A rural Christmas in the 1940s

By Grace McCoag in Community, People

Christmas! There was a time when I could hardly wait for that special day. After the first of December my brother and I would become more and more impatient, anticipating the gifts we might get. We really never expected much but we knew there would be something. We fingered through the Eaton’s catalogue wildly guessing and rejecting possibility after possibility. As the December days passed not knowing what that something would be became almost unbearable. Mother and Dad would never drop a hint.
However, in the year when I was ten and he thirteen a special opportunity, or temptation, fell right into our lap. Mother and Dad had to go to town in mid-December to get groceries for the big day and they decided we were now big enough to look after ourselves until they got back. Of course, Ross, my brother, would be in charge but that was OK for at that moment we thought alike. We assumed the Christmas shopping had been done and reasoned that we would have at least three or four hours to snoop.
Ross had always suspected the little nook under the stairs leading to the second story of the house for it was never opened so he pried off the door and we both crowded in to the dark space. Sure enough, there we found the loot. We had found it on our first try. Alas, though the presents were there, they were all neatly wrapped in Christmas paper and not one bore a name tag. We were thwarted—foiled with no reason to search farther. Ross, with great care, replaced the door. We could do nothing but stew until Christmas morning.
We tried to leave everything exactly as we had found it and to cover any thought of our curiosity by filling the wood box and the reservoir on the wood stove before our parents returned but we must have left some tell-tale sign. Our parents never said anything but, in years following that little door under the stairs always seemed to be left open in those days leading up to Christmas. We may not have been the sleuths we thought we were.
Christmas morning we would be up early to open the gifts but then, after the original buzz wore off, Ross and I would be conscripted to assist with the preparations for the afternoon. Ross would trundle off to the barn to help Dad with the chores that had to be done while Mother always had something that had to be stirred or packed.
Traditionally, once the chores were done, we would dress in our finest clothes and Dad would harness our two husky horses, hitch them to the sleigh and pack us all aboard for the trip from our Mar home to Grandma’s house in Adamsville. We knew our aunts and uncles and our cousins would be there.
The ride over was always so much fun. The horses’ harness would be adorned with bells and in the crisp air the sound would carry for miles. We would start out huddled under buffalo robes with sealers of hot water wrapped in towels at our feet.—that is, all but Dad and he would stand at the front driving the team, in his prized, ankle-length fur coat. Those furry coverings may well have been made from real bison skins for they were indeed warm and heavy. We could not stand sitting for long and soon Ross and I would pile out and run after the sleigh. Of course, when Dad saw this happen, he would make the horses go faster. We would run even harder trying to catch up and just when we thought we would never make it he would stop and wait. Inevitably, as we climbed back on to the sleigh, Mother would admonish us to stay seated or we might be left behind. Then we would laugh, knowing that would never happen.
Two tee-totalling spinster aunts lived with Grandma. Not one of the three had ever tasted a drop of whiskey or a lick of beer, yet, in their basement would be jar after jar of dandelion wine, some several years old, and ample supplies of cider. Every spring the trio made wine, and by Christmas, according to the men, it would be tasting ‘pretty good’. Several trips to the basement to get more seemed to be the norm. Of course, the ladies and the kids never got to try the wine but the ladies would enjoy the apple cider. The cider came all the way from Milverton, maybe seventy-five miles away but someone in the family always made the special trip in October to get cider. By Christmas its potency may have rivaled that of the dandelion wine but no one would ever suggest that the cider might be turning a wee bit. The kids had to do with lemonade and ample supplies of home-made candy. Though much of the fudge, popcorn balls, caramel toffee, white divine, peanut brittle and yummy stuff would be boxed for us to take home, and to protect our stomachs, there always seemed to be enough to make some of us sick. On special years we all got an orange.
After the drinks and sweets and countless stories we had supper. Never did any restaurateur set out a more superb meal. The heavy, old, two pedestal kitchen table, lengthened to its maximum with two extension boards, would groan under the weight of roasted turkey and goose and there would be no end to the specially prepared vegetables and every conceivable condiment. And when you thought you could eat no more one of my aunts would bring in the flaming Christmas carrot pudding. The blazing top became possible when Grandma poured high proof rum over the pudding and set it ablaze with a match. We lustily sang Christmas songs until the last flicker burned itself out. Then the pudding would be ladled out and smothered in Aunty’s special Christmas sauce. Actually, Aunty had two sauces, one made with ample portions of dark rum and the other without. You can guess who got the latter.
After supper we would make our way home in the dark for there were more barn chores that had to be done before bedtime. We kids, however, would not have to help. We would sleep most of the way home and often be carried to bed when we got there so as to not interrupt our dreams of the glorious day.