Story told by Fr. Jack Nordick of Cottonwood
Winter on the South Dakota prairie in the mid 1900s was always an adventure. As late as 1940 few homes there had electricity, and while most would get electricity in the following 10 years, there were a few that did not. Nearly everyone had an automobile, but many farms still kept a team of horses for special use, especially during the winter when not everything would start. Houses usually were heated by a coal furnace or maybe an oil burner in those areas where wood was scarce. Homes with electricity had automatic thermostats and electric ranges. Otherwise there was a wood-burning range in the kitchen, most often fueled with corn cobs, and the heat was a hit-and-miss affair depending how much fuel was added to the fire. The kitchen was usually warm, but much of the house was pretty cold, especially the upstairs bedrooms. Frost often formed on the windows and even the walls.
One thing they could depend on was good home cooking. The basement, however much of one there was, usually had shelves lined with canned goods, most of it home canned from the garden and orchard. But there also would be home-canned peaches, pears, cherries and other fruits bought over the summer. There also were a lot of jars of canned meat, and crocks full of home-rendered lard and fried-down pork under lard, especially in those homes that didn’t yet have a freezer. In addition, some fruit, especially apples were dried.
Most days, as the sun was starting to move far down in the sky, Tom shuffled out of the house and off to the chicken barn with a tea kettle full of boiling water. Although he was only 7, he was already entrusted with some of the farm chores.
In the afternoon, after walking back the three-quarters mile from the country school, he would first go to the chicken barn. When it was cold, like today, he would take hot water along to melt and remove the ice in the drinking fountain and pour the rest in the container. Then he made sure there was plenty of feed in their feeders, taking the egg mash, grit, whole grains and oyster shells from the bins. When the bins started to get empty he needed to tell his dad so they could be refilled before they ran out. During the day his mother would come to gather the eggs and usually brought along the garbage from the house for the chickens to enjoy. About the only thing they liked better was to find a poor mouse caught unawares in their midst.
Next Tom went off to the big barn where he portioned out hay to the calves as well as their ration of oats. Finally he would wait until his dad had finished milking Buttercup, the family Guernsey cow, and then take the full milk pail and the empty tea kettle back to the house.
It was the first week of December, and Tom was constantly daydreaming about summer, and fishing in the creek, and catching fireflies in the pasture. He especially remembered the day the past summer when a sudden hailstorm provided enough ice for a home-made batch of ice cream to go along with the strawberries. Fortunately the hail was very slight, barely enough to scratch some together to fill the ice cream maker. He thought about how he had taken turns with Nellie, his older sister, and his mom and dad until it got too stiff to crank. Then he and Nellie got to lick the dasher. And that was just about the best of anything he had ever tasted.
The sounds of the milk squirting into the pail stopped. He could hear the clank of the cover being set in place, and he knew it was time to get moving.
It was almost dark now outside, and starting to get pretty cold. Tom shivered, thinking about all the cold, dark days still ahead.
He really didn’t mind winter, but it was just so long! Back in the house the smell of cooking brought him back to reality. He had forgotten it was Suzie, his younger sister’s birthday. She, together with little Jimmy, the baby, rounded out the family. So he could already taste the special dinner simmering on the stove. There was crispy roast pheasant his dad had just shot two days before, mashed potatoes, canned green beans, sweet spiced pickles, and best of all, peach cobbler made from the peaches his mother had canned. Tom thought about all of aromatic peach papers he had ironed out the summer before and readied for use in the out house. As the supper ended, and Tom smothered his cobbler in sweet cream, he thought it would be even better if they would still have some of that ice cream.
In the morning he went early to the barn with his dad who was carrying the lantern. Again he took care of the calves and when it was getting light enough to see his way, headed back to the house to wash up and have some breakfast. That morning he had to break the ice in the water pitcher before he could pour any in the bowl. He had forgotten to refill the tea kettle and set it on the back of the stove so there would be hot water to use. Breakfast was usually salt pork, biscuits and milk, and of course, canned apple sauce. Afterwards, he and Nellie walked together to school.
