The anticipation of the coming Christmas holiday was growing more and more every day. The cold weather brought light layers of white snow to our small town that provided even more seasonal flair to the town. The engine behind the energy of the season for the children, myself included, was the thought about the gifts of toys coming in a few days. There was a system and procedure that had to be followed to get to that day, including trying to showing our parents our best behavior. In my case, it also involved helping my mother get through the holiday season with at least a touch of her sanity intact.
My mom’s responsibilities during this time of year would double and triple with the different programs that she had to organize and put on. She was also getting the choirs at church ready for the annual epitome of her work and that was the Christmas Eve service at Zion Lutheran. Our jobs as kids were to not misbehave at any of her programs or services. She had enough things on her plate in trying to keep all the moving parts in place without having to stop to tell myself or my brothers to behave. This was made abundantly clear early in my life and both my brothers and our dad did everything they could to remind us to stay out of Mom’s way and help her if we could in any way.
In the seasonal “check-list” that we had to run our way through before getting to Christmas, the school elementary music program came first. The program was usually a parade of mostly children either overly eager to sing or some that were not wanting to be there at all. Teachers did their best to bring the groups out when my mom had them cued in the program to come out onto the risers next. They did their best to keep in line the kids who found it their job to snicker and giggle. The teachers would glare at them and it they had to they would walk over to the trouble make and gently remind the giggler that this program wasn’t about them. My mom was good at giving a certain look at them if she could all the while maintaining the leading of the song while standing behind the piano facing the riser of children. I knew “the look” well and avoided it at all costs. The gymnasium full of cold folding chairs holding moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas and fidgeting little brothers and sisters. Everyone would laugh at the Kindergartners yelling out their songs. There would always seem to be at least one kid that was sick and would turn pale when propped up in their dress clothes and put in the spotlight in front of the entire town. The teachers would be spotters and try to catch these kids and get them off the riser before they fell over or threw up. Most of the time, they were successful.
Following the program, Mom would host a party at our house for all the teachers and we’d have to rush home to get everything ready for the guests for when they started to drive. Matthew and I would scurry about the house and get all the Christmas lights turned on and all the candles lit. Mom would get the coffee and cider going and with the help of Grandma O and Grandma Gert, get the food all out of the fridge and onto the buffet in the dining room. Dad would get the fire in the fireplace going and then get his pipe lit. Slowly at first, the guests would arrive and Matthew and I would take turns running their coats up to one of the beds until there would be a heaping pile of tweeds and faux furs.
The familiar faces to me from school would come into this other environment that was home to me and it was always slightly unusual to see them outside of the classroom. They would also sometimes be accompanied by an unfamiliar face of a spouse. These were husbands and wives that were never at school and we didn’t even consider as part of our teacher’s lives… except for a few local teachers whose husbands and wives were people that we knew.
It was fun to watch the teachers all consorting with each other and my parents and grandparents. We’d do our best to stay out of the way… but also grab food and snack away at the plethora of goodies. I remember grabbing a paper plate and filling it with swedish meatballs, lil smokies, chips and dip, Christmas cookies, cheese and crackers, cheeseball, bacon wrapped water chestnuts, teriyaki chicken wings. Wine would be poured to those that wanted it. There would be two percolators bubbling away; one with JUST cider in it that would simmer over some cinnamon sticks and cloves, the other would have one gallon of cider and one bottle of wine simmering with the cinnamon and cloves. Jokingly, the guests referred to them as the Catholic and the Lutheran versions of cider… a joke that I would laugh at, but not understand until later in my life.
The teachers would leave in small numbers, a few would stick around chat for a while longer. The grandmas would be in the kitchen washing up the dishes and putting away the remains of the food. The candles would be dwindling down to their malformed stumps. My brother and I would grab toothpicks and play in the hot wax pools in the candles… dipping and cooling the layers and building up a soft wax ball that we’d take off the toothpick and roll in our fingers. As it cooled it became more stiff and brittle and would render itself less fun so we’d throw them away and start again. Dad would step in and instruct us to extinguish the candles and we take the brass candle snuffer and go around candle to candle and play with the flame as we’d lower the cone of metal over the yellow flame at the end of the black wick and as it was depleted of oxygen, it would get smaller and smaller… sometimes, we’d give it a taste more of the oxygen it needed and the flame would rebound fully, sometimes we’d be too late and the flame would go out and the wick would release a thin vertical column of black smoke that begin a slow serpentine back and forth at first then would whip in harsher angles as it rose further and further. It was usually too tempting to gently blow a puff of air at the column and it would disperse with the wind.
