By the time you read this article, most people will have taken down and packed away all the remnants of this Christmas and have begun buying up items, on sale, to be used for Christmas next year.
The commercialization of the holidays that begins earlier every year started this year before Halloween and was in “full-speed-ahead” mode right through Thanksgiving, with only a quick nod of recognition to that holiday by sitting down to a turkey dinner. The Christmas holiday actually begins on Dec. 24 and ends on Jan. 6. So, this column, in the Dec. 31 issue of this newspaper, fits right up in about the middle part of that time period.
Settlers in southwestern Minnesota during the middle of the 1800s and up through maybe the middle of the 1950s held pretty closely to the Christian church’s interpretation of when the season began and ended. Therefore, Christmas trees were purchased, or cut down, on the afternoon of the 24th. Gifts were purchased that same afternoon. And, of course, there were few of them under the tree that evening. Children probably received one toy (if they were lucky), one item of homemade clothing (such as a knitted scarf) and, if a train had been able to come through the nearest village with fruit supplies from the southern states, each child would receive one apple or an orange. Of course, the children never knew that they were poor — they felt very lucky to receive these meager gifts within the warmth and love of their family life.
Many families, who viewed Christmas as a holy time, fasted on Christmas Eve by eating very plain food that may have reminded them of food eaten “in the old country.” In Norwegian-American homes the evening meal would consist of headcheese and rømmegrøt (porridge made of flour and milk). Other homes might serve ethnically traditional oyster stew or sauerkraut and ribs.
The tree was set up in a place of prominence in the freshly cleaned living room. There were few ornaments, each carefully kept from year to year. Children would sit on the floor and string together garlands of popcorn and fresh cranberries. And, of course, candles were placed in small holders that could be attached to the tree branches.
In Norwegian-American homes, after reading together from the Bible the story of Christ’s birth and the singing of the carols, the family would hold hands and gather around the tree. After the father lit the candles the family would dance around the tree. It may be that one reason for dancing around the tree was to make sure, since all eyes were on the tree, a tree fire could be avoided. But, of course, children knew that it was a special ritual. After the dance ended and all candles were extinguished, the gifts were opened. The father would probably receive a new pair of work gloves or socks. Mother always expressed happiness at receiving a new dishpan or bread-baking tin, despite the dreams of receiving a bottle of toilette water (a cheap type of perfume — not to be confused with the 20th century connotation).
Then, the most magical part of the eve of Christmas was when the horses were hitched up to the sleigh and the family piled in under horsehide blankets for the trip down the road to the country church for the midnight prayer service. Oftentimes, the moon was full and the air crisp as the horses trotted over the frozen ground and the sleigh bells jingled in rhythm with the hoof beats. As they neared the church that stood as a beacon of light on the flat prairie, they could hear other sleighs coming from other directions and together making a chorus of bells to gladden the heart. The Christmas feast was served at noon on the 25th. At this meal, all stops were let out and the mother produced, from hiding places the children were not clever enough to find, food treats enough to make for stomachaches despite the fasting of the day before.
Then the holidays continued for the entire period of Christmas with countless gatherings during the afternoons from sledding and skating parties to evening card parties or Julebakking (dressing up to hide one’s identity and traveling in groups to homes for caroling — and hopefully being asked in for cookies and beverage — and the ritual of trying to identify the revelers).
Finally, sometime in January, the tree came down and was moved to a spot outside atop a snowdrift, where it stood as a reminder of the recent celebrations until spring when the wild prairie winds blew it away. There were no trips to town to exchange those unwanted gifts — everyone appreciated the meager gifts that were made with loving hands. The celebration was over but the memories were gathered year upon year and made more precious as time and traditions changed how each generation viewed and celebrated the season.