A Decade of Christmas

In many ways my perception of Christmas is through the eyes of a young boy from age five through age fifteen. The time was l939 to l949. Although forty-five years have passed since I was fifteen, the temp plate, or model, in my minds eye of what Christmas really is, is the model of that decade.

My family lived in Glen Ellyn, Illinois in the 30’s and 40’s. The town had a population of 5-7,000. It was built on prairie land, 30 miles west of Chicago. There was a gentle roll to the land, most of which was formerly farm acreage. It was divided into plots in the teens and 20’s and had since become tax title property. We were the people from whom Frank Lloyd Wright adopted the “prairie style.” His style, as that of Louis Stickley could be seen in the modest homes of our neighbors.

Ice and milk were delivered by horse drawn wagon. There were the scissor grinder and the umbrella man. The roads and sidewalks were stamped WPA. An old puffer belly pulled the Chicago Northwestern in and out of the big city to the suburbs and to their outskirts. Coal was delivered to our basement coal bin from a Mack truck, which lurched up our driveway.

A Midwest winter took your breath away. The snow was so deep that my brother built an igloo by our front walk, and we could stand up in it. The streets and our driveway were plowed by horse drawn teams, for the auto was frequently humbled by the winter. When you walked to Forest Glen Elementary School the snow ached beneath your rubber boots, and froze on your wool mittens. In the class room you hung your coats and snow suits in the hall and piled your mittens and boots near the radiator. The smell of wet wool gave a cozy scent which combined with that of the oiled hard wood floors. Our music instruction consisted of the teacher playing an upright piano and our singing Christmas carols from tattered paper song books, which included “Up on the Roof Top,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” and “You Better Watch Out,” as well as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Silent Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

We decorated the school Christmas tree with chains of red and green paper links and silver and gold stars. Each of us brought a gift for someone else, and the teacher collected 45 handkerchiefs and an equal amount of home made jam.

My father got a half day before Christmas, Christmas Day itself, and the day after off from work at the publishing company. So what preparations there were fell to my mother, who taught school. She got the day before Christmas and the week between Christmas and New Year’s off. Part of her ritual was to take us into the Loop in Chicago to Carson Pierre Scott’s and Marshall Field’s to see Santa Claus and particularly to see the tree at Marshall Field’s. We would have tea at one of the tables around the tree, and then ride back home on the electrified Aurora and Elgin train. These trips were special because either we didn’t have extra money or only an A card during the war for gas to get us to the train station.

But each night we would go down to get my father at the train and every house had a lighted Christmas tree visible in its window. In some of the windows there was also a silver or gold star against a dark blue piece of cloth. In the town park near the rail road tracks, next to the WWI canon, there was a public tree. There was also one down at Lake Ellyn, where we skated. That tree was donated by the Garden Clubs.

Our own tree was bought at the American Legion lot, kept on the back porch next to the ice box until a week before Christmas. Then it was set up and decorated. Each string of lights and each ornament had its own story. Some were from my father’s family, some from my mother’s, and the rest had been purchased over the years individually at the five & dime, the equivalent of Santa’s workshop.

And so it was when I was about six or seven that my mother and my brother (six years older than I) plotted to have a special Christmas tree. It was to rival that at Marshall Field’s, and it was to be all silver and blue. They saved up during the fall for this extravagance, and the first week of December walked down to Woolworth’s and carefully selected the silver and blue ornaments. The tree was set up, the lights strung (only blue bulbs), the ornaments set carefully and spaced artistically. Then tinsel was placed strand by strand on the boughs of the tree. Neither my mother nor my brother were disappointed. It was a brilliantly lovely tree. The silver ornaments caught the reflection of the lights and played off against the blue ornaments, while the tinsel shimmered. My father was speechless when he came home and saw the tree. That evening he sat in his russet chair, smoked a Chesterfield and gazed at the tree for a long time. Marshall Field’s came in second that year. I don’t remember our presents, perhaps pajamas or underwear. But I’ll always recall that tree and the enjoyment my mother and brother had planning and putting together that project.

Later years brought other ornaments. After we left Glen Ellyn, we had Christmas trees in New Canaan, bought at the Exchange Club, and in Shawnee Mission, Kans., bought at the high school. There were trees in Greenwich, in Evanston, Stamford, Hartford, and Darien. In these last years our artificial tree creaks under the weight of the ornaments. We have had 32 at our house for Christmas, with enough presents to stock a Woolworth’s of old. Many a tree gave its life for our wrapping paper, and some where in Japan there are dozens of families who have grown wealthy on our gifts and decorations.

But the Christmases that define Christmas for me are those of that earlier ten year period. Where was God in all that? We bought a manger scene at Woolworth’s, and felt slightly Popish. I still have some of the figures, made in Austria before WWII. There was a nativity scene on the town green. The churches were Methodist and Congregationalist and Presbyterian. There was a Catholic Church and a Catholic school. The names of the families in town were Gordon, Bowman, Hassfeather, Tinsley, Reynolds, Berwanger, Lancaster, Patterson, Olson, etc. Ü predominantly Anglo Saxon and Northern European. There was a reserve to things. The Methodist service was held in a gymnasium (the sanctuary burned down) with folding chairs. We had a Christmas pageant. The architecture of the church was mock Norman. And there was a knowing artificiality to church and to the Christmas events. Somehow that was appropriate. We all knew it was hoaky, and we all thought that was okay. The over riding element was a reverence for that which was special in life: peace, the friendship and support of each other, and the plain simplicity of our neighborly relationships.

God was in the preparation of a family event. God was in the visiting of grandma and uncle Art and uncle Walter and aunt Gustie and Aunt Tilly. God was in the love of my mother for my brother and in their quiet conspiracy and extravagance. God was in their sense of artistic beauty and in the clear beauty of the stars’ radiance on the snow of our lawn. God was in the careful exploration of the rabbits in the meadow behind us and in the owls in the cottonwoods. God was in the habits of the human family, caring for and caring about one another.

Each ornament on my tree, like the ornaments on your trees, tells a story. The stories I remember most vividly are those of the old blue and silver ornaments on our tree. Amen.