The following is a Christmas story excerpted from the book “The Quiet Season: Remembering Country Winters."
With the school Christmas program behind us and winter break from school about to begin, our thoughts turned to Christmas at home. In one corner of a field on the west side of the farm, Pa had planted some pine trees to keep the wind from eroding this sandy piece of ground. On the weekend before Christmas, Pa, my brothers and I hiked out to the pine patch to search for just the right tree. When we came to some agreement (never a complete agreement, as my brothers and I had different ideas about what makes a decent Christmas tree), Pa cut one down with his ax. He allowed just so much bickering among the three of us before he made the final decision.
We dragged the tree home and placed it in its base in the dining room. There it would stand, filling the room with its woodsy fragrance, until an evening a couple of days before Christmas when we would decorate it. We had no electric lights, of course, and Pa would have nothing to do with lighted candles on the tree; he thought it preposterous that anyone would consider bringing an open flame anywhere near a tree.
Over the years Ma had collected ornaments of various shapes and colors, and we hung them on the tree — very carefully, for if we dropped one it would shatter into a hundred pieces. And although Ma would never say anything if one broke, you could see the hurt in her eyes. Then Pa placed the star on the top of the tree, and the job was finished.
While we stood there admiring the decorated tree, Ma made popcorn on the kitchen wood stove. It was a fun evening and a rare opportunity for the entire family to be involved in something together.
• • •
After the barn chores on Christmas Eve, we gathered around the table for a supper of oyster stew, something Ma made just once a year. Both my parents remembered eating oyster stew on Christmas Eve as children, and they passed the tradition on to us.
The Wild Rose Meat Market carried fresh oysters just once a year, and Ma always bought some on her regular Saturday shopping trip the week before Christmas. As kids we thought fresh oysters looked like something best tossed out for some animal to find.
But when they were properly prepared, we found their taste quite agreeable. Ma served her stew with little round oyster crackers, freshly baked bread and lots of butter. The stew had a distinct, not-quite-fishy smell, vastly different from Ma’s vegetable soup with its blended aromas of tomato, potato, peas and carrots. Here is the recipe she used — and the one my family still makes on Christmas Eve.
Ma’s Oyster Stew
1 pint fresh oysters
1 quart whole milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
In a small pan, cook oysters over medium heat in the liquid they come in, stirring constantly, until the oysters’ edges curl.
Heat milk in a large pan on low heat.
Add butter and stir until melted.
Add the oysters and liquid to the milk.
Add salt and pepper and heat thoroughly.
Serves 4 people.
• • •
After supper Pa and I adjourned to the barn for the evening milking. We did this a bit earlier than usual so our family could attend Christmas Eve services at West Holden Lutheran Church a few miles from our farm. West Holden Lutheran was a mostly Norwegian congregation with a few of us Germans tossed in because we didn’t yet have a German Lutheran Church.
The church was heated with a big wood stove that stood in the back. It was cozy warm in the back of the church, a little cooler in the pews toward the front. The altar was elaborately decorated with carved wood and an enormous figure of Christ on the cross looking down on the crowd.
The congregation was made up mainly of farm people, although a few Norwegians from the village of Wild Rose attended as well. We were all dressed about the same — nothing fancy, as the Depression hadn’t yet run its course and nobody had money to spend on fancy clothes. Still, I noticed sitting in the pew in front of me a woman who wore a coat with a fur collar and had a natty little hat perched on her head. She was clearly “not from around here.”
On that chilly Christmas Eve, the old wood stove in the back of the church was having trouble keeping up with the falling temperatures. Each time a church official opened the stove door to shove in another block of wood, a little puff of wood smoke sneaked into the room. I liked the smell of wood smoke; it had a homey smell and always made me feel warm.
Reverend Vevle, a kindly pastor whom our family enjoyed and respected even though he was Norwegian Lutheran, was in the midst of his Christmas Eve sermon. I was dozing, not paying much attention to his words, as the warmth of the stove and aroma of wood smoke drifted around the pew where we sat. I could see that Pa was nodding as well (Ma would soon give him a poke with her elbow). My younger brothers were as usual antagonizing each other — and getting away with it, as Ma was more concerned about Pa going to sleep than the boys’ antics.
Just then the fancy-dressed woman sneezed — not a feminine, sniffly kind of sneeze, but a room-filling eruption of noise. I jumped, Pa sat up straight, my brothers began giggling, and Pastor Vevle, with ever so slight a grin on his face, lumbered on with his message of peace on earth, good will toward men.
She sneezed again, and again, and once more. All the kids in the room were now giggling. The finely dressed woman, now with a frilly handkerchief held to her nose, got up from her seat and under her breath muttered, “I’m allergic to wood smoke.”
She headed for the door in the back of the church, sneezing every step of the way. All heads turned to watch her as she gave one last gigantic sneeze, blew her nose loudly, pushed opened the church door, and walked into the night.