Dad also instructed us to not put any more logs on the fire, but that didn’t stop us from playing with the dying embers and we’d still sneak little pieces of kindling onto the fire and watch them pop into flames and for just a few more seconds or minutes, the fireplace would light up and we would enjoy the success of making fire.
Eventually, we were off to bed and with tummies full of the all those dips and cheeses, we’d dream of indigestion if we were able to sleep.
The next thing on the list for us to get to would be a full sSaturday event that would begin with us kids coming down to the drug store with Mom and as long as there was help at the counter, Grandma Gert would come with us as we walked down Main Street to the American Legion that sat kitty-corner from the school. We’d walk under all the light poles that the city decorated with some greenery and a tinsel shape of a bell or a star adorned with lights. They were put up by the city engineer before Thanksgiving but didn’t get turned on until the day after. With a little snow, the festive look was enough to heighten our moods at the coming holiday.
When we got to the door of the Legion Hall, the smell of pancakes and sausage met us in a steamy blast of humid air. The line was backed up as people waited for fresh pancakes and another batch of sausage to come off the grill. We stood on the steps in the dark entry way down to the dugout-type building and visited with the people who were previously the last in line. Slowly we made our way down into the light where rows of tables were lined up and full of people munching down syrup covered stacks of pancakes that had been grilled up by members of the American Legion and the Jaycees. They pancakes came out quickly but the sausage station would be a bit slower and people would come back from their half-eaten pancakes to grab a couple of links. There were a few options to drink… water, coffee and concentrated orange drink.
We’d get our fill of cakes, sausages and orange drink under the supervision of Grandma and Mom. As we finished our last bites, we’d be scanning the room for our friends and figuring out who we could go run around with outside. Mom kept us finishing up before we got to antsy and thought about leaving our last bites… no, we were taught to finish our food. There were starving kids in China; even though Mom could never name one when we’d ask her. We’d finish out plates up and then Mom would let us put on our coats and hats and mittens and run off with our friends.
We wouldn’t go far, because at some point that morning, probably around noon, Santa would ride into town in a horse-drawn carriage and the children from town would gather around the back of the carriage as he distributed our a bag of goodies to each kid. We’d get our hands on our brown paper bag and then help the younger kids get their’s if they hadn’t yet. We’d dig into the full bag and pull out an orange and candy cane and then crack into our salted peanuts in the shell that filled the better part of half the bag. I wasn’t really a big peanut fan, but those salty goodies sure did taste good.
My dad had a big giveaway one year at the drug store. He’d bought a big novelty stocking that was full of toys that was 6 feet tall and was probably worth $100. They weren’t the best toys available but they were those Chinese-made, hook-hanging, drug store-type toys that were basically bubble-formed plastic around some shape of plastic and glued to a sheet of thin cardboard. Dad would have similar toys available always hanging in the store and once in a while we’d get to pick one out for ourselves or for a gift for a friend’s birthday or something. Usually, I went for the balsa/foam glider as they were the most fun inside and outside (if it weren’t windy). I’d get one for a friend and bring one for myself and we’d see who’s would fly the furthest or who could get their’s to do the best loopy loops.
For about a month, kids could come into the store and see it and put their names on little pieces of paper and then stick them into the box that was wrapped in gift wrap and had a slot cut in the top. My brother and I would put our names in the box numerous times but we well-knew that we’d never win in… but we did still hold on to hope. Maybe Dad would draw one of our names and blurt it out before remembering that we were his children. Maybe he’d draw my name fifteen times in a row and just give up and let me take the big stocking home. If there was something free for which you could just sign your name on a piece of paper, any kid was all over it.
I don’t remember who won that stocking, but I do remember that there was a picture in the Garretson Weekly with my dad and the winner. In hindsight, the winner was probably some kid that really did need it more than I did… even though Dad did probably draw my name. I’m not a sore loser.
Main street businesses also stayed open late that Saturday night so that people could come down and enjoy the atmosphere and maybe shop for some nice gifts. Businesses, Johnson Drug included, would serve hot cider or cocoa or maybe coffee and have little candy canes or cookies. This was an annual event that eventually became publicized as Sioux Falls night and the Commercial Club would put ads out in Sioux Falls media outlets to get the out-of-towners to come and spend some of their money in our little town. The mayor of Garretson would host the mayor of Sioux Falls for dinner and then the mayors and their wives would be driven around to look at the lights. Many people made more effort to put on a good show for the people that drove the 30 minutes out to see this little town and what they had to offer.
