Eve, and we always went to Grandpa and Grandma Jacobsen’s on that night.

Grandma would prepare the traditional Danish pork dinner. I remember accompaniments of potatoes, beet pickles and coleslaw, and always rice for dessert. We cracked nuts and ate her homemade candy after supper. She would inevitably make each of us kids recite our “piece” we had learned for the school program, and we sang a few carols without accompaniment. Grandpa’s favorite was “Deck the Halls,” and he would really belt it out. Then it was gift opening time. Our immediate family didn’t open presents until Christmas morning at home, but it was fun watching our grandparents with theirs. Grandpa used a lot of suspense. “What could ‘dis be?” he’d say in his Danis accent as he’d shake the package, then slowly undo the ribbon and wrappings as we watched impatiently. When we were small, Grandma gave each grandchild a gift. One year it was sock monkeys, and another time those awful looking dime-store gray rubber rats with squeakers.

But Christmas morning was the exciting time. Lacking a fireplace, we each hung a real stocking (no fancy felt and sequin jobs) on a dining chair. When we got up in the morning, Santa Claus had come and filled the stockings with nuts, candy, and an orange in the toe. There were gifts on each of our chairs. Yes, the girls got dolls, and for our brothers I believe it was usually a toy truck or something. Also, we were all book readers, and a few weeks before Christmas Mom had us look at the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs for book titles and write down the ones we wanted. I usually chose Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew books.

The kids drew names for gifts, and every year someone would get a jigsaw puzzle, which we worked on together during the week’s vacation from school. If the weather was good, we’d drive to Cedar Rapids to take gifts to Grandpa and Grandma Cain on Christmas afternoon. We enjoyed that too, since we didn’t see those grandparents as often as the others.

Those Christmas celebrations of our childhood basically centered around Jesus and Santa Claus and family. I think secularity began to edge in around that time, though, with new winter songs that didn’t mention Christmas, such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Walking in the Winter Wonderland.” (Our neighbor Walter Peterson sent the kids into gales of laughter when he sang “Walking in the Winter Underwear.”) We all wore winter underwear back then, so of course it sounded funny. The men and boys had underwear with long sleeves and legs and a drop-seat. I’ve heard women complain that as girls, they had to wear those garments too, and when they tucked the underwear into the long stockings we all wore, it looked lumpy. My mother spared her daughters from that. We had winter underwear, but with short sleeves and legs. We did wear the long brown lisle stockings because girls wore dresses then, and needed to protect their legs from the cold.

Besides those newer popular songs, Christmas cards were sometimes worded “Season’s Greetings,” but it was still mostly “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” Now it’s not easy to find real Christmas cards. I was shocked last year to receive a card from one of my most devoutly Catholic cousins that didn’t mention Christ of Christmas.

I often wish we could go back to those earlier times. We were happy and content with what we had. There was not television to tempt us with exotic toys, and if children in other families had more expensive gifts than ours, we weren’t aware of it.


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