(Author’s note: This is an “encore” presentation of this column, which was first published in 2002.)
Christmas on the western Pennsylvania farm where I grew up was a big time for my sister B.G. and me. We’d pore over the Sears Christmas catalog as soon as it arrived and show Mom everything we wanted. She’d been a stenographer in a former life and wrote her Christmas list in shorthand, aggravating us a good deal as we understood shorthand as well as we did Sanskrit, which was the reason she did it of course.
About the first week of December, we’d get out the old series type tree lights to “test” them and to try to hurry along the season. We’d also furtively search through all the hiding places where Mom might have stashed our gifts and often found some of them.
Finally, about a week before the big day, Dad would take us into the hollow along the creek in our pasture where we picked out and cut down one of the many hemlocks that grew there.
After dragging the tree home, Dad would nail the end of an old egg crate onto the butt of the trunk for a tree stand and we’d sit the thing in the corner of the living room at the foot of the open staircase.
Scraggly and thin though they were, after putting on as many lights as we had and all the ornaments we’d accumulated, the trees were beautiful, to us at least.
A creche, or manger scene, was set up on the wide window sill of one of the double-hung front living room windows as well. We taped blue cellophane, upon which were stuck lots of little gummed silver and gold stars, to the window pane and outlined it with blue lights, while a white star was centered over the scene.
Each year, Mom would add a figure to the creche and we had, besides Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus, shepherds and their sheep, the three wise men and their camels, the stable animals and I think three angels to preside over the scene.
An old wooden box that had at one time held a set of wooden building blocks that were Dad’s when he was little, did duty as the stable (I still had that wood box in my shop, holding an assortment of odds and ends, until the building burned a number of years ago).
Anyway, when everything was lit up and the living room lights were turned off it all seemed quite magical to my sister and me. We’d sit on the couch and sing Christmas carols and often Mom would join us.
On Christmas Eve we put out our stockings — those horrid, long brown stockings (at least they were cotton and not wool) that we were made to wear in the winter, held up by harness-like supporters that we called “scorters.”
Christmas was the only time I liked those stockings; they held a lot more stuff than a sock, and they were always full on Christmas morning. After the chickens were fed, we opened our presents and then got ready to drive to Rochester, Pa., where Grandma and Grandpa Ganoe, Aunt Sara and Uncle Dave, and my cousin Bob lived.
Grandma always got us neat presents, except for the year she gave me a suit of clothes with knickers instead of long pants, and Aunt Sara fixed a fabulous Christmas dinner for us, but the main attraction for me was Bob’s Lionel train layout, a large affair built on two 4 X 8 sheets of plywood supported on sawhorses that Uncle Dave set up just for Christmas each year.
Filling one end of the living room, the layout consisted of two loops of track joined by several switches. There were sidings with a coal unloader, a milk can platform, a log unloader and a cattle chute, there were two big Lionel steam engines and lots of cars that could be run around the track loading and unloading cows, logs, coal or milk.
I loved it and I wanted an electric train sooo… bad.
I never got one though; not for another 25 years or so.
As mentioned, Aunt Sara went all out to put on a great dinner for us, although my recollections of what we had boil down to just two things: one year she treated we country bumpkins to a shrimp salad, I don’t think any of us were sure we quite liked it, and dessert was always French vanilla ice cream, which we all loved.
We’d get home from Rochester in time to do evening chores and to check out the gifts that another uncle and aunt, Sherman and Louise Moore, had left for us.
Although they lived in Salem, Ohio, they always visited Louise’s family in Beaver Falls, Pa. on Christmas and stopped at the farm on the way through to visit my grandfather and to drop off a gift for each of us kids.
I remember one year they got me a tin shooting gallery with a pistol that fired rubber tipped suction darts, great fun.
I have fond memories of Christmases in those seemingly simpler times, as I’m sure many folks do. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!