Some years ago on a hot August day our family visited Conner's Prairie located between Fishers and Noblesville, IN. Among the reenactment experiences of the 1835 era was a visit to the one-room school house. The enactment was of the week just prior to Christmas. We read and ciphered aloud. The teacher, perhaps to entertain my tender-aged children sitting beside me, reminded me that her stipend was due the first of January, and it was unacceptable for my pa to pay it with whiskey as he had done the last time.
The part of that day in school most startling to me was a caution that "next Tuesday, December 25 is a school day, and none of you had better use that as an excuse to skip school to hunt or celebrate Christmas."
In the novel, "EXCEPT FOR ME AND THEE" by Jessamyn West, Jess and Elisa, farmers of the Quaker religion had moved from the east and had settled in Indiana. They had raised their family, and while the three living boys were still at home the daughter was married to a Methodist in Ripley County, Indiana. The daughter had been read out of the meeting (the Quaker church) for her marriage and adoption of "Methodist ways." She and her husband along with their own daughter, the first grandchild, had come at Christmas bringing a Christmas tree and wishing to have things a little more "Christmassy." Jess and his grown daughter, the mother of his granddaughter, have this discussion in which she pleads with him to at least celebrate Christmas as much as he would honor his country when he displayed the stars and stripes. The setting is a time just following the Civil war.
Jess can't imagine anything more Christmassy than, "Old hens dressed for roasting ... pie filled with venison mincemeat. baked and waiting ...and the whole family safely gathered under home roof." Jess considered one day as sacred as another all year long. Besides a tree decorated in the living room was just out of place. His conclusion while standing outside looking through the window at the tree surrounded by his happy children and grandchild was that everything is "getting more worldly ... except for me and thee."
At this point I decided to check some things out in our own town fifty and one hundred years ago. In 1945 and 1949 the only local paper was the "News Journal"; in 1895 and 1896 the paper of my choice was the North Manchester "Journal". The "News Journals" from December 13 to December 24 were helpful in telling the Christmas story. By Thursday, December 13 the personals and stories were telling of a variety of Christmas parties, already over, for classes, clubs and groups. They had had grab bags, gift exchanges, Christmas singing and programs.
The first front page article in that issue announced that local churches were dismissing their December 16 evening services so their members could attend the annual presentation of the "Messiah," in the Manchester College auditorium. The performance was to be presented by the Manchester Choral Society with 250 voices from the College singing organizations augmented by voices of various church choirs. Of special excitement to me was that these voices were to be accompanied by the North Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Max Allen, organist.
Gearing up for Christmas the stores on Thursday, December 20 would forgo their weekly afternoon closing to be open until 9:30 p.m. that day, Friday and Saturday. The public was warned that the following Monday, Christmas Eve, the stores were going to close PROMPTLY at 5:30. Santa was to visit on Saturday afternoons, December 15 and 22, coming by truck "straight to the center of town." He would arrive at 2 o'clock and stay till late evening, passing out treats from the TriKappa sorority. Hundreds of pounds of Christmas candy done up in one-pound packages for $l.00 were available at the Ritz theatre. Bill's Grill announced open hours for Christmas Day.
It was reported that Dr. Clement T. Malan, state superintendent of public instruction had sent his "Christmas Message" to the school children of Indiana on this first Christmas of peace time in five years. He encouraged the students "to turn to thoughts of spiritual values". He further stressed that their book knowledge would profit little unless the spirit of love and kindness is learned.
Page l of the December 20, 1945 edition carried the banner headline "YULETIDE PROGRAMS IN LOCAL CHURCHES." Only one church in town advertised a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day celebration. The Lutheran church had both a 10:00 p.m. and a 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service. The Methodists were holding their children's Christmas program on Friday evening, December 21. Other churches announced a variety of Christmas activities for Sunday, December 23.
The Walnut Street Church of the Brethren was having three choirs in a candlelight service Sunday evening. The U.B. church had a Sunday evening musical play, entitled, "What Shall I Give." The cast of characters was impressive, and if staging ran true to form it too would have been impressive. There would have been in the balcony several "lard can - salt water" rheostats for fading house lights and stage lights in and out. The arrangement would have fallen a bit short of UL Underwriter's approval.
On that Sunday morning the First Brethren Church had a children's program at l0:30. At 7 o'clock that evening the combined youth and adult choirs of that church brought a cantata.