A few farmers stepped up and offered hay rides to trot around the Main Street area with their horse-drawn flatbeds and carolers from the Jesse James Players made the rounds singing carols at each of the businesses. The baritones and bass section shared their Schnapp’s with the tenors to help keep themselves warm but its side effects included throwing them off-pitch and off-timing. They would do their best but later into the night their “inner glow” got a bit too warm and a few would be giggling and making up alternate lyrics that only THEY thought was funny.
After this weekend, it was all about being good for “Santa” and hoping that Mom and Dad saw the toys that I had circled in the JCPenny gift catalog. This annual publication was heaven to us kids… we’d take turns perusing the magical pages full of toys and games. Many, WAY out of the realm of a realistic gift but others were definitely contenders for the big present for the year or maybe, if my brothers would agree on something in particular, the gift that all three kids would get together to share on Christmas day.
We had to turn in our list to Mom by a certain day and then hope for the best. We’d try to read her mood for the next few days to see if the things on our list were still in play as something that might show up under the tree or if maybe we’d overshot it. Slowly, day after day, the gifts started to show up wrapped under the tree and we did some scientific examinations on the wrapped boxes to try to determine what was in them. Usually, there was no really determination made, but a lot of speculation and hope arose from the site of the brightly adorned boxes.
Christmas Eve would finally arrive and Mom was in the home-stretch. We’d go to church with the anticipation of the gift opening right after, so we were on our best behavior. Mom was excited to be done with the season and Dad helped to keep us in line by having us sit by him in church until we were old enough to sit independently NEAR them or sit in the choir with them and participate.
The Christmas Eve service was always my favorite. A combination of the music that I knew and the hopes of the gifts I was about to open later got my adrenaline pumping and my senses rose in their awareness. I would sit at the front of the balcony and look down at everybody dressed in their finest. People I hadn’t ever seen in church before. Some sitting with people that I knew. I’d find my own cousins that had come to town for Christmas but sat with my uncles and aunts that also came home for the holidays and I would be seeing in the coming days.
We’d sing the familiar hymns that we all love to sing. The choir would sing “Do You Hear What I Hear” and I’d get chills. They’d pass out candles in preparation for the offering and then the lights would be lowered and the ushers would light the candles along the center aisle. The flame would be passed dow each pew from parishioner to parishioner and slowly the sanctuary would glow a light orange hue from all the flickering candles. During this Mom would move from the organ to the upright piano in the balcony and Roger Engebretson would sit at the grand piano down in the front of the church and they would play “O Holy Night” as a duet on the two pianos. It was a long and moving piece to listen to and would usually take JUST long enough for them to gather the offering from the congregation that spilled out into the overflow area below the balcony. As it ended and they brought the money up front, Mom would get back at the organ and begin playing “Silent Night” and we’d sing all the verses. As we got older, we picked up the harmonization parts and we’d sing them out to fill the sound even more. The last of the verses would wrap up just in time as the little white candles with the paper drip protectors were near the bottom and hot wax was beginning to drip down onto hands that weren’t ready for the sudden jolt of heat. Some people would extinguish their flames early but then with a cue from the pastor, all the little lights would go out and a light haze of candle smoke would fill the room.
The service always wrapped up with “Joy to the World” and then the processional of people as the ushers dismissed them. I was already thinking about the gifts at home by this point and the food that we’d be digging into… as cousins and friends filed out below me, I’d wave to them with a small wave of my hand, inside wishing that everyone would hurry and go faster so I could get home.
Eventually, we’d get home and Matthew and I were tasked with the same things that we were tasked with during the teacher’s party: get the candles lit and the lights turned on. Grandma Viola and Grandma Gert would arrive and then Uncle Rolly and Sara would come. We’d take our places around the living room and Sara would pass out presents with our help and we take turns opening gifts. Oddly, not too many gifts stand out to me… mostly I remember just being in the living room and opening presents and watching everybody else open the gifts that we got each other. Certain things do stand out… we always got Dad a soap on a rope. Mom always got a blue holiday plate from Dad and also some Precious Moment figurine. I guess those toys that I circled and hoped for weren’t really so important to me.
The holiday season can be hard now with none of that stuff happening like it used to… we all get older and families grow and split and move apart. People so dear to us pass on and we don’t have their smile or laugh to enjoy during this time. Those moments that we all shared were behind us before we ever knew to appreciate them and the real lesson is a real gift that we open later in life… That the memories will forever be cherished in our hearts and minds. As long as we remember them, we will always have them with us.
Merry Christmas everyone!
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.