Most days went by the same way. Sundays they drove the old Chevy to town for church services. Sometimes on really cold days they had to hitch up the horses to pull the car till it started.
After church they usually stopped at the home of his mother’s parents, Ludwig and Martha Willenhaben. His grandparents not only had just gotten electricity but also a television. Tom was always sad to leave, because his mother insisted on leaving just before a program ended, so he never got to see how they finished. He also was fascinated because his mother and grandmother always talked in German, which made his father very frustrated because, being Irish, he didn’t understand a word. But that explained how Tom and Nellie McGregor grew up speaking German, despite their bright red hair like their dad’s, and numerous freckles. Many times when they were in the house together with their mother, she would sing songs to them in German or tell them stories in German. Since the day they were born, she had always used German when their father was not around. Otherwise they all spoke English in his Irish brogue. Tom also had a little special pride, when afterward, his dad would ask him what his mother had been talking about. It also served Tom well, when much later he served in Germany in the army.
The days of winter went on with boring sameness. Not much mention was made of Christmas. The country school kids were preparing a program for the last school day before Christmas. Tom would be a shepherd. Santa Claus would be there passing out treats, usually a bag full of peanuts, always some were rancid, and hard candies that he didn’t especially like. Tom usually gave his bag to Suzie, who would eat almost anything. There would be a choir and special music at church, but otherwise not much else.
Just a couple of days before Christmas his dad indicated he needed to make a trip to town to get some supplies. His mom said she wanted to go along to make sure they got feed sacks that matched the pattern she was using to make a new dress.
They would take Suzie and Jimmy along but Tom and Nellie would have to stay home to do all the chores. Nellie could milk Buttercup, even though she hated to. Tom could do most of the rest but needed Nellie’s help to do some of the heavier work.
Their dad would check to be sure everything was OK when they got back home. As they were leaving, the list of commands was almost endless. “Feed the dog.” “Don’t let the fire go out.” “Make sure you keep the wood box full.” “Bring in extra corn cobs.” “Let the milk sit by the door, I’ll skim it in the morning.” “Make sure all the doors are shut tight”. “Don’t try to light the lantern”. Finally the car followed by a two wheeled trailer pulled down the driveway and Tom and Nellie were free to do as they pleased. First they checked the storeroom in the basement. They hid a jar of canned sweet cherries behind the sauerkraut so they could amazingly find one more when their mother thought they were all out. Nellie tried out her mother’s lipstick and posed in front of the mirror. Tom opened the locked closet door where his father kept the guns (he had watched when his father hid the key) and gazed in fascination, but he never touched a thing. He knew that if he did and Nellie told on him, he wouldn’t sit well for at least a week. The afternoon wore on quickly, and they realized that they needed to get to the chores if they were to get finished before dark. Chores went pretty well, actually, except for the manure fight they got into when Tom called Nellie a “Duffus” for squirting the cats with milk, and she called him a “Eine Dummer Schoaf.” Fortunately she got the cover on the milk pail before it started. Before it ended they were in pretty rough shape. They agreed they needed to roll in the snow to clean up the best they could, and they would tell their parents that they had slipped and fallen.
By the time they filled the wood box, and washed off the milk pail and washed up some themselves, it was getting very dark, so after some bread and butter and milk and some cold leftovers they were ready for bed.
They were fast asleep when the rest of the family got home and so they never noticed all the mysterious packages in the trailer. In all the excitement Nellie had forgotten to clean off the lipstick.
The next morning they went on as usual, explained to their mother what had happened to their clothes, according their prepared story, and helped their mother to do the wash that was necessary. About noon, when they sat down for lunch, their mom looked at Nellie intently, and then remarked somewhat nonchalantly: “Why Nellie, whatever has happened your face?”
