By Jos Watkins
Christmas in the “cold country” usually involved 20 – 30 inches of snow with temperatures of 10 – 35 degrees F, wind at 10 – 70 miles per hour and short ten hour days.
Home on the farm involved caring for many farm animals- cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens, goats, rabbits and cats just to mention a few. These animals needed to be fed and watered at least twice a day and protected from the cold weather. It was great fun,” Juicing the Jerseys”, at 6 am and then again at 6 pm.
Our farm home was heated by a one lung furnace fueled by wood or coal. The upstairs and basement were normally not heated. Sleeping upstairs required many blankets and a heated “soapstone” to keep ones feet warm. Also, a white porcelain “thunder Mug” was always available under the bed to accommodate nightly needs.
Preparation for the Christmas event started 2- 3 weeks in advance. This involved gathering together as many nephews and nieces as possible and a trip to the wood lot to cut two or three Christmas trees. This was usually a half day venture as each person had a vote on the most desirable tree.
One year, in frustration, I remember sending the family home without any tree and took the lone task of selecting and cutting the trees myself. On the trip up the mountain, I had noticed two good possibilities in the tops of some trees. Anyone knows that it is just not acceptable to “top” trees particularly if they are on property belonging to other individuals. However, my thinking was that, “you gotta do what you gotta do”! So, I proceeded to climb one and then two trees topping them both. Almost instantly, I heard a car motor as it was ascending the mountain coming in the direction where I had just dropped the trees blocking its passage. The man driving the car got out and I could tell that he was quite irritated noting that this was his own property: however, he removed the trees from the lane and started to get back into his car having not noticed me in the tree. I then said loudly, ”Merry Christmas” at which point he proceeded to verbalize many Biblical words at me. The good news was that he never told my parents and further he told me to take the trees home and in his words, “never come back”.
Meanwhile, activity on the farm was at a “high level”. Nimble fingers strung popcorn garlands for the tree, some gathered wood and coal for cooking and heating, others purchased gifts such as Mexican Jumping Beans, fruit, nuts, and candy for the stockings. Several of us made sure the ice cream freezer worked. Still more importantly the three holer at the end of the path was checked for its capacity.
During all of the preparation time the farm animals received special treats which required extra grain, hay and TLC. The management ie our parents, did not agree with this policy.
The long anticipated Christmas Eve and Day would finally come. Eve generally revolved around a church play in which we had to memorize parts. This sometimes was painful and embarrassing. Later we would deliver gifts to “shut-ins”. Finally, after arriving at home the stockings, sometimes 10 to 15 of them, were labeled and hung. We all worried about Santa’s arrival since there wasn’t any fireplace and chimney available. Then with heated “soapstone” in hand we would trundle off to the upstairs cold rooms. We had to agree not to sneak down stairs during the night to see what was under the tree or in the stockings.
On Christmas morning all the youngsters would eagerly but painfully wait until all the adults were up at which time we could empty our stockings.
Even though it was Christmas, the farm animals still required feeding and this had taken place before the stocking opening. The fun part of milking the eight to ten cows we had was the art of directly aiming the cow spigot toward the 5 to 8 barn cats that with warm luscious milk. Anyone else entering the cow barn at this time would get the identical treatment.
Mid-Christmas morning was the time that all the guests who weren’t already at the farm would arrive. Usually, 30-50 friends and or family would bring gifts and food. Bedlam reigned as kisses, hugs and the shaking of hands renewed our long lost relatives.
Dinner was a delightful experience, but took too long for the youngsters. After about two hours of eating, laughter and chatter, instructions were given regarding the distribution and opening of gifts. The family would sit in a circle in the big living room. Children would deliver one gift at a time. The gifted would open it carefully thanking the giver and then fold the paper carefully to be used for the next Christmas. This would take 2-3 hours. HELP!!
At about 6pm Christmas Day it was time to do the chores again so many of the men and boys left the house to go to the barn and helped us with this work. Then about 8 pm it was time for us to eat again which was a very casual meal. Left over chicken, capon, and turkey remains were put out for everyone to pick the bones. Oyster dressing, a particular favorite of mine, was consumed as well as other dressings, potatoes and gravy reheated. Then we dove into the pies of all kinds and varieties.
Another Happy Christmas had passed and as it did, the women would chat, while the men snoozed and the children played quietly with their new games.