After Sunday evening there wasn't a single mention of a religious celebration except the Lutheran Christmas Eve services. It would appear that few churches, or businesses would think of running competition with family Christmas gatherings on December 24 or 25.
A few rural Indiana communities coined a phrase to describe this clearing of the calendar for family Christmas celebrations. It was named "Christmas Sunday," and sometimes Christmas Sunday happened as early as December 17 to be sure churches did not interfere with family gatherings.
An important story for December 20 that year was the final announcement from Wayne Garman, manager of the Ritz and Marshall theatres that he was giving his free Christmas party for grade school children beginning simultaneously in both places at 10 a.m. Saturday, December 22. The theatre special was supposed to feature a special comedy, plus short subjects of interest to children. I believe the comedy was a "Superman" feature.
Human nature hasn't changed a lot. Last year vandals attempted to burn the big tree at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. In 1945 Christmas trees and their lights were stolen from their stands on Main Street. They were later found "mutilated." A large tree whose location was not mentioned, had had its top cut out. The speculation was that apparently someone wanted a small tree for a room decoration.
Not much was reported for Christmas events in the Monday, December 24 issue. The paper had many elaborate Christmas greeting messages from various businesses of the town. After all, patrons receiving their paper by mail would not be getting their copy until the December 26 delivery.
The editorial in the most prominent upper corner of the paper on the Christmas Eve edition was the story that most personally affected me. The headline lamented,"THOUSANDS OF SERVICE MEN STRANDED ON WEST COAST." The editor wondered who had overlooked the need for railway coaches to carry the large numbers of service persons returning from the Pacific Theater to their homes. The condition was so snarled that many returning armed services personnel were caught unable to disembark from their ships because every facility was filled to the maximum. The editor reasoned, perhaps falsely, that the service personnel would not be as troubled as the home folks who wanted them home so much for the holiday. I said falsely, because up until I read that for the first time last month, I had always figured it was just military cussedness that was dashing my own hope to be home for that Christmas.
At that point I had been away no farther than Texas for a few months. It seemed to me that I had been subjected to a life-time of "hurry up and waits," and military "SNAFUS" such as I had never seen before. When I finished basic training mid November in Camp Hood, as it was named then, most of the outfit departed for the Pacific Theater. We were expected to rout out those enemy soldiers in the remote caves and forests of the islands. Many enemy soldiers didn't seem to know their side had quit fighting.
The outfit left except for a dozen of us whose orders had been lost - or misplaced. Camp Hood was no longer needed for basic training and there was some routine gathering of equipment into a smaller defined area for storage. No one hunted for our "lost orders" until that work was conveniently accomplished. In fact, misplacing paper work was an acceptable way to provide manpower for just such jobs. In a few days we were done and were spending much time in out of the way places to avoid being too much at hand. Meanwhile, there was a hospitalization back here at home, so I applied for and got a "compassionate furlough" to come home for a week. When I returned the eleven had been found, and they, too, were headed for the South Pacific. My orders, indeed, were also among them, but now it was I who hadn't been found.
I was stuck again at Camp Hood while they applied for my overseas orders again. It was at this time in mid December that a military order was issued that no service person could begin travel on a furlough for Christmas after December 20. It appeared that I was doomed to spend Christmas 50 years ago in Texas. To further frustrate the situation my orders came in as a 30 day delay enroute to begin December 22. With the travel ban on miliary service people this meant that about six days of my 30 day furlough would have passed before I was able to even get home.
Our outfit had a fairly "creative" first sergeant who suggested he would give me a three-day pass to travel anywhere I wanted to go within 175 miles of base. He suggested that if I found myself on a train farther away from base than that, I might want to just keep going. About noon on December 21 I boarded the train in Temple, Texas. After riding the KATI railroad for 46 hours without a seat I was in St. Louis, MO. I missed making connections for the a.m. departure on the Wabash Cannon Ball for Wabash, IN on December 23. The USO and YMCA were always friends of the service person, and I spent the day at the Y. At 9 p.m. I was aboard the train originating in St. Louis, and found a seat. I was soon asleep, so if there were no seats left I was unaware of the situation. The train arrived in Wabash just before 6 a.m. December 24. I had made it home for Christmas, and stretched my 30 day delay enroute to 33 days with that 3-day pass.
