Remembering holidays past
By Fran Derhammer
Editor’s note: Fran Derhammer, Volga, is a fixture at the Elkader Care Center, regularly visiting the residents there. This article, which she wrote two years ago, was submitted to our “holiday traditions” contest. Some of the residents Fran spoke with are no longer with us, which makes the sharing of their memories here even more special.
December is a special time for everyone with its cookies, candy canes, and candles glowing through frosted windows. Snow shimmers in the early morning sun. Starry nights glow as we gather to celebrate the Reason for the Season.
Decorating a tree with each ornament stirs memories of Christmases past and makes me wonder what Christmas was really like in days gone by. You know how we would say “Merry Christmas” instead of just “Happy Holidays?” I’m talking about the early part of the last century, days we all would cherish if we had grown up in those simpler days dealing with a harder life as the Depression gripped our country and little children were just thankful for perhaps one little gift. Just as today, snow glistened over the fields, gleaming candles in windows beckoned welcome to all, candy canes and popcorn were strung on the tree. But, sleighs were pulled by teams of draft horses, their bells jingling as they merrily pulled their passengers along narrow roads to church or Grandma‘s house in the cold, frosty air. And more than a few believed that there really was a Santa Claus.
The following memories are from some of the wonderful residents at the Elkader Care Center and Assisted Living Center, fun memories of greeting friends and family with “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!“ As I visit each one and take notes, I am inspired as I watch them take on a certain animation as they remember vividly their Christmases past. Christmas memories have a way of dropping away the years, letting us step back into that simpler time. I will just step aside now and let them tell it as those years drop away and let the memories flow.
L’Dean Dinan, who passed away just a few years ago, grew up outside Elkader, Iowa. “On Christmas Eve, my dad would hitch up the team, Frank and Bally, put their sleigh bells on them and bundle all of us kids under a load of quilts. Off we would go to church for the Candlelight Service. (I remember one night in 1925 when the sleigh turned over. Boy! Were we surprised, but we laughed about it all the way home.) When we got home, the tree would always be decorated and presents would be under the tree.
We never did know how our folks were able to pull that off. In fact, I don’t know if we ever did figure it out,” she laughs. “I remember especially the days before with baking and how we loved decorating cookies. I had so much fun doing that with Mother. My brother would always sneak a cookie or two almost before they were off the cookie sheet.” I ask her, “What did Santa bring you?” “A doll. I always got a doll. I kept those dolls all my life. We didn’t get much, but it was the thought in those days. You know what I mean?” Yes, I think we know exactly what you mean, L‘Dean.
Louise Griffith. especially remembers the Christmas when she was ten years old. “I got a pair of shiny, new ice skates and boy, did I love those! I skated and skated on the creek by our house. It was so much fun to skate in the frosty air and then, when our toes and noses got too cold, we would stomp the snow off, go into our big, warm kitchen, drink hot cocoa, and eat Mother’s freshly baked cookies. Of course, a very special time was always the Sunday School Christmas Pageant. One time I even got to be Mary! Yes, that was pretty special.” She sighs softly and smiles. Her eyes shine like the runners on those ice skates must have. Ah, memories….