Nellie’s face turned as red as the lipstick smears her brief washing the night before had left. Even though she knew she had been found out, she tried to play dumb. “Why, what do you mean?”
“Don’t tell me you were using my lipstick,” her mother went on.
Nellie froze, biting her lip.
“Tell us the truth Nellie,” her father added.
“But, but, I just wanted to look as pretty as you do, Mom,” Nellie was finally able to stammer.
Their folks looked at each other for a while without saying anything. For Nellie that was the hardest part, wondering what they would say next. Their dad started again: “And you Tom, what sort of mischief did you get into?”
When they had gotten to the barn that morning he had seen the evidence the fight had left on the walls. He had just shook his head.
“I went to the chicken barn right after you left. I didn’t do nothin,” Nellie glowered at him but kept quiet.
“Well,” their mother said to Nellie , “You need to get yourself cleaned up properly. We’ll get to the bottom of all of this later.” The rest of the afternoon was spent baking bread and cookies and a special stollen.
Christmas Day started early. Everybody was up early and having cookies and cocoa for breakfast. Dad asked “Did you see what Santa left for us outside?” They only took a second to take that in, and then without so much as putting on as coat or hat, Nellie and Tom and Suzie all tried to get out the door at once. There sitting up against a tree were two brand new sleds. They goshed and gushed for a while before they had to come back in again to warm up. After morning chores it was time to get ready for church. On the way their mom announced they would be going to her folks for dinner. Tom just couldn’t contain his excitement. Next to his mom, Grandma Willenhaben was just the best cook in the world. There would be pies, and candy, and fruits and just maybe he would get to sample a sip of Mogan David wine mixed with 7-Up.
Church seemed to last forever. The preacher went on and on and on. The choir seemed to be off key, and even the servers had their gowns on crooked.
Finally they got to the last hymn and were ready leave. The trip to their grandparents house was only a couple of blocks, and the car hadn’t even stopped yet when he was trying to get out. But he was blocked by Suzie and Nellie sitting on the outsides next to him.
As soon as he could, he ran as fast as he was able past the huge evergreen tree to hug his grandmother who now was standing at the front door. The door opened into an entryway that always had the most unusual smell, something between old rubber boots and freshly baked bread.
When the whole family had piled in they went into the kitchen that was filled with tables loaded with food, and then into the dining room where the table was set with the best company china and then when he looked to the next room where the television was kept, Tom was surprised to find that the door was shut tight. After the Merry Christmas and Froeliches Weinachten greetings were ended and their coats carried off to a bedroom, Grandma said, “And now we have something special to show you.
When she went to the parlor and opened the door, Tom expected to see the TV, instead he saw the most beautiful Christmas tree, more wonderful than any he could possibly even have ever imagined. Much bigger and more colorful than the one the school had for the program, far more spectacular than the one that was at church that morning. For this tree had real electric lights, big and small, with shining star reflectors behind them, and lights that bubbled as they glowed, and spiral icicles that glimmered as they spun, and painted mirrors that flashed almost as brightly as the lights that they reflected. Under the tree were brightly wrapped packages with names on them for everyone, and it was just more than Tom could quite take in all at one time.
He was simply transfixed at the sight, and covered with goose bumps at the same time that he started to feel faint. He realized that he was looking at a genuine Baum des Weinachten, like in all the songs and stories he had heard from his mother. He thought that it must be like the lights in heaven that the pastor had talked about that morning.
As he stood there gaping and gasping for breath his mother started to sing in the voice that was so familiar to him:
“O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum, wie trau sind deine blattter.” Soon the whole family was joining in. And that moment became fixed in his memory forever.
He forgot about the presents they got, he forgot about what they had for dinner, he forgot what punishment Nellie got for trying lipstick, he even forgot the punishment they both got for the manure fight. But forever after, Christmas became linked to that one memory, and all the grace and magic of Christmas was forever after carried on the vision of that one spectacular Christmas tree.