I still wondered about that term, "Christmas Sunday" to get the religious celebrations out of the way for family Christmas celebrations. Out of curiosity I wanted to see how North Manchester celebrated Christmas when December 25 was on Sunday. The 1949 year was such a time. Some things sounded the same as during 1945.
Wayne Garman, manager of the Ritz and Marshall announced that children up to age 15 would be treated to a free movie at the theatres on Thursday, December 22 beginning at 2 o'clock. The feature was to be "Merton of the Movies." In addition, on Saturday, December 24 there was to be a Christmas Kiddies show at the Marshall, only. Admission would be charged, but free gifts would be distributed.
In the Monday, December 19 issue, the current Yuletide vandalism was covered under a subtitle of "Meanest Man Steals Christmas Greenery." George Gaddis had a tradition of gathering pine, balsam and fir boughs for his friends and some of the churches in town. He had prepared two truck loads. They were stacked on his property ready for distribution, but they were stolen. The article speculated that they went some place where the demand would bring a high price for the thief. The end assures that Gaddis had started over and his friends would receive their Christmas remembrances as usual.
The churches were active on Sunday, December 18 and the ensuing weekdays. There were plays, cantatas and children's programs. The Zion Lutheran Church had only one Christmas Eve service at 10:00 o'clock and a Christmas Day service at 10:30 a.m. By Christmas Day several churches had cancelled evening worship. Christmas sermons were the order of the day. The Walnut Street Church had a pageant. As I suspected there was one church with an interesting special schedule. The Congregational Christian Church was having an abbreviated Sunday school, after which pastor Fred Conkling read "Journey into Christmas". This was then to be followed by Santa's arrival.
I must hurry on to North Manchester Christmas l00 years ago. I quote an interesting church activity for Christmas day from the December 10, 1896 North Manchester "Journal" as follows: "The ladies of the U.B. Church will serve dinner on Christmas Day at the Grand Army hall. The usual bill of fare and prices will prevail, and the patronage of the public is urgently solicited." A later issue wanted to make sure that the public knew that the ladies were serving both dinner and supper.
First the Wabash Railroad company in the December 12 edition announced their local agent had been instructed to sell "holiday excursion tickets to all points in the Central Traffic Association territory... at a rate of one and one third of the lowest regular first class fare for the round trip." The Big Four Railroad route, "with its time honored custom," also offered tickets for December 24, 25, 3ll and January l good for returning by January 2, 1897 for one and one third the usual price. It would appear that all regular daily trains were to be on the same schedule for the holidays.
An advertisement in a pre-Christmas issue read, "Of course there are others, but the only complete NEW stock of holiday goods in town is at Burge's." Not to be out done the Variety Store "is the only true headquarters for Santa Claus." In another ad in the same issue Burge's "boasts of books, toys, games, dolls, sleds, albums, plain and fancy dishware, bibles, lamps and Onyx tables in their holiday line." In a subsequent issue the public was advised: "Don't buy Christmas candles until you see Al Tillman's big stock." Tillman's appeared to be a restaurant. Things were not greatly different in the 1895 advertisements, but you men, and perhaps any bearded lady, should know that 100 years ago, "for a good Christmas shave or hair cut go to Nagle's barber shop, south side of Main street."
The churches announced some special Christmas activities. It is no surprise that you cannot always tell by the sermon topic what a message will be about. (Sometimes you cannot tell what a sermon is about after you have heard it.) It would appear that the U.B. Church sermon at Christmas time was "Lessons on Prayer." On the Sunday before Christmas the Methodist fare at 10:30 was "Birth of the Wonderful," and at 7 p.m. it was "Little Things, the Best of Character." One announcement informed the readers that "William Fisher, from near Denver??, will conduct religious services at the church of the Old Brethren west of town on Christmas day." I devoutly hope that this would have been a service with a Christmas theme. Some of the churches in the area were announcing "revival" services or "lecture" events that seemed protracted during the weeks including Christmas Day. I could not be sure there were specific special Christmas services.
The North Manchester "Journal" for December 19, one hundred years ago seemed hard up for copy appropriate for the season. The many pages of that issue were filled with stuff that I suppose today would be considered syndicated copy. There was an interesting item encouraging families or organizations to hold a "Spider Party." Christmas gifts were to be distributed to all members by each going to the large cut out spider in the center of the room. From there they could follow the web of cotton string to small spiders along the wall. Each small spider had a name attached with the gift hung from the same nail. The whole concept excited me as much as the concept, 40 years ago, of playing dirty bingo to determine who would get what in a grab bag gift exchange.
