So Thanksgiving is over and now we can start looking towards Christmas?
Although merchandisers have been looking towards Christmas since before Halloween, I always try to restrain myself until all the turkey leftovers have been eaten, the leaves taken back out of the dining room table, and all the glassware and silverware has been shined and put away.
Just a bit ago, I noticed it was flurrying past my office window here at History Central in downtown Troy, which is a lot better than the rain that was falling when I got up this morning. To me, there’s not much more miserable weather than 35° and rain.
At this time of the year, it’s difficult not to reflect on Christmases past. The holiday was a big deal when I was a kid. My grandfather was an enthusiastic fan of Christmas, although at the time I would not have said my grandfather was enthusiastic about anything. He was, with us younger kids at least, gruff and a man of very few words. I don’t remember him ever calling me by my first name, in fact. But at Christmas he became a much more mellow fellow, wandering through the crowd of children and grandchildren, and later, great-grandchildren, with a grin on his normally uncommunicative face.
His family were Germans from Germany, as opposed to my grandmother’s family, who were Germans from Pennsylvania. Both of them grew up speaking German at home, even though my grandmother’s family had immigrated to the colonies back in 1750, while Grandpa’s family arrived in the early 1880s. But while Grandma’s family wasn’t much on religion or holidays, Grandpa’s certainly were. He brought those family traditions with him when he and Grandma and their three kids, at my grandmother’s increasingly desperate pleas, moved out of Aurora to a decrepit Wheatland Township farm.
In Aurora, they’d lived in a new house—my great-grandfather gave them a lot in between the great-grandparents’ house and the lot they’d already given to their daughter and her husband—who was my grandmother’s brother. It was a situation that led, a century later, to make for some interesting genealogy charts.
The problem was that my great-grandmother and her daughter did not get along. There was constant yelling back and forth between the two, with my grandmother literally caught in the middle of their incessant arguments after which either or both would take to their beds whereupon Grandma would be forced to care for either or both of them. After 11 years of that nonsense, she’d had enough and began begging Grandpa to move to a farm, where, she promised, she’d milk cows, feed pigs and chickens, can fruit and vegetables, and generally run the place all on her own, if he wanted.
At the time he had a pretty good job as a crew supervisor working in the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops in downtown Aurora, a job he didn’t want to give up, at least not right away. But luckily enough, there was an interurban trolley line about a mile and a half from the farm they rented. So every morning four days a week (according to his paybooks, which I still have, his crew worked four 10 hour days a week) he’d walk down and catch the interurban to downtown Aurora, work his 10 hours, and then take the trolley home, and walk the mile and a half home. On his three-day weekends, he’d do the heavy farming work out in the fields while Grandma, true to her word, milked eight or 10 cows, fed the pigs and chickens, tended the garden and the orchard, canned and otherwise preserved the fruit and vegetables she grew, and took care of her three kids, one of whom, my Uncle Earl, was afflicted with infantile paralysis and had to be carried just about everywhere.
But even as hard as their lives were, Christmas on the farm was an important piece of the family’s year. They’d go into Aurora on Christmas Eve so Grandma and the kids could go to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for the German language service while Grandpa went in search of a Christmas tree and other holiday goodies. He always maintained the best deals on Christmas trees were found on Christmas Eve, in which he was entirely right. It’s just that the trees were always—and this continued right up through the day and age when I was married with my own baby girl—about as forlorn looking as the one made famous by Charlie Brown. But after the bubble lights, ornaments, and the tinsel were applied, they looked festive enough.
Grandpa was startled to find that in the country, living as they did among English and Scots neighbors, Christmas just wasn’t that big a deal. Their neighbors across the field had a son who, like my Uncle Earl, was crippled and who one summer day happened to mention to my grandfather that he loved looking across the frozen, snowy fields at Christmas and seeing the gaily lighted tree in my grandparents’ window. The child’s father offered that Christmas decorating was foolishness that cost a lot of money for no gain to the farm at all, an attitude my grandfather had a hard time getting his mind around.
So the next Christmas, my grandfather bought two Christmas trees at Joe Hauser’s store on Aurora’s East Side, plus some extra decorations. After putting up the family tree, he decorated the other one, and carried it across the field to the neighbors’ house where the youngster was absolutely shocked to find this bit of Christmas cheer was for him to enjoy. And Grandpa did the same thing for the few years the child had left before he died.
My mother and father made a big deal out of Christmas, too. On Christmas Eve, we all went to the church Christmas program, and then enjoyed the gift exchange after. Then it was off to the Bower’s house next to the church where we admired their tree and drank a little eggnog before heading home. Once in a great while, I’d get to open a gift on Christmas Eve, not often. That was saved for Christmas morning. Later that morning, we’d pack up the car and head the two or three miles to my grandparents’ farm, where we’d have Christmas dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, eating around the big table in the long, narrow dining room that, outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, was used to feed threshing and bailing crews, followed by a gift exchange (we drew names at Thanksgiving). The thrill of the day was when my mother wandered around handing out envelopes with $5 bills to all us grandkids from Grandpa and Grandma.
I can still remember the thrill of opening the Lionel train I got one Christmas morning, with switches and a signal tower and a boxcar with a guy who actually slid open the door and popped out! After we moved to town, I found a brand new Schwinn bike standing by the tree one Christmas morning. It was a honey, too, a Schwinn Corvette, with chrome fenders and a three-speed gear shift, not to mention caliper brakes, which took some getting used to.
Though the Schwinn is long gone, I still have my Lionel O-gauge train set, packed in a couple boxes in the attic. The engine still smokes if you put the little white pills down the stack, an the man in the orange boxcar still opens the sliding door and pops out when it’s over that special piece of track. And as the holiday season progresses, I’m hoping I can infuse a little of the Christmas spirit that my grandfather so loved into my own grandchildren.