Christmas in America has drastically changed through the years. When the Puritans stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock, the furthest thing from their minds was celebrating Christmas. They didn’t celebrate much, in fact, except getting rich. And as soon as they were assured they weren’t going to starve to death or be overrun by the local Native American tribes they were busy killing off, they prohibited celebrating Christmas.
But wet blanket Puritans aside, things have been looking up in terms of a “Merry Christmas” ever since more holiday-loving folks arrived. Probably the biggest shot in the arm the Christmas celebration ever got was the arrival in North America of large numbers of German Protestants in the mid-1700s. They brought Christmas trees, and all manner of cookies and pastries and other good things to eat, among other things.
In the last 60 years, Christmas has arguably undergone the most change in its entire history, thanks in part to us Baby Boomers, who have been moving through the economic gut of the United States like a large mammal lurching through a python’s digestive tract creating all sorts of distortions. But back in the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s, things were different. A LOT different.
Way back in 1977, when I’d just started writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, I interviewed my Grandmother, then aged 88, and my mother, then aged 67, about how they celebrated Christmas when they were young members of German-American families. My grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch relatives moved to Illinois from the Keystone State in 1850, and settled on a Wheatland Township farm in Will County. She married my grandfather, a city kid from Aurora, and moved to a beautiful new home on the city’s far East Side in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelmingly German population. Since my grandmother’s family still spoke German at home despite having lived in North America since 1752 and my grandfather’s family, who arrived in the early 1880s—before Ellis Island was established—also spoke German at home, at least there was no language barrier.
In 1920, pining for country life once again, she talked my grandfather into moving back out into Wheatland Township onto a farm. They rented the farm from Louis McLaren, and it came with a truly decrepit house and buildings, which was no problem for my grandfather, a skilled carpenter. But it certainly meant a changed life for my mother and her two siblings as well as their mother.
My Grandmother died in 1979 after a long, hard, but, all things considered, a very happy life. My mother followed after a typically energetic battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1987, significantly bowed but still unbeaten. Here are their Christmas stories, complete with a bit of Pennsylvania German syntax. After I published this as a Fox Valley Sentinel column, my grandmother was a bit embarrassed about her language, saying that if she knew it would be in the newspaper, “I would have talked better.” I loved it just the way it was.
Q: When you were a little girl, what did you get for Christmas?
A: Well, dear me, we didn’t get much! When my Grandpa was alive yet, we always had a Christmas tree. That’s all I can tell you. Santa Claus used to come, but he never brought us much…a doll once in a while maybe.
Q: Do you remember what the Christmas tree looked like?
A: Ya, it was real nice. I think we had candles on it. And we used to string popcorn.
Q: Did you get any fruit or nuts or anything special?
A: Well, we’d set a cookie sheet down, Mother and Father had the big ones and there they’d put our nuts or whatever candy we got, and an orange probably, or an apple. We’d put the cookie sheets on the floor in a row. The oldest child got the one next to Mother and Father, and so on down. There were eight children. Each cookie sheet got a little smaller, you see, so we knew which one belonged to us!
Q: You didn’t hang up stockings?
A: No, just the cookie sheets. We’d set them on the floor.
We didn’t have as much furniture as we do now. I remember our living room had ingrain carpeting, and under that we had straw, if you can imagine that! And by spring when you’d houseclean, that was nothing but dust.
Q: You said the you got oranges…
A: Ya, one orange. We never got oranges through the year, but at Christmas time, there we had an orange.
Q: What about presents?
A: “Well, after Grandpa was gone, we didn’t have no Christmas tree then. I remember one Christmas when we had just gotten a new buggy, well we called it a carriage you know. The night before Christmas, they must have taken a board and run it down the siding of the house outside. What a racket it made! We got under the covers because we thought old Santa Claus was coming. We weren’t supposed to see him, you know. Then in the morning, there lay the harness, a new double harness. That was our Christmas that year.
Q: Did you ever go to anyone’s house for Christmas dinner?
A: No, I don’t think that we ever had what we call a Christmas Dinner nowadays.
Q: Did you ever have sleigh rides or anything like that?
A: Well, that was the only way you could go in the winter time! We’d drive right through the fields, you know.
Q: Was Christmas any different when you lived in town than when you moved to the farm in 1920?
A: Ya, it was different! When we lived in Aurora, there was evidently some money, and when we moved to the farm there wasn’t any. When we lived in Aurora, Mother and us kids went to church every Christmas Eve, and when we came home, Dad would have the Christmas tree up. We had candles on it, and they would be lit, but Dad would be very careful. We would go to everybody’s house to see their Christmas trees.
Q: Everybody in your neighborhood?
A: To the relatives, my great aunts and uncles. And then when we moved out to the farm, we always had a Christmas tree, we always had nuts and candy and fruit. I always got a new dress so I could speak my piece at the church program. We always had a Christmas program at school. We worked for weeks and weeks. We would march and sing and give a play…everything had to be perfect.
Q: Did you send or receive Christmas cards?
A: We didn’t have money to spend on things like that. We went to visit the people. Things were different then.
And from me to you, from here at the Matile Manse, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.