There were also customs from Sweden, and other places far and near being explained. The story, "Santa Claus is Real," consumed a column of print, and another story, "Billy's Christmas," was good for a half page.
Perhaps of most interest to me was an article of about 6 inches of column of this issue of the "Journal" extolling Christmas "as the holiday most universally and enthusiastically celebrated." Christmas carols are described as "almost awe inspiring when sung at midnight in the open, frosty air." Alas, I found no one was inviting the public to sing carols at midnight. We wondered what the purpose of the six inch column was until we came to the last four inches of copy. At that point followed the pitch of the great, nice gift a subscription to the "Journal" would make to all on your list of Christmas friends and relatives. I searched the issue through but found no mention of the subscription price of this great gift.
Some lament the commercialization of Christmas, and if it is too commercial we can be assured that this is no new happening. Perhaps then, as today, many religious things were not written about freely. Perhaps there was more pressing copy supplied by "paying customers." In the investigation of items of 50, 100 and more years ago I found no mention of Advent, the season of preparation for the birth of Jesus. The old timers may have been skeptical about celebrating the birth of Christ when the date cannot be pin pointed with precision. Meanwhile, there was much evidence that commercial establishments were competing for all the trade they would encourage through Christmas gift giving. Commercialism was alive and well in North Manchester 50 and 100 years ago at the Christmas season.
I collect Christmas stories and one of my favorites is about a United States army outfit stationed as a peace keeping unit in Siberia during the unrest of the Bolshevik revolution. The outfit found themselves parenting an orphan boy of perhaps eight years of age. They found their greatest reason for living was to teach the kid English, arithmetic and how to say his prayers. On Christmas the boy asked the sergeant in charge to "read the story of the little baby in the Bible." The episode ends with the story teller commenting, "Christmas is a wonderful time of the year if you just remember the 'story about the baby in the Bible.'"
Let's take time to read it again for the first time. Luke 2:6-14.
Rings-threshing rings, ice rings, beef rings-all were organized among rural Hoosiers the first three or four decades of this century to help get their harvesting done and to help raise their standard of living.
A threshing ring was made up of several neighboring farmers who regularly had oats and wheat to harvest in late summer. This, of course, was before the advent of the combine, which goes into a field and finishes the job in one operation. Then each farmer cut his own grain with a binder, pulled at first by horses, later a tractor. The bundles of grain were stacked into neat stacks to await the coming of the threshing machine. Each farmer in the ring was committed to help all the others in the ring. Each one had his own special job. My dad and Uncle Louie owned the threshing rig which consisted of a steam engine, separator and water wagon. Dad ran the steam engine, Uncle Louie the separator, and they hired someone to be water boy, whose job was to keep water there at all times, since this provided the steam which produced the power. Some men hauled bundles; that is, they brought the bundles of grain in from the field and with their forks pitched them into the separator where the grain would be separated from the straw. Other farmers hauled grain. They came with their wagon boxes, caught the grain as it poured from the spout and hauled it to the farmer's grain bin or took it to a grain elevator nearby. The straw was blown into the barn or on to a stack outside.
For many years the whole hungry threshing crew stopped at noon to eat together at the farmer's table, where they happened to be threshing at the time. First they gathered around the wash tub, set up on the lawn near the back door, and got rid of some of the grime and dust. Then they filed inside to partake of a hearty meal provided by the farmer's wife with the help of her good neighbors. Tables were extended as far as they would go and every chair and bench was put into use. Such an array of food was set before them, always ending with cake and a wide choice of pies. Flies were usually abundant at harvest time, so a familiar sight was one woman, at least, standing by the table with her fly chaser-newspaper strips attached to a stick-keeping the flies off the food. Another kept close watch to replenish the mashed potatoes before the dish was quite empty and to add more fried chicken to the meat platter. Oh yes, the lemonade was going fast, too. Threshing was hot hard work.
In time, the farmer's wives were relieved of this immense culinary responsibility and the farmers began to bring their own well-filled dinner pails and thermos bottles, eating together in the shade of a tree while their horses munched away at the provisions in their feed boxes.
At the close of the threshing season, the threshers and their families came together at one of the farm homes for an evening ofbusiness and fellowship. Freezers of homemade ice cream, cakes, pies and toppings were brought in. While the men settled their accounts the women talked. The kids ran and played until at last it was time to open the freezers and enjoy the feast. It is a little difficult to recall some of these times without experiencing a bit of nostalgia. Surely rural life lost something when mechanization enabled the farmer to make it alone without dependence on his neighbor.
Ice rings were similar in organization to threshing rings. Before refrigerators appeared in farm kitchens in the late 1930's, the icebox provided the cold storage for milk, butter and other perishables. Our icebox was a nice oak chest, well insulated with three compartments, a door opening into each. One compartment was made especially to hold a big chunk or two of ice. Our city cousins had an ice man who delivered ice regularly-even putting it into the icebox. (Also, according to the town gossips, sometimes he became a bit too friendly with some of his customers.) Seven miles out into the country was too far for ice delivery. So in order to have a steady, dependable source for ice in the summer, several farmers organized an ice ring. They built an ice house for storage at our next door neighbor's place.
In the coldest part of the winter, usually January, when the ice on Long Lake or another nearby lake had frozen to a depth of nine to fourteen inches, the members of the ring were busy putting up ice. They sawed the ice into blocks and then hauled it with their teams and sled or wagons to the ice house. Some hauled saw dust. They layered the sawdust and ice until the house was filled to capacity. The whole process took several winter days to complete. All members of the ice ring were then permitted to use ice from this supply as long as it lasted. Fred and I always liked going after the ice with Dad.
Our whole family, the Shanahans, Haineses and Hoovers, usually came together at Grandpa and Grandma Hoovers for Thanksgiving, Christmas and in the early summer, about the time for the first fried chicken of the season. Oh, how good that first fried chicken tasted! My grandmother was so frugal she even cleaned the chicken feet and fried them nice and crisp-not my favorite piece. One thing I really liked about having chicken at Grandma's was the set of bone dishes she had. A little curved dish in which you could deposit your chicken bones fit snugly against each dinner plate. Besides the usual meat, potatoes and vegetables there was always a dish of stewed dried fruit, usually prunes, which she insisted on pronouncing "prooins" in spite of her little granddaughter's efforts to change her. Of course there was always cake and pie.
At Christmas my grandparents liked to surprise us with unusual gifts. I have mentioned the little wooden chests Grandpa made each of the three granddaughters one year. Grandma completed them by padding them inside and out and covering them with colorful cretonne. The little wooden doll cribs which Grandpa made for another Christmas were padded and lined in a soft pink fabric and finished on the outside with a gathered white net overlay.
It was an exciting Christmas Eve! Our family along with the grandparents and other kin had gathered at the home of Uncle Alvah and Aunt Grace for one of her sumptuous meals. As usual we young children could hardly wait after supper for the arrival of Santa and the giving of gifts. The older folks seemed to move so slowly after a big meal.
The Christmas tree was gorgeous, reaching almost to the ceiling. Its branches festooned with strings of popcorn and paper chains spread out so that it occupied nearly half of the guest bedroom where it was placed. Scattered over the tree were bright red candles set in special little candelholders which clipped to the tree. Small packages wrapped in tissue paper were tucked here and there in the branches, with larger parcels stacked on the floor around the tree.
I was awed by the sight of this pretty tree. We seldom had a Christmas tree at our house. For a while we had a little cardboard tree that could be unfolded and made to stand up. Sometimes we had an evergreen branch stuck in a pot of dirt (a Charlie Brown type of tree) Often we just hung our stockings on the back of a chair and wrote a note to Santa, telling him where to put our presents.
At last the suspense was over. The candles on the tree had been lit and the room was glowing with light. In came Santa Claus with his long white beard, dressed in his bright red suit trimmed with lots of fluffy white cotton on his cuffs and collar. We all looked on with anticipation as he began distributing the gifts. As Santa reached into the tree to get a small package, he got too close to a lighted candle. The cotton on his sleeve caught fire and in an instant was in flames. Uncle Alvah grabbed the heavy bedspread and threw it quickly over the flaming Santa. Someone else grabbed a couple rag rugs from the floor and immediately extinguished the candles and flame in the tree. Santa came out with only minor burns, thanks to the incredibly fast and wise moves of my Uncle Alvah.
This was indeed a Christmas Eve to remember.