Lanelle Evers says, “We always went to church on Christmas Eve. My grandparents lived in town. Dad would put the horses in the barn when we came to town. I always got a new dress for the Christmas program. I guess my favorite song has always been “Silent Night.” Once I got a very special gift from Mother. It was like a little market basket made into a bassinet with pink crepe de chine with blue bows and it had a little doll in it. That was very special to me. We also had knit stockings. Those days we had candles. One time, my brother lit one of the candles to see what was in the stocking. The tree burned down. Another year, my older brother came into the house one day when a neighbor lady was over making candy. He announced that there was no Santa. Boy! Was I mad!” she laughs. “One year we got a new sled--not just any sled--but a Flexible Flyer! We thought we had the best of the best. We would go up Deutmeyer’s Hill near Volga and slide clear downhill to where our State Representative lives now. Sometimes we would sled in the moonlight. We walked clear up the hill so we could fly down. We thought we were real engineers. Sometimes we would hang onto the back of the mailman’s buggy and he could not figure out why he could not go very fast. We might have gotten in a little trouble for that. I think we had more fun in those days. We made fox and goose trails in the snow. My dad would wrap me up in a big, white shawl and that really kept me warm. When Art and I got married and had the children, he would take them to Volga for the day and Santa came while they were gone. I was always in the basement and never heard Santa at all. One Christmas, my son, Jon, got a train. He was white as a sheet, his eyes big and round, as he said excitedly, ‘By golly, Santa did get me a train!’ “
“We always got clothes for Christmas,” says Vi Stemmer, who passed away last year. “Just clothes, which meant a lot for my folks as there were six of us kids altogether. We did enjoy the time together, the snowball fights, and sledding, playing Angels in the Snow. We had a grand time. We made candy and cookies. Decorating the tree was like wrapping up a present and then unwrapping it when the big day came.”
Aldean Kuehl, says, “I had never had a brand new coat as I always had hand-me-downs. Mother would always make them over for me; but one year I got a brand new blue chinchilla coat along with a dust mop and broom set. How was that for a combination?” she laughs. “As far as the holidays were concerned, we usually had Christmas Eve at my paternal grandparents’. I can still remember that old house with that beautiful stairway to this day, the tree all lit up in the foyer decorated with popcorn and cranberries. Christmas on the farm was always very special. There was always a delightful time of flour, cookie cutters, spices, and pretty aprons. We baked up a storm for the holidays. Just the anticipation made us happy. We always had a Sunday School Christmas program in the Osterdock City Hall. Santa came and visited at the country school. I ask her what Christmas was like after she married. “One Christmas after we were married is especially memorable. That was the year when our daughters, Jane, was three and Sue was just a baby, and they were sitting in the kitchen. Jane plugged in the Christmas tree and tried to feed Sue a cookie.” She smiles and her eyes twinkle as she thinks back on those days.
Ameta W., 100, says, “I wanted one of those dolls I saw in a picture--didn’t get it. I always wanted a doll like that, but with four kids, my folks did not have $5.00 to spend on a doll. There were two boys and two girls in our family, and the older ones would tell the younger ones “the truth about Santa. “ I lived out on a farm about five miles from Elkader. After I was married, I heard people got together for oyster stew--I think you had to be Norwegian. All those years ago, the Christmas tree never was put up until the kids went to bed. Santa visited during the night.”
Barb Garms, resident at the Assisted Living Center, remembers when she learned about Santa. She was in third grade at Volga School. “No one wanted to admit they didn’t believe because we were afraid we wouldn’t get anything. We had Christmas Eve services at the Presbyterian Church in Volga and we sang “Away in a Manger.” “My older brother would take me to the pine grove to cut a tree. “One year we got a toboggan. We would slide down Bailey’s Hill. Everybody used our toboggan, and we loved sharing it. This was during the Depression. When we did jump-offs, we really had to watch where we were jumping. We had sleigh rides on Library Hill at night.
I take my leave of these interesting, wise, and charming ladies who were so gracious to take me back into their pasts. I realize that no matter if we are 1 or 100, Christmas with its enduring memories stays with us throughout our lives. As the snowy winds rattle the windowpanes, Christmas traditions give us that tie to the past and the future. Whether it’s waiting for the Christ Child, or watching “It’s a Wonderful Life“, or writing letters to Santa, singing carols, writing cards and letters, baking, enjoying visits from little children, or building snowmen, these wonderful folk have shared their traditions with us.
Let us try to do the same for them. They all welcome visitors--this is your open invitation to help them celebrate the Reason for the Season. Come. Visit. Remember. I did, and I’m glad I did. I have been blessed by their memories and their company. You will be blessed, too. Have a Blessed Christmas one and all.