We never saw her again. No one seemed to know where she had come from, and no one knew where she had gone. But for weeks, whenever my twin brothers walked by one of the woodstoves in our house, they uttered the now famous words, “I’m allergic to wood smoke. Achoo! Achoo!”
The next morning, when we had finished milking and had eaten breakfast, we looked for our presents under the Christmas tree. For several weeks leading up to Christmas, my brothers and I had searched for our presents: in the back closet, in Ma and Pa’s closet, everywhere. Not until we were older did we learn that Ma had hidden our presents in the icebox, which of course we rarely used during the winter months.
• • •
I found the package containing my new blue sweater and opened it. Then I found a package the size of a book. It just had to be the book I’d wished for, “Fun for Boys.” I tore it open and looked at the beautiful green, white and brown cover filled with images of boys lifting weights, pulling rabbits out of hats, and looking upward at airplanes flying overhead. I paged through the book and read the chapter titles: “The Secrets of Cartooning,” “How to Identify Aircraft (German, Japanese and U.S.),” “Building Model Planes,” “How to Train Your Dog,” “How to Handle a Rope Like a Cowboy,” “Building a Powerful Physique” and “The Fundamentals of Jiu-Jitsu (as taught to marines, soldiers, and G-Men).”
The last chapter included eight pages of recommended books for boys, including "The Deerslayer" by James Fennimore Cooper, "A Son of the Middle Border" by Wisconsin writer Hamlin Garland, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, "Adventures of Buffalo Bill" by William F. Cody, "Early Moon" by Carl Sandburg and more. I would spend many hours in the months to come poring over this special book. (I still have it, its cover faded a bit, its pages yellowed and occasionally rolled at the edges.)
Darrel opened a package and discovered the toy he had wished for, a cash register with a little bell that dinged when the cash drawer slid open. He immediately fancied himself a storekeeper.
Donald had asked for and received a toy called a Crow Shoot. It consisted of a little cork-shooting gun and a metal fence with a lineup of crows attached. If you shot straight and the cork hit a crow, the bird tipped over. Donald, forever trying something new and often attempting something he shouldn’t, quickly became bored at tipping over the little black crows. Searching for new targets for his cork gun, Donald spotted Pa sitting by the dining room stove, reading the paper and smoking a cigarette. Donald carefully took aim at the cigarette. Pop. The cork ﬂew straight, and the cigarette ﬂew from Pa’s mouth. He immediately jumped and dropped his newspaper. Donald stood frozen, his cork gun in his hand, expecting the worst. For what seemed like an eternity, Pa searched for the lighted cigarette. He found it and turned to Donald. Darrel and I stood nearby, watching and waiting, curious what awful punishment our brother faced even though it was Christmas morning. Then Pa, with a smile on his face, said, “That was a pretty good shot.” He picked up his newspaper and began reading once more. Donald went back to shooting at his crows. Darrel and I were certain that he had gotten away with what he had done only because it was Christmas. But we also knew he’d better not ever try it again.
At noon Ma outdid herself with a wonderful meal of baked squash, pumpkin and apple pie, canned peas and carrots, pickled beets, dill pickles, mashed potatoes heaped in a bowl with a hunk of butter melting in the middle, and at the center of it all, a beautiful roast duck. Pa preferred duck over turkey, which he said was dry and lacking in flavor.
We had come by this Christmas duck in a most interesting way. Earlier that month Darrel had participated in a raffle held at the Legion Hall in Wild Rose. He had the winning number, and one of the legionnaires handed him a gunny bag tied at the top with binder twine. Darrel didn’t know what he had won until the bag began jerking and jumping and he peeked inside. It was a Muscovy duck, a big ten-pound white male with red around its bill. When he got home, he turned the duck loose in the chicken house with the laying hens. Pa thought the duck looked lonely, so he bought a couple more ducks to keep it company, and we feasted on duck that Christmas Day.
• • •
Later that afternoon, my brothers and I walked to the Davis farm, about three-quarters of a mile north of our place. Alan Davis and his adult daughter, Kathryn, lived in a ramshackle, paint-wanting house with no conveniences whatsoever. Most everyone in our community was poor in those days, but Alan and Kathryn had next to nothing — including, in Ma’s judgment, often not enough to eat. Ma always baked an apple pie for them on Christmas and had us boys take it to them along with a small Christmas gift — that year a frilly handkerchief for Kathryn and a new pair of work gloves for Alan.
The Davises welcomed us in, took our coats and caps, and sat us down by the wood stove. As they opened their presents, we looked around and saw that they had no Christmas tree or decorations — no sign at all that it was Christmas.
“Tell your Ma thanks,” Alan said.
“Tell her thanks for me, too,” said Kathryn. As she held up the handkerchief, I saw that she had tears in her eyes.
I’ve never forgotten how thankful they were for the simple gifts we gave them, or their joy in having my brothers and me visit them on what must have been a lonely Christmas Day. Pa often reminded us that we all had a responsibility to look after our neighbors — especially on holidays, but every other